Abraham Lincoln. Martin Luther King Jr. Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope.
Saturday’s Juggalo March on Washington, D.C., offered a bounty of contrasts, as the nation’s august white memorial and its lengthy reflecting pool hosted a horde best described as colorful, both literally and figuratively: many with neon hair and equally loud outfits, frequently breaking into Insane Clown Posse chants, and holding protest signs that said things like “FUCK OUTTA HERE IF YOU AIN’T DOWN WITH THE CLOWN.”
The Insane Clown Posse and its fans, the Juggalos, have been punch lines for more than two decades. ICP’s proudly low-rent horrorcore rap traffics in outrageousness—cartoonish violence and imagery, replete with obscenity, and is frequently silly and self-aware. They’re a hip-hop duo not known for their beats or rhymes (or at least not in a good way). Yet they have created a thriving underground empire thanks to some of pop culture’s most engaged fans.
Yet if ICP is a punch line, Juggalos somehow rank below that: It’s one thing to create this music; it’s worse to make ICP and artists on the group’s Psychopathic Records a central tenet of your identity. Even though ICP started in Detroit, its fans tend to be regarded as low-class, uneducated hillbillies from the nation’s ignored two-bit towns.
Like a lot of stereotypes, the Juggalo caricature has some basis in fact. Juggalos do tend to be working class and hail from the rural areas and exurbs of flyover states. But it hardly embarrasses them; they proudly self-identify themselves as “SCRUBS,” as the biggest banner I saw Saturday afternoon noted in big, heavy red letters. They came to D.C. to tell the world—and especially U.S. law enforcement—that they are not the “loosely organized hybrid gang” the Department Of Justice labeled them in 2011. As another sign I saw put it, “I’m just a music fan with a really big family.”
That’s a main theme of any Juggalo event, marked by spontaneous chants of “Fa-mi-ly! Fa-mi-ly! Fa-mi-ly!” I could hear it from the nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial as I arrived Saturday afternoon at 1, an hour before the day officially began. Fans milled around a small stage at the bottom of the steps near the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Two tents flanked the stage, which had two Juggalo March banners hanging down the back and a red-and-black podium at stage center, a red Hatchet Man carved in its front.
ICP asked Juggalos not to arrive before 1 p.m., but a couple hundred people were already there, sharing the ample grounds around the Lincoln Memorial with tourists who didn’t pay too much attention at first, but would later be drawn into the spectacle.
ICP had an ambitious day planned: testimonials from 14 speakers (including A.V. Club alumnus and Juggalo Nathan Rabin), 10 musical performances in between them, and a 2.4-mile march scheduled to last 90 minutes. The event would run from 2 to 10 p.m. and close with an hour-long ICP performance. The Parks Service almost certainly gave event organizers a hard curfew at 10, and to keep everything moving, organizers planned the whole day down to the minute. Unsurprisingly, everything went off schedule immediately.
The day was set to start powerfully: Juggalos speaking to the crowd about how the gang designation had real, terrible effects on their lives. Juggalos marching on Washington made for easy jokes, but the reason for the march took the humor out of them. Even Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope confessed they wore the gang designation as a badge of honor at first—until their fans started sharing their stories.
Crystal Guerro from New Mexico began with a story about how going to one ICP show was enough for her to lose a bitter custody battle for her two kids, whom she now only sees six hours a week. This is a sadly common phenomenon among Juggalos. I spoke to Rafael Ramirez, a Juggalo from Cherokee, North Carolina, who drove to the march on behalf of a sick friend who lost custody of his kids because of the gang designation. The man’s ex pointed to his friends (including Ramirez) in open court and said they were Juggalos, which was enough for the judge to grant her full custody.
Another speaker, Laura King of Virginia, was on probation for a DUI when an officer noticed her Hatchet Man tattoo. That triggered a cascade of strict government supervision, including rules forbidding her from associating with other Juggalos, attending ICP shows, and purchasing any ICP gear (including, oddly, paintbrushes, which elicited a “Watch out, she’s got a paintbrush!” from the audience). She also had to receive government approval for any new tattoo.
Jessica Bonometti of Virginia tearfully spoke about losing her job as a probation officer last year because her Facebook page had ICP-related photos and likes. She describes what happened in a lengthy post on the march’s website: “Right before [my boss] escorted me off the property, I asked her for clarification and stated, ‘So, I am being terminated for the type of music I listen to while not at work?’ She replied, ‘Yes.’” Even though Bonometti’s a veteran civil servant, she’s been unable to find another job because of the ICP association.
Although the stories differed, they all painted a damning portrait of discrimination based on the flimsiest of reasons. The DOJ’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment noted that Juggalos “are rapidly expanding into many U.S. communities,” but conceded, “most crimes committed by Juggalos are sporadic, disorganized, individualistic, and often involve simple assault, personal drug use and possession, petty theft, and vandalism.” Naturally a “however” follows, stating that “open source reporting”—which the threat assessment neither defines nor cites specific examples of—shows “a small number of Juggalos are forming organized subsets and engaging in more gang-like activity, such as felony assaults, thefts, robberies, and drug sales.” The Juggalo section ended with an ATF photo of a “typical” Juggalo: a woman in clown makeup wearing a jersey for Psychopathic’s Blaze Ya Dead Homie and pointing a gun at the camera. (The photo has since appeared in dozens of stories about supposed Juggalo gangs.)
The holes in the logic were clear to everyone outside of law enforcement: Simple assault, personal drug use/possession, petty theft, and vandalism are hardly exclusive to Juggalo gatherings, and they’re statistically insignificant compared to, say, crimes committed inside stadiums during NFL games. A 2013 investigative report by KIRO TV in Seattle noted that, while the NFL keeps detailed records of crime inside stadiums, it keeps the data secret “to protect certain teams from public scrutiny.” Nevertheless, KIRO looked at 10,000 incidents over the course of two and a half seasons and found “hundreds of felony-level crime arrests appear in the reports, including rape, kidnapping, lynching, theft, drug dealing, child sexual abuse and aggravated assault of police officers.”
What about the logos those fans wear? Actual criminal gangs have a long history of appropriating sportswear, but law enforcement isn’t about to classify fans of the L.A. Dodgers a gang. But nothing’s more mainstream than sports, and law enforcement certainly knows that a team’s colors and logo can have other meanings.
While law enforcement is quick to label something a threat, nothing makes it look unwarranted like the passage of time. As Kevin Gill, ICP personality and the Juggalo March’s MC, noted in his opening speech, in the ’40s and ’50s, authorities blamed comic books for a host of societal ills, from homosexuality to juvenile delinquency. The same issues accompanied the rise of rock ’n’ roll, with the added layer of thinly veiled racism. New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, New Orleans, and Los Angeles banned pinball for decades. In the ’80s, a tide of panic over music led to the establishment of the Parents Music Resource Center and put Judas Priest on trial for the supposed subliminal messages hidden in its music. The arguments against video games have shifted with the medium over the past 40 years, depending on the day’s anxieties.
Virtually every genre of music has been in law enforcement’s crosshairs at some point, but never on the level of gang designation. (“If Juggalos are a gang, then the Grateful Dead are the triple OG motherfuckers!” Gill bellowed during his speech.) This occurred under the watch of the mostly progressive Obama administration. Now with a reactionary, notoriously ill-informed president in the White House, speaker after speaker at the Juggalo March raised a question that would’ve sounded a lot more far-fetched when the march was announced last September: Authorities could criminalize what you like next.
As Saturday afternoon wore on, the event fell further behind schedule. Performances by Onyx and Lil Eazy-E were tabled as organizers scrambled to get the march started on time, but 4 p.m. came and went. By 4:30, the crowd was still waiting for Violent J and Shaggy to make their big pre-march speech. Eventually the duo took the stage, flanked by their families and Psychopathic artists and employees. Like ICP itself, the speech was heartfelt, bombastic, self-deprecating, and comical. (J said he’d rather “sew a man’s butthole shut” than take away his rights or something to that effect.) It stopped several times because of problems with the laptop J and Shaggy read from, prompting another favorite Juggalo chant, “You fucked up! You fucked up!” It’s less mockery than a celebration of mistakes, another expression of acceptance. Even standing in front of their adoring fans at a sacrosanct national landmark, ICP didn’t change their behavior. (See the butthole comment.) They’d made it this far being scrubs, so why change now?
“I don’t give a fuck what the intelligence says, what the intelligence scholars teach the feds in law school,” J bellowed at the end of his speech. “Intelligence is how to make a nuclear bomb, but wisdom is how not to use it! Juggalos possess mad wisdom! We’re a family, ninjas!”
The crowd started chanting, “Fa-mi-ly! Fa-mi-ly! Fa-mi-ly!”
“That’s right, and we got family at home we’re marching for!” J continued. “This may sound corny, but it’s real shit: Love always wins every time! And we’re marching for love, Juggalo family love! I don’t know what the fuck they’re marching for, I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, but we’re out here fighting for freedom and Juggalo love! This our day, on our year! Are you ready?!”
The crowd chanted, “Seventeen! Seventeen! Seventeen!”
“We’re gonna march, we’re gonna be proud, and we’re gonna be loud,” J shouted. “And when you leave D.C., take this with you, ninjas: The Juggalo family and the wicked clowns will never die! Let’s march, motherfuckers!”
The crowd roared, but didn’t know where to go. A new chant started: “Which way, J? Which way, J?”
In the weeks leading up to the Juggalo March, much had been made about another march. The Mother Of All Rallies would “HELP SEND A MESSAGE TO CONGRESS, THE MEDIA, AND THE WORLD WE STAND UNITED TO DEFEND AMERICAN CULTURE AND VALUES,” and would be held on part of the National Mall the same time as the Juggalo March. The rally’s website proclaimed, “THIS IS NOT A DEMOCRAT OR REPUBLICAN RALLY. ITS [sic] NOT A LEFT OR RIGHT RALLY.” But it defensively added, “ANYONE WHO WOULD PROTEST THIS RALLY IS PROTESTING AMERICA AND SHOWING THEMSELVES TO BE THE VERY DOMESTIC ENEMIES OUR FOUNDING FATHERS WARNED US ABOUT. ANYONE ATTEMPTING TO SILENCE US IS COMMITTING A DIRECT ASSAULT ON OUR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS OF FREE ASSEMBLY.”
Despite its faintly non-partisan rhetoric, the event’s website and Facebook page indicated a right-wing rally with speakers like the founder of Latinos For Trump, a Republican congressional candidate from California running against Maxine Waters, and an ex-Marine whose YouTube video made him a right-wing cause célèbre. The Mother Of All Rallies also featured a performance by jingo-rock band Madison Rising, which answers the question, What would a third-rate flag-humping Creed sound like?
To MOAR’s credit, it banned Confederate flags and told racists (“of all colors”) they weren’t welcome. One of MOAR’s organizers also reached out to people on the Juggalo March’s Facebook page to extend an invitation to the event and answer questions. Juggalos mostly avoided posting on MOAR’s Facebook page, which was relentlessly trolled by gleeful Trump haters, to the consternation of people just wanting to celebrate “American values.”
They didn’t actually come into close contact with each other on the ground, either. The Juggalo March followed the reflecting pool from the Lincoln Memorial, turned up 17th Street next to the World War II Memorial, then headed west on Constitution Avenue—not far from the White House—then down 15th Street, past the Washington Monument, turning west near Independence Avenue and back along the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial. The march would pass MOAR while going down 15th Street, where a berm and 14th Street separated the march from the National Mall hosting MOAR.
Before the march, I sat on the steps behind the stage and noticed some guys in red hats in the distance to the southwest of the event. When I walked closer, I found about a dozen twentysomething dudes decked out in Trump gear, from the red hats to a Trump flag, and in the case of the lone black man in the group, a shirt that said, “DONALD TRUMP MATTERS.” Across from them were about 15 members of antifa armed for any “direct action” that may happen during the march. A group of law enforcement kept watch on them nearby. Jezebel’s Anna Merlan watched them watching each other, telling me that the guy taking pictures of antifa was a cop. I saw a man wearing a backward MAGA hat snapping photos of the crowd as well, including the Democratic Socialists Of America, who hung out near me behind the stage. Antifa eventually moved away from the police, and the Trump guys lost interest shortly thereafter, too.
I spoke with a freelancer who’d visited MOAR earlier in the day to find a sparsely attended, hostile crowd. He estimated a maximum of 200 attendees, including some militiamen providing “security” (to the annoyance of the actual police). Rules forbade them from bringing any kind of weapons to the Mall, so they settled on different intimidating tactics. As he started taking photos, the man told me, the militia guys surrounded him. He had to remind them he was in a public space and free to take as many photos as he liked, but they had made their point.
For all its anticipation, a potentially violent culture clash went unfulfilled. For one thing, Trump won the rural areas that Juggalos call home, so he’s not without support among ICP fans. Second, the march and MOAR were separated by a couple hundred yards, if not more. The tall berm separating 14th and 15th streets ensured neither side would see each other unless they actively sought to. The few MAGA-hatted people I did see along the route just watched the march like everyone else, because, you know, it’s a march of people wearing clown makeup shouting, “Fuck the FBI!” I hopped the berm to check out MOAR, but could only hear the strains of the national anthem wafting through the air. I couldn’t gauge turnout because I was so far away, but reports put attendance at a few hundred at most. Judging by the “hey guys, at least we tried” tone of comments on the event’s Facebook page, that’s probably accurate.
In the weeks before the Juggalo March, organizers told me they didn’t have a real sense of how many people would show up. The event’s Facebook page listed more than 5,400 “interested,” but that was hardly a guarantee. (MOAR’s Facebook page listed more than 6,000 as interested.) I’d put it at a couple thousand Juggalos, though they made enough racket to sound bigger. To the delight of media reports, a bunch of clowns had delivered yet another embarrassment to Trump supporters.
The Department Of Justice aimed to assist law enforcement in countering the Juggalo menace, but in an entirely predictable turn of events, has succeeded only in giving Insane Clown Posse a bigger stage and something it’s never had: respectability. It didn’t need it from anyone—ICP has long thrived without it—but the injustice of the gang designation has made people set aside their dislike of ICP’s art to stand with their struggle.
ICP organized the march after exhausting its legal challenges to the gang designation. It seems highly unlikely that a presidential administration that treats law enforcement like living saints will do anything to reverse it. Even if that happened, the DOJ has already poisoned the well for law enforcement agencies, which have been trained to treat Juggalos with suspicion. Alleviating that bias will take years.
That’s not the case for people who used to make easy jokes about ICP and Juggalos. What was comical is now a cause.
Maybe we’ve always been down with the clown?