Violent hoodlums or insane music fans? The FBI branded an entire subculture a street gang. Now the Juggalos are marching on Washington to show the world what's behind their wicked clown faces.
"Being a Juggalo brings me peace," says Edward Smith,* a decorated US soldier who has been to war three times and had to cope with depression, nightmares and panic attacks when he returned. Juggalos — they are the fans of Insane Clown Posse (ICP), a rap duo known for gory lyrics and a loyal and rowdy following. Some insiders even liken it to a tribe. "I love it with everything that I am," Smith says of the "family."
The 27-year-old listened to his first ICP record in the backseat of his friend's car 10 years ago. The songs instantly spoke to him, the devout Christian recalls, and his initial ardor has not faded since. So much so that he has the group's Hatchetman logo, a figure carrying a meat cleaver, tattooed on his arm. But the ink under his skin could spell trouble for Smith. It could end his career in the military.
Suddenly, they were all gang members
In 2011, the FBI included Juggalos in its report on street gangs, calling them a "loosely-organized hybrid gang" that was "rapidly expanding" across the US. Their judgment was based on evidence from state law enforcement agencies, which reported a rise in Juggalo-related crimes: A teenager bearing Juggalo tattoos shot a couple on a hiking trail; one of two men who beat their mentally ill victim to death pledged allegiance to a Juggalo gang. The list ran on.
By naming Juggalos alongside notorious street gangs, such as MS-13 or the Bloods and Crips, the FBI essentially branded an entire subculture potential criminals. To this day, ICP and the Juggalos have been trying to shake this gang label, insisting they're a caring community promoting love and acceptance. This Saturday thousands of them are expected to march through Washington, DC, to prove their point.
'One bad apple can spoil the bunch'
Their protest at the National Mall will surely draw a lot of attention. Many Juggalos like to dress up as wicked clowns, their faces painted in black and white. They greet each other with two hoots ("whoop, whoop"), throw common hand signs and soak each other in Faygo, a cheap soft drink that ICP rappers Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope glorify in their songs.
"I always get s*** for being a Juggalo, even from my friends," says Smith. "But it gives me a place and a sense of belonging. Being weird is just being different."
And being weird is not a crime. FBI investigators did note that the majority of people calling themselves Juggalos were simply dedicated music lovers and not violent thugs — and yet their listing in the 2011 report lumped all those together. "One bad apple can spoil the bunch" — you hear that saying a lot when talking to Juggalos.
What's the difference?
"It's very difficult for law enforcement," says Sergeant Michelle Vasey, who in the mid-2000s worked as a gang intelligence officer at Fort McDowell police department in Arizona. Back then she observed members of other gangs covering up their gang tattoos with the Hatchetman and claiming they were innocent ICP fans. They kept committing the same crimes as before — drive-by shootings, assaults, drug sales — only now they did so in the name of Juggalos.
It got to a point where even the two groups couldn't tell each other apart anymore. "You have the innocent music fan wearing his ICP shirt and gang members beat the crap out of him," she says.
Also for Vasey and her colleagues it became almost impossible to recognize straight away who was gang-affiliated and who just a music fan. "The Juggalos by and large are just fans of ICP," she says. "And of course you can mislabel a fan, that can absolutely happen."
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Many Juggalos argue that that has happened on a large scale. Since the 2011 FBI report came out, Juggalos across the US have reported experiencing unfair treatment because of their love for ICP. They said they were fired from their jobs, got harassed by the police or lost custody of their children because of their taste in music. Others got rejected from or kicked out of the military — a fate that Edward Smith is still hoping to avoid.
Juggalos want to take FBI to court
In 2014, ICP and their record label, with the help of a civil liberties organization, brought a lawsuit against the FBI, demanding they renounce the gang classification. It was dismissed several times and is currently under appeal. Because of the ongoing litigation, the FBI declined a request for an interview and issued a statement instead.
"The 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment was comprised of information shared with the National Gang Intelligence Center and the FBI from law enforcement agencies around the country," it says. "The 2011 report specifically noted that the Juggalos had been recognized as a gang in only four states." And indeed, they haven't included Juggalos in any of their subsequent biannual gang reports.
But until the FBI officially repeals their decision, the old report could still be used as a basis for decisions against people like Edward Smith. "If they kick me out of the military because of this, I'd be heart-broken," he says. "But I wouldn't deny being a Juggalo. I'm not going to lie about who I am."
The clowns are marching
The march in Washington gives the Juggalos a stage to turn around their image. But ICP and its record label, who are organizing the protest, also know it could backfire — especially with a pro-Trump protest taking place just a few hundred meters away at the same time.
In a video message, they urged their supporters to not show up drunk or on drugs, not vandalize anything and not be belligerent. There is a lot at stake. Maybe it is the Juggalos' last chance to show that it is how they say. That behind their wicked clown faces they are just a bunch of passionate, if proudly insane, music fans.
*Name changed to protect identity.