Earlier this week, a crowd of grown adults in facepaint and masks gathered in a Brooklyn club. They weren’t getting an unfashionably early start on their Halloween festivities. They were there to see the two-man band known as Insane Clown Posse (ICP for short), a pair of forty-something dudes on a twentieth-anniversary tour for an album once recalled by its Disney-owned record label. Of course, ICP has a lot of new fans these days, owing to one of the weirder shark-jumping moments of our current political saga, last month’s Juggalo March on Washington.
“Where exactly does it fucking stop?”
Violent J, one half of ICP, looked out from the podium at a crowd of fans gathered just a mere few hundred yards away from the Lincoln Memorial. In black-and-white face paint and a football jersey, he stood out among the blandly dressed hoards of tourists scaling the memorial’s stairs behind him. But in the Trump age anything feels possible, even the first-ever Juggalo March on Washington.
J (Joseph Bruce) and his counterpart, Shaggy 2 Dope (Joseph Utsler), were in the district to lead a mass of fans and fellow travelers in a day-long protest against the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2011 decision to designated ICP fans, known as juggalos, as a “hybrid gang.” Although ICP has been a bizarro fixture in the music scene nearly two-and-a-half decades—albeit usually as a punching bag for more establishment music critics—this day felt different. They weren’t a laughing stock, but the face of a crucial—and worrying—civil rights issue.
Formed in the outskirts of Detroit, ICP really came into its own in the early 1990s, after Violent J had an epiphany featuring a terrifying vision of a clown and a carnival of horrors—one that was, in his words, “twisted and strange as fuck.”[*] J’s experience encouraged the band, which at the time was known as Inner City Posse, to undergo an overhaul of its aesthetic, eventually topping off the change with a new band name: Insane Clown Posse. Numerous critics have been tempted to brush ICP off as a shallow, noxious rap group with not only vapid, but occasionally violent, misogynistic, and homophobic lyrics, and a gaggle of hedonistic and occasionally crazy fans—known as “juggalos” (male) or “juggalettes” (female).
By 2011, a string of crimes perpetrated by individuals self-identifying as juggalos prompted the FBI to designate ICP’s entire fan base as a gang. The move had profound consequences for fans throughout the country, causing some to lose their jobs, their children, or even be denied military service. Aside from the obvious free speech violations wrought by the FBI’s decision, the fact that ICP’s fan base skews poor and rural has had profound economic consequences as well. Their willingness to stand up to the federal government has earned them fans on both the left and the right. Yet thanks to Trump’s ascendency, juggalos’ call for justice took on new meaning for parts of the left: they were standing up to fascism.
It’s easy to see how the far-left became enamored with juggalos. ICP’s message expresses a disdain for the elites similar to that of Trump’s more rabid supporters, but the band’s message is one of showing love for the oppressed, the downtrodden, the forgotten—it is, in other words, about belonging, about bridging divides in favor of “family.” “We don’t judge or discriminate for nothing,” J told the crowd. “Everyone is welcome under our big tent.”
Although ICP has been a bizarro fixture in the music scene for nearly two-and-a-half decades—albeit usually as a punching bag for more establishment music critics—this day felt different.
That is, of course, unless you’re a racist, a classist, or a card-carrying member of the FBI.
The woes of working class life figure heavily into ICP lyrics (“Have you ever had a job that you truly despise? / Like I don’t know maybe dish washin’, or fuckin’ flippin’ fries / And you got this boss who thinks he’s the Don Mega / Because he the head manager”), as does a healthy dose of hatred of the police. And long before the ethics of punching Nazis became the subject of national debate, ICP was concocting elaborate tales of giving racists their just desserts. Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope have been proponents of Nazi punching since before it was cool. “Chicken Huntin’”—a song off the band’s second album, which was released in 1994—describes killing a gaggle of racist rednecks (i.e., “chickens”) in graphic detail. “Terrible”—from the 1999 album The Amazing Jeckel Brothers—observes that “The country we live in was built by slaves / Beat down and murdered and stuffed in their graves.” Flash forward to 2015, when ICP’s “Confederate Flag” offered an impassioned diatribe against the “rebel flag” months before it became the subject of heated debate in South Carolina.
I say fuck your rebel flag
Out here pretending like you ain’t offendin’
I say fuck your rebel flag
You redneck judges with racist grudges
I say fuck your rebel flag
If you gotta tattoo, I’m aimin’ at you
I say fuck your rebel flag
You get punched in your faces reppin’ the racists
Although, as Jack Smith IV pointed out at Mic prior to the march, juggalos “didn’t ask to be held up as shock troops against the far right . . . their anti-racist and anti-elitist reputation set them up as natural antagonists to Trump-style nativist xenophobia.” Still, most juggalos are quick to point out that—rhetorical overlap with parts of the left aside—they’re not a political movement. Nevertheless, there are those, such as the Struggalo Circus, who have worked to transform these points of overlap into a viable strategy for organizing. Founded by several Bay Area activists—all of whom are juggalos themselves—the Struggalo Circus describes itself as a “ragtag and messy coalition between radicals and juggalos” and has proven instrumental in building bridges between juggalos and socialist organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America and Industrial Workers of the World, as well as drawing in support from more disparate anarchist groups.
I caught up with Ape, a long-time juggalo (it ran in the family, he said), Bay Area resident, and organizer with Struggalo Circus who was standing by the DSA’s now-disassembled table. Dressed in a suit, along with the characteristic ICP facepaint, he even dressed the part as a bridge between the political and juggalo world. “Even though most juggalos want to pretend that [the march] is not a political thing, and keep the blinders on that way, we’re still holding a protest in D.C. against the FBI, and it’s kind of hard to say that’s not political at the end of the day,” he observed, gesturing to the crowd surrounding us.
“As other groups learn what juggalos are about, there’s going to be a lot more camaraderie between these groups,” Ape continued. “Juggalos [may] say, Oh yeah, well, we’re not political, get away from us, but we hate bigots, we hate richies, and we hate fucking police—[but] it’s like . . . you have a lot of things in common with a lot of these groups. If we can translate each other’s language then we’re at least moving toward the next stop together.”
It’s easy to see how the far-left became enamored with juggalos.
To that end, Struggalo Circus has worked closely with numerous left-wing groups to facilitate outreach and solidarity to the juggalo community in a manner that isn’t divisive. The process has taken time. Allison Hrabar, a member of DSA’s D.C. branch, told me that the chapter had been talking about the Juggalo March for about a year—roughly since it was announced. Shortly after inauguration, their chair, Margaret McLaughlin, made a promise to come to the march. And after a fair bit of back and forth on whether—and how—the rest of the chapter ought to be involved, Hrabar recounted, “we decided we wanted to provide material support.” After all, she continued, “the juggalos are a really good example of a group who are organizing in their communities from the ground up,” and the same organizing that made their own March on Washington happen is exactly the same work the DSA wants to see. With the help of Struggalo Circus organizers, DSA D.C. members came armed with juggalo-friendly educational pamphlets on socialism and plenty of “Faygo Not Fascism!” signs to pass out. Lucky for them, too, it turned out that Faygo was easy to come by online.
The IWW was quick to clarify that their respective statements of solidarity weren’t endorsements of ICP’s music as a whole, including its more “problematic aspects such as misogyny and homophobia.” But the relationship could also be mutually beneficial. “We believe Juggalos can teach the resistance about class and mutual aid,” Struggalo Circus tweeted on August 18, “radicals can teach Juggalos about consent and toxic masculinity.”
After an election cycle in which the struggles, anxieties, and grievances of the white working class were constantly (and wrongly) pointed to as the predominant source of Donald Trump’s momentum, juggalos are a welcome anomaly in the prevailing centrist discourse about this cross-section of America.
That’s not to say their struggles are any different than the economic and social crises facing large swaths of the working poor—if anything, ICP’s stated fondness for outsiders has enticed the tired, poor, and huddled masses. In an October 2016 paper published in Child Psychiatry & Human Development, a peer-reviewed journal, researchers outlined the relationship between young, homeless juggalos, drug use, and mental illness. Compared to “non-Juggalo identifying youth,” juggalos were much more frequent drug users—especially methamphetamine, ecstasy, and marijuana—were more likely to engage in unprotected sex, and reported higher rates of mental illness—including depression, PTSD, and suicidal ideation. Traumatic experiences—especially abuse, sexual or otherwise—were common as well. Troublingly, law enforcement’s defense of juggalos’ gang status has drawn heavily on these statistics. In one article written by a law enforcement professional from 2014, the author cites “trauma, parental neglect and . . . serious mental disorders” as factors that make individuals “easily manipulated by their leadership of radical [i.e., leftist] organizations such as the juggalos.” Of course, how one goes about recruiting fans of a band remains unanswered.
Yet in an age where the foremost false prophets of the white working class have opted to peddle a breed of tired, preachy conservativism of rags-to-riches stories, ICP’s rawness and honesty is a welcome escape. Unlike the self-righteousness of overhyped tomes like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, the band actually grapples with a question facing many poor Americans: What do you do when can’t pull yourself out? ICP’s vision, however crude, offers a practical way to cope with the everyday injustices of working class life. As Nathan Rabin observes in his 2013 deep dive into juggalo culture, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, “[ICP] can’t do anything to help their fans scale the wall of upward mobility, but they’ve made them feel better about where they are.” Or, as Doug Gilbert wrote in a 2014 article for Mask Magazine, “ICP did for lumpen-proletarian white kids what the anarcho-punk band Crass did for working-class youth in the U.K. in the late 1970s and early 80s.”
MOAR felt less like a victory parade from Trumpkins than a hollow tribute to the president’s nonsensical vision for America.
In stark contrast to the other purported model of white working class organizing that gathered on the mall that day—the pro-Trump Mother of All Rallies (MOAR)—the juggalos were young, vibrant, and eager to show D.C. what they were about. MOAR’s message of Western chauvinism offered kitsch and half-baked theories about the educational value of Trump’s Twitter account—as one speaker told the gleeful, red-white-and-blue-wearing crowd, the president “is teaching us individually with his tweets.” Between erstwhile Republican congressional candidate Elizabeth Matory’s assertion that “African” was once a language commonly spoken in the United States and the bizarre show of hypermasculine patriotism from a fratty faction of Proud Boys, MOAR felt less like a victory parade from Trumpkins than a hollow tribute to the president’s nonsensical vision for America. The cadre of paramilitary men surrounding the gathering amplified this feeling—after all, I wondered as I wandered over to the Lincoln Memorial, what were they even protecting? And from whom?
Who wins out in the battle for the heart and soul of the working class remains to be seen. The juggalos, to their credit, are dreaming big. As Jason Webber—the director of public relations for Psychopathic Records—told VICE prior to the march, “I think Jesus would be a Juggalo.”
I, at least, wasn’t prepared to disagree outright.
[*] Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the date of the terrifying dream of a clown that led Violent J to change his band’s aesthetic and ultimately rename the group Insane Clown Posse. The era of J’s strange vision was 1989-1991, not 1999.