For decades, veterans, civil-rights advocates, immigrants, bikers, activists, and protesters of just about every political persuasion have assembled on the National Mall to make a stand against oppression, draw media attention, and identify their cause with the august surroundings of the nation’s most cherished historical monuments.
Few, if any, have christened their march in showers of Faygo grape soda.
If all goes according to plan, that will change on Sept. 16, when an army of Juggalos — those much-maligned horrorcore devotees (and lovers of a midwestern soda brand) — assembles to stake their own claim on liberty and justice just steps from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his most famous speech.
Onlookers will of course scoff. Juggalos are used to that. Indeed, as acolytes of the music and musings of the Insane Clown Posse — named by the now defunct-Blender magazine “world’s most hated band” — and a handful of other artists that rarely receive airplay, they typically welcome such derision. It tends to make them stronger.
But lately, it’s been different. It’s one thing to invite the scorn of a clueless mainstream, to forge bonds among fellow travelers, and revel in a shared sense alienation. Punks and other assorted rebels have been doing it for decades. It’s another thing altogether to have your fandom branded a street gang by the authorities, as the Juggalo Family was in 2011, its members surveilled, harassed, mocked, and subjected to wholesale discrimination.
The honchos at Psychopathic Records, the label owned and operated by the platinum-selling Insane Clown Posse, or ICP, considered the history of protest and decided it was time to throw down.
“We knew that we would get all kinds of attention,” Violent J, who, along with Shaggy 2 Dope, formed ICP in Detroit in 1989, said, “and we would finally have a chance to show everyone who we really are.”
Juggalos, who are believed to number more than 1 million in the United States, have been enduring harassment over their musical tastes and cultural proclivities since the mid-90s. Many grew up on the margins, in the crumbling industrial towns of the midwest, and formed tight familial bonds around the music and culture of ICP and similar bands. While the gang designation is a stretch, it’s fair to say that Juggalos are a singular phenomenon in the music world. In contrast to the relentless corporate exploitation of mainstream acts, ICP and other affiliated bands have remained steadfastly independent.
Horrorcore doesn’t turn up as a soundtrack in Faygo ads much less spots for Pepsi, Ford or Microsoft. And unlike such massive money grabs as Bonnaroo, the Warped Tour, and Coachella, the annual Gathering of the Juggalos festival is free of corporate banners and special-interest booths.
Meanwhile, the more essential appeal to adherents may have less to do with the music itself than the culture that has emerged around it: A community of like-minded individuals who have otherwise been labeled outsiders and misfits.
“The march is to show everyone that Juggalos are not just the white trash, violent myth that some people think.”
“There’s this element of acceptance that draws people in,” said Bob Adams, a 40-something-old-year Juggalo from St. Louis, who serves in the Scrub Care Unit, which hands out free water, hot dogs, and clothing to Gathering attendees in need of help. “And that means a lot to people who have been told to go away.”
Juggalos are accustomed to being misunderstood, but the group’s estrangement from the mainstream reached a new level in 2011.
That was when the FBI released its bi-annual National Gang Threat Assessment Report, which classified the Juggalos made the cut as a “loosely organized hybrid gang,” right alongside such venerable criminal organizations as the Bloods and the Crips. The document was vague, basing its decision on scattered media reports and the claims of a few law enforcement agencies. From the report:
“Most crimes committed by Juggalos are sporadic, disorganized, individualistic, and often involve simple assault, personal drug use and possession, petty theft, and vandalism. However, open source reporting suggests that a small number of Juggalos are forming more organized subsets and engaging in more gang-like criminal activity, such as felony assaults, thefts, robberies, and drug sales.”
In this case, “open source reporting” means checking out a few local newspapers and TV news segments and taking their claims at face value. Like any fan base, people who identify as Juggalos do on occasion commit crimes, sometimes heinous ones. Richard McCroskey, 20, was a devotee of horrorcore, right up to the moment he murdered four people in 1999. Jacob Robida was 18 years old when he went on a crime spree in 2006, attacking three patrons in a gay bar in Massachusetts, fleeing the scene, and then killing a police officer who pulled him over in Arkansas. Robida, who killed himself after being cornered by police, posted his affinity for ICP on his MySpace page. Neither McCroskey or Robida were part of any gang.
More recently, there was the sensational Wisconsin case in which a Juggalette allowed a Juggalo to drink her blood and sever her finger as a way of honoring a dead friend. Dumb, perhaps, and clearly tabloid-worthy, but not evidence of a gang affiliation.
“Juggalos get a bum rap,” insisted Dusty Dahlgren, aka Big Tex, from Moonshine Bandits, a country/rap act that toured with ICP and has played on bills with Toby Keith and Luke Bryan. “There is a massive misperception out there.”
The FBI report’s impact still echoes through the Juggalo Nation, with promoters and venue owners sometimes refusing to book Juggalo-affiliated acts over fears of vandalism and drug use. Meanwhile, although the group has long been derided by the mainstream media, from “Saturday Night Live” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” on down, typically portraying them as poor, semi-literate, friendless, and perpetually inebriated, the FBI’s action seemed to show how a pattern of ridicule and misunderstanding can quickly turn into straight-up discrimination. Juggalos, who are sometimes identifiable through tattoos, gear, and social media posts, have found themselves dismissed from jobs and harassed by law enforcement.
Jessica Bonometti was a probation officer for the commonwealth of Virginia with four years on the job when several Facebook comments she’d made approving of Juggalo culture caught the eye of her superiors, who promptly fired her. Bonometti is no gang member, nor do her bosses claim she was. She graduated with honors from George Mason University and served for three years as a board member of a local nonprofit, anti-drug group. In papers outlining the reasons for her termination, the word “Juggalo” appears 37 times.
“We knew that we would get all kinds of attention, and we would finally have a chance to show everyone who we really are.”
In a 2016 report, the hearing officer in Bonometti’s case plainly sides with her contention that Juggalos should not be considered a gang merely because some of them have engaged in illegal acts. “Having a few criminal Juggalos does not and should not undermine the right of the remaining Juggalos to express their enjoyment for their preferred source of music without the stigma of being associated with a gang,” he writes. However, he admits, since the Department of Corrections nonetheless holds that view, and Bonometti was aware of it, her termination was legal. “The Department has 169 Juggalos as inmates and identified one Juggalo who committed murder in the name of the Juggalos,” the officer states in the report. “The Agency considers it to be a dangerous conflict for an employee to be a gang member or sympathetic to a gang and also supervise members of that gang.”
So despite his clearly stated view that “the Agency is removing an otherwise valuable employee,” the hearing officer ruled against her.
“I had this job I loved and they took it away because I liked a style of music,” Bonometti said in an interview.
Bonometti was denied unemployment benefits, due to having been terminated with cause. She lost her health insurance as well. But more than that she lost her livelihood.
“This was a job that I loved more than anything,” she said. “I had commendations, I had gotten great reviews and they got rid of me because I was a Juggalo. Now I’m labeled as a gang member, and being in law enforcement, it’s going to be impossible to get a job.”
Robert Hellin can sympathize. The Iowa native enlisted in the Army in 2008, his left bicep graced with a tattoo of the hatchetman, the Juggalo badge of pride. Though he is far from the only Juggalo in the military — the Facebook page Proud Military Juggalos has around 4,000 followers — he is one of the few whose dog tags listed Juggaloism as his religious faith.
“I was being screened before I went in and told them this was part of my religion,” Hellin said. The First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion has been broadly interpreted for decades, and when pressed, the military has generally given troops wide leeway to practice their faith, however unique. Still, when the FBI gang announcement came down, Hellin feared the worst. Suddenly, he was a gang member in the military, which is forbidden.
“I knew that someone who wanted to make trouble for me now had a better chance of succeeding,” he said. He was three years into his contract and was trying to work up the chain, when his commander sent a message noting, “There is a Juggalo in our unit.” While Hellin wasn’t named, he considered the message ominous enough that he decided to fight back, becoming one of four Juggalo plaintiffs in a 2012 federal lawsuit against the FBI and the Department of Justice. “Because of the Juggalo gang designation, Hellin’s identity as a Juggalo places him in imminent danger of suffering discipline or an involuntary discharge from the Army,” the complaint alleged. Although Hellin left the service as a corporal in April 2016, after tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea, the case is ongoing, with the support not only of ICP but the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The lawsuit seeks a statement from the feds officially removing the gang designation.
The FBI’s action “takes everything we’ve done, our legacy, and shits on it,” Violent J said. “It says this is nothing but a street gang. But we’re a band with fans that love the music. If this FBI gang thing were to happen to someone else, another band other than ICP and Juggalos, a lot more people would be freaking out and standing up. It would be all over MTV, like, ‘What is this craziness?’”
“There’s this element of acceptance that draws people in. … That means a lot to people who have been told to go away.”
Nonetheless, proving damages that are primarily speculative is not easy. Hellin’s case was tossed out by the first court it was heard in; it is now being heard on appeal.
While the suit drags on, Juggalo Nation is taking their case to the court of public opinion. “This is the biggest thing we could do, and it’s the most important thing we have ever done,” Violent J says of the march. “We are going to have people watching us, just waiting for Juggalos to fuck up. But we will march with dignity.”
“The march is to show everyone that Juggalos are not just the white trash, violent myth that some people think,” Shaggy 2 Dope agreed. “People will be able to see Juggalos, collectively, in a place that is known for portraying viewpoints.”
It will also show the public that, “above all, that we are not a gang,” he added.
“This is a unified front to show the country that we’re not just taking this gang thing laying down,” said Manny Agront, a former Army specialist and now an administrator of the Proud Military Juggalos Facebook page. “We’re not as bad as people make us out to be.”
The perception, though, has already created an obstacle. Along with the march, two nights of free concerts were booked at Jiffy Lube Live, an amphitheater outside D.C. in Virginia. The deal fell through earlier this month — Psychopathic Records contends the venue’s management got cold feet. The label is currently seeking an alternative venue.
There are more doors than ever opening to ICP and Juggalos, though. The band headlines the Las Vegas Hemp Fest on April 1, and will play in Sturgis, South Dakota, during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August.
And then there is Hollywood. Earlier this year, it was announced that “Orange Is the New Black” star Taylor Schilling would star in a comedic film entitled “Fam-i-ly,” playing the aunt of an young girl who yearns to run away and join the Juggalos. As part of the production, the producers sought to create a Gathering. A call for extras went out and in a cold drizzle on weekend in March, 150 Juggalos descended on a muddy field outside Lithonia, Georgia, 20 miles east of Atlanta — half of them painted, all of them stoked to play themselves for Hollywood. The producers added a couple dozen professional actors to fill out the scene, and Violent J and Shaggy showed up to play themselves.
“This is a unified front to show the country that we’re not just taking this gang thing laying down.”
It was easy to tell the actors from the genuine Juggalos. Their perfect makeup was a little too perfect, and they gave off a certain office-worker-gone-rogue vibe. In contrast, many of the real-deal Juggalos had driven for miles, giving them the lived-in look one sees at the Gathering.
As for Schilling, she spent the whole weekend on set, hanging with the Juggalos, “mesmerized,” as one extra put it.
Chris Fabritz drove 10-and-a-half hours from Germantown, Maryland, to be an extra. He brings a little extra to the role, as he is known among Juggalos as Mankini, the guy who dons a red, white and blue brief, and little else, during the Gathering.
“You are legendary,” Schilling told him.
Although Hollywood has rarely done well by the Juggalos, often promoting the most sensational and damaging stereotypes, Fabritz was hopeful.
“After seeing what I saw there, I think it will have a positive impact on our image,” he said. “There are always going to be people who have their minds made up. I think everyone involved in this, including the producers, wants it to be positive.”