The Juggalos, the most rabid and notorious fans in all of music, were restless. Wild hoots erupted as a tattooed man at the back of the tent hurled an empty pizza box into the air. It twirled skyward and crashed on a group at the front waiting for their beloved Insane Clown Posse to address the crowd from the stage.
Those at the front turned and retaliated, launching an overstuffed trash bag that exploded on the ground and vomited its rancid contents across the feet of people in the rear. In response, an empty two-liter soda bottle arced through the air like an artillery shell, hitting a man in front with a dull thud. A full-on garbage war had now erupted, as the dueling groups of fans sent cans, foam plates and fast-food bags whizzing back and forth.
“F— the back!” the front rumbled.
“F— the front!” the back volleyed.
Women caught between the warring factions casually popped umbrellas to shield themselves from the trash juices raining down, as if dealing with a passing shower. A fat drop of mystery liquid plopped on the arm of a man standing near me. “Was that water?” he asked a friend before swiping it with an index finger and lifting it to his nose. “Yeah, we’re good.” And so the mayhem went on for roughly 40 minutes.
In fact, this is how it goes every year at the Gathering of the Juggalos, a four-day festival that hip-hop group Insane Clown Posse (ICP) organizes for its fans. The nearly-two-decade old event — held this year in Oklahoma City in late July — combines the communal spirit of Burning Man, the debauchery of a NASCAR infield and the edgy theater of a freak show. Often derided as “white trash,” ICP and its fan base have a penchant for garbage throwing and chronically soaking one another with cheap Faygo soda (their drink of choice). “Saturday Night Live” has repeatedly ribbed them, and they are arguably in strong contention for the title of America’s most hated subculture.
But — amid all the trash-throwing, which served as a prelude to the “seminar,” a key event at the annual gathering, where ICP offers its fans a sort of state of the Juggalo union — a question was running through my mind: Are these people gang members? If the FBI is to be believed, every one of the hundreds of Juggalos under this tent were potentially part of a criminal syndicate. That’s because in 2011, the FBI took the extraordinary and unprecedented step of labeling the entire fan base of ICP a gang, placing them alongside the Bloods, Crips and MS-13, after a string of crimes carried out by people identified as Juggalos.
The move touched off one of the strangest controversies at the crossroads of pop culture, criminal justice and the First Amendment in contemporary America. ICP and the Juggalos were outraged, saying the FBI effectively criminalized being a fan of a musical group. It had far-reaching and severe consequences. Juggalos not associated with gangs have reported being repeatedly stopped by police, added to gang databases, blocked from the military, placed on stricter forms of probation, suspended from school and fired from jobs. Those problems sparked a campaign by ICP and the Juggalos to get the FBI to publicly repudiate the gang label. They say their right to free speech, right to assemble and the good ol’ American right to rawk are being violated.
Their fight has drawn in the American Civil Liberties Union and spurred a federal lawsuit. And the effort moves into a bigger spotlight on Sept. 16 with easily the most unusual protest to hit the nation’s capital in a year full of them: In a rally being organized by ICP, the group’s fans will descend on the Mall for a Juggalo March on Washington. It will be an easy spectacle to lampoon, yet at the heart of the protest will be a quite serious question: While Juggalos can certainly be accused of criminally bad taste, are they actual criminals?
Shaggy 2 Dope (Joseph Utsler), left, and Violent J (Joseph Bruce) of the Insane Clown Posse.
ICP got its start in Detroit in the late ’80s and became known for over-the-top, slasher-movie-style lyrics, clown makeup and the carnival theatrics of its shows. With its abrasive rap-metal sound and cartoonish outrageousness, the band — composed of two singers, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope — is a kind of mash-up of Kiss, the early Beastie Boys and professional wrestling. ICP has sold millions of records, but it has remained largely out of the spotlight because radio and MTV refuse to play the group’s explicit, gory and sometimes misogynistic songs.
Oklahoma City approached the Gathering of the Juggalos with all the joy of a town that has learned it has been selected to be the site of a toxic waste dump. “I’m going to be watching it very closely,” City Council member John Pettis told the Oklahoman newspaper the day before the event began at a dusty and forlorn 900-acre recreation area that sits on the outskirts of town, between a metal scrap yard and a sand pit. Pettis urged residents to report any problems with Juggalos to police. The same article noted that a man who once listed ICP on his MySpace page had committed one of the “most infamous mass murders in recent Oklahoma history.” On TV, a newscaster ominously intoned that police were on “high alert.”
Adam Roberts and Aliyah Gonzales at the 2017 Gathering of the Juggalos at Lost Lakes Amphitheater in Oklahoma City.
As a journalist, I wasn’t expecting much love from Juggalos as I picked up my press pass for the gathering on a sweltering morning. So I was caught off guard when a couple in line with me at the ticket booth offered me a ride, since I was facing a sweaty, 30-minute walk into the venue. Zach Jordan, a truck driver from outside Oklahoma City, had “Juggalo” tattooed across his back, and his wife, Christian, had on jorts and brown house slippers. We piled inside their green Mustang jammed with camping gear and headed out to meet another couple at their campsite. They had been ICP fans for years, but this was their first gathering. They were excited.
I told them I was surprised anyone would give a reporter a ride since Juggalos had received such bad press, but Zach offered what became a virtual mantra at the gathering: “If you hang out with Juggalos for a day, you’ll find it’s all about love and family.”
It all sounded rather hippie-dippy, but the actual norms of the Juggalos are a bit more complicated. At the 2012 gathering, Juggalos stripped the car of a man caught stealing and paraded around with his bumpers, doors and license plate. Lollapalooza this was not. “Welcome [to] The Gathering,” a large sign on a tent read. “Show me your butthole.”
Beyond the sign, a ramshackle encampment sprawled around two lakes. Thousands of Juggalos from across the country were camping in tents, U-Haul vans or RVs, or simply spread out on blankets beneath trees. Most had driven here, but a few hitchhiked or even walked.
Fireworks exploded in the distance. People partied in camps. Juggalos yelled their ubiquitous greeting like mating birds: “Woop! Woop!” Many others carried megaphones and implored women to “Show us your [breasts]!” A few Juggalettes — female Juggalos — obliged, jiggling before walking on. A few simply went topless.
“Trolleys,” tractors pulling hitches like a hayride but littered with trash, circulated around the camp, delivering people to three stages. They featured bands, burlesques, a beauty pageant, wrestling and more. Other Juggalos tore around in golf carts, some cradling beers or joints, as they gripped the wheel. In the next few days, I would witness some remarkably bizarre moments. I’d find an 8-year-old kid punching people in the face for money. On another occasion, as I was interviewing a Juggalette, a drunken woman clutching a long-necked pink glass plowed her cart into the Juggalette’s tent. A passenger hopped off and offered to make up for it: “Cash or drugs?”
Juggalos — as fans of the Insane Clown Posse are known — in a mosh pit during a performance by Mushroomhead at Lost Lakes Amphitheater in Oklahoma City.
ICP organizes and books the gathering but says it is a money loser. There are different levels of packages; this year general admission was $190. No posh pavilions or corporate branding — as have become the norm at festivals like Coachella — can be found here. The gathering is raw and independent, partly by choice and partly by circumstance. After all, what business would lend its name to something law enforcement essentially considers a gang rally?
The morning after ICP played one of its two shows at the gathering, I set out to speak to some old-school Juggalos to get their take on the gang label. The gathering felt like it had a collective hangover. One Juggalo was passed out in a camp chair, mouth open and pointed toward a massive prairie sky. Another was crumpled on a log, nursing a cigarette. A third was passed out on the ground.
I found Scott Creel, a burly man with a long beard, sleeve tattoos and numerous piercings, and Scottie Donihoo, the founder of the Juggalo news site Faygoluvers.net, eating breakfast in a tidy RV. Both said they knew of gang members who were also Juggalos, but noted that they made up a minuscule fraction of ICP fans. Creel and Donihoo believe Juggalos are in the crosshairs because of their class, their status on the margins and misunderstanding about the nature of what brought the community together. “Honestly, I don’t think the Juggalo nation is organized enough or intelligent enough to become a gang,” Creel joked.
I met Juggalos who were IT specialists and nurses, but most were blue collar and from Rust Belt cities or small towns. Many said they were or had been homeless or had survived broken homes, sexual abuse, extreme poverty and other difficulties. Some are gay. They said the gathering was a place of radical acceptance, welcoming all comers. “If you can’t find any other place to fit in because society tells you you can’t fit in with this or that group, you’ve got to find your own group,” Creel said. “I kind of think that’s where Juggalos came from. We are outside of the outsiders.”
That point was driven home when I met Adam Roberts. Roberts became a Juggalo legend in 2013 for doing something so out-there even the gathering was shocked. He auctioned off his right nipple at the festival for $100 and then removed it with a scalpel. (He had previously sliced off his other nipple.) “I was going to do it anyway,” Roberts told me while sitting in a golf cart. “A lot of the Juggalos seemed to get a kick out of it. I figured if they liked it I would do it. … I was going to have dermal implants done with diamond tips, so I could have nipples of steel that could cut glass.”
Roberts, who has a ghoulish tattoo that covers his entire face, has yet to follow through on the plan, so he has the featureless chest of a doll. He said this year he ate a live scorpion. Some campers had trapped it and were offering $100 to anyone who could choke it down, but no one came forward. Roberts did it for $70 after chopping off the stinger. What did it taste like? “Seventy-dollar dirt,” Roberts said.
He told me that as one of six children on a single parent’s meager income, he had moved 27 times by age 16. Now he returns to the Gathering of the Juggalos each year. “They found a name for the outcast,” he said.
Attendees at the 2017 Gathering of the Juggalos in Oklahoma City in July.
All over, people wandered from camp to camp speaking with those they had just met as if they were longtime friends. The Scrub Care Unit offered food, water and care for the Juggalos, some of whom come with little more than the shirts on their backs. Some Juggalos drain their savings or go into debt to be here each year, just to be with old friends.
Juggalo Batman was a good example of someone who thrived at the festival. When I first encountered him, his cape was billowing, and the dildo at his crotch was swinging crazily as he ran toward a trolley passing his campsite. The riders splashed him with water and Faygo while shouting the name everyone uses for him as he wanders the grounds like some sort of louche mayor: “Batd—!”
Huffing back to his camp, Batman — a.k.a. Mike Paukner, 44 — explained his origin story. He had been a security guard at a Tulsa apartment complex, where the police gave him the nickname Batman. One year, he mysteriously received a Speedo, and later a friend gave him the other component of his outfit. Voilà, an X-rated superhero was born. “Security is my love,” Paukner said. “I love to help people not be victims.”
That included a woman who was visiting his camp. Paukner had taken her in after she lost her apartment. He said it’s what Juggalos do, and the woman has not forgotten the gesture. “He’s not my blood,” she said, “but he’s my brother.”
Back in the real world, Juggalos often have a hard time. A little later, Paukner said he had been fired from his job as a security guard because his company found out he was a Juggalo and, thus, thought he was a gang member. He now spends his days cleaning an industrial freezer, no longer helping catch the bad guys. “I’ve helped arrest gang members,” Paukner said. “Juggalos aren’t it.”
An attendee at the four-day festival for Insane Clown Posse fans.
On March 15, 2011, following a pair of drug arrests in Utah, the FBI’s Salt Lake City office announced in an internal memo that the agency was putting resources into investigating an emerging criminal threat: the Juggalos. “Insane Clown Posse can’t get its music on the radio, but claims to have 1 million devoted fans who call themselves ‘Juggalos’ or ‘Juggalettes,’ and sometimes paint their faces to look like wicked clowns,” an unidentified agent wrote, adding later: “Juggalos crimes also include drug sales, drug possession, child endangerment, as well [as] many other crimes typically seen by gangs and gang members.”
So began the Juggalos’ turn into a perceived national gang threat. The agent wanted to begin compiling the type of evidence prosecutors need to file federal racketeering and other charges authorities typically use to go after gangs and other organized criminal elements, like the mob.
If it seems as if the FBI was turning a bazooka on a gnat, the suspicion of Juggalos wasn’t without precedent, as the memo noted. Authorities in four states — Arizona, Utah, California and Pennsylvania — had previously declared Juggalos or particular cliques of Juggalos a gang. Michelle Vasey, who was a gang expert with a small police department outside Phoenix in the mid-2000s, described the problem to me. She began noticing a curious trend on the Yavapai reservation that spread elsewhere: “Several of our gang members were tattooing over their original tattoos with the Hatchet Man,” Vasey says. (A silhouette of a man carrying a hatchet is ICP’s logo.) “They would say, ‘I’m not a member of this gang anymore, I’m a Juggalo,’ but they were still selling drugs. They were still doing drive-bys, and they were still hanging with the same people.”
But Vasey says the gang activity was isolated to a few pockets in the state. She says the vast majority of Juggalos were not gang members and shunned such thuggishness. They were just music fans, no different from Justin Bieber’s Beliebers or Deadheads. According to interviews with police and a review of cases, the situation was similar in other states.
Still, the FBI investigation would elevate the matter. During a probe starting in 2011, an analyst queried local authorities about problems they had with Juggalos. In 2013 the FBI released the responses to the nonprofit news site MuckRock following a freedom of information request. While the responses were almost completely redacted, law enforcement officials did attach dozens of local media reports about lurid crimes allegedly committed by Juggalos.
They included a 2006 incident in which a man named Jacob Robida attacked three people at a Massachusetts gay bar with a hatchet and gun. Robida fled and killed a police officer and a hostage after officers tracked him down in Arkansas, before taking his own life. In another instance, two men in Salt Lake City critically injured a teen with a battle ax. (Such reports continue to appear today: Just a few weeks before this latest Gathering of the Juggalos, a man stormed a Massachusetts radio station demanding that the DJ play ICP’s song “My Axe.” To make his point, he happened to be brandishing an ax. No one was hurt.)
The crimes noted by the FBI were real, but the articles often seemed sensational and sloppy, mentioning a perpetrator’s interest in ICP even if the crime was not related to their identity as a Juggalo. Some news outlets found an irresistible narrative in all of this: Clown-makeup-wearing fans were being driven to murder and form gangs by the ultraviolent lyrics of ICP. “ ‘Juggalo killers’ a new breed of gang,” a headline on one of the articles blared. The information would form part of the basis of the FBI’s inclusion of Juggalos in its 2011 biennial gang assessment — which law enforcement officials across the country use as a guide to gangs. “The Juggalos, a loosely-organized hybrid gang, are rapidly expanding into many U.S. communities,” the report noted ominously. “Most crimes committed by the Juggalos are sporadic, disorganized, individualistic.” In one fell swoop, the FBI had placed all ICP fans under a cloud of suspicion, even though the report later noted that only four states had recognized Juggalos as a problem.
“If you look at the way the feds and states define a gang, they are so vague and general any group could fall under that definition,” Alex Alonso, a professor at Cal State University Long Beach and an expert on street gangs, told me. “I would say it requires a whole lot more for me to put Juggalos in that street gang category. That category carries a lot of consequences.” Alonso says the news clips the FBI collected from local law enforcement largely showed a collection of crimes by individuals, not a criminal enterprise that was organized, had a hierarchy or was working to further its own criminal interests, as one would expect from even a loosely coordinated gang.
When I reached out to the FBI to ask about the Juggalos situation, no one would comment on the problems or criticisms of the gang label. Instead, the agency issued me a statement: “The 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment was comprised of information shared with the National Gang Intelligence Center and the FBI from law enforcement around the country,” it read. “The 2011 report specifically noted that the Juggalos had been recognized as a gang in only four states.”
The FBI has not included Juggalos in subsequent gang assessments, but the 2011 report is still cited by authorities — including in a recent case in Virginia. Jessica Bonometti had never received a negative review as a Virginia probation officer before her boss summoned her to a meeting in a conference room last year and announced that she was being fired. Bonometti told me she was stunned as the woman gave her a termination packet, which contained the case against her: nine of her Facebook posts showing her love for ICP.
In one, Bonometti liked a photo of Shaggy 2 Dope riding a red sports motorcycle. In another, she posed in a jester costume with a man wearing the band’s trademark face paint. The others were equally innocuous fan fodder.
Bonometti had spent years building her career, earning a 3.9 GPA at Virginia’s George Mason University, toiling at internships and working in lesser positions. She was not a gang member and had no criminal record, but it was all crumbling — over pop music, however lurid. She was so incredulous, she had to confirm what was happening. “Am I being fired for the type of music I’m listening to in my private life?” Bonometti recalls asking her boss before she was escorted from her Fairfax, Va., office. “And she said, ‘Yes.’ ”
The Virginia Department of Corrections declined to comment on Bonometti’s case but said it classifies Juggalos among the “major gangs” in the state corrections system. The department considers it a violation for employees to promote gangs. A spokeswoman said 190 of the 13,000 gang members it oversees identify as Juggalos, though she noted that Juggalos have not created any problems in the prison system.
In 2014, the ACLU of Michigan sued the Department of Justice and FBI in federal court on behalf of ICP and four Juggalos. “This is really a quintessential civil liberties case about abuse of government power and the right for one to express him or herself without fear of government harassment,” Michael Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU of Michigan, told me. They are seeking to have the FBI renounce the gang label, claiming Juggalos’ constitutional rights to expression and association are being violated. The case was dismissed late last year after a judge found the plaintiffs did not have the standing to pursue it. The ACLU is appealing that decision.
The crowd during a set by the Insane Clown Posse. Salon.com has called Juggalos the world’s most obnoxious fans.
The seminar began with Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope strutting onto stage in their trademark face paint and matching lemon yellow ICP jerseys. A few stray trash missiles were hurled upward, a remnant of the earlier garbage war.
Violent J began his introduction, but the Juggalos quickly interrupted him, letting loose with an expletive-laden chant against Oklahoma. They were angry with police: Among other gripes, they reported that officers were ticketing people for jaywalking as they attempted to cross a road to get into the gathering, and that police buzzed helicopters over the venue. Organizers also claimed they threatened to shut down the event. Violent J told the Juggalos he was fed up. “This sort of treatment is exactly why we are … marching,” he said to cheers.
Steve, a Juggalo from Texas. There are no posh pavilions at the gathering, as you would see at music festivals such as Coachella.
After the seminar, I met with Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope in a trailer. I knew that, to many, ICP and Juggalos are pop-culture punchlines, shorthand for schlock and bad taste. I mentioned that the now-defunct Blender magazine named ICP the worst band of all time in 2003 — which would seemingly be hard to outdo except Salon later called the group the “Most Hated Band in the World” and labeled Juggalos the world’s most obnoxious fans. I asked the band if that bothered them. “To be the worst band of all time, that’s pretty f—ing dope,” Violent J said.
That counterintuitive outlook was formed early for J, whose real name is Joseph Bruce. He and his brother grew up poor in the Detroit area, getting by on food stamps and rummage-sale clothes. They were made fun of at school, but instead of hiding their poverty, they played it up, creating a new identity for themselves they dubbed the Floobs.
J said it’s key to ICP’s identity: “Rappers love to rap about how cool they are, how much money they have, how nice their women look, and that’s cool. I get that if you don’t have s—, you can pop in that song and feel like you do. We rap about how little we have, how s—-y our car is. How … nasty our women are. It’s easy to be a clown. It doesn’t matter if you stink. It doesn’t matter if you dropped out of school or are on food stamps. It doesn’t matter if you got anything. It’s just relieving for a lot of people. I’m so tired of trying to fit my square peg into that round hole. I’m proud to be a square.” He was animated now: “That’s a Juggalo.”
What J was saying made a lot of sense to me. If you spend time with the Juggalos, they don’t seem much like a gang. Instead, they seem like a group of people who have been dealt a bad hand and are providing each other with a measure of empathy — and something more. By sharing, they have created wealth. (In my time at the gathering, I was offered water, booze, breakfast, weed, whippits and an invitation to camp with a group I had met five minutes earlier — even though everyone I talked to understood I wasn’t a Juggalo.) By being together in their differences, they have found inclusion. By returning to the gathering again and again each year, they have created a home. They have taken their collective nothings and turned them into something. And it is theirs.
Fans watch the Insane Clown Posse perform. Juggalos stress their community is about family.
The four-day festival had built toward this moment. Crews made the final preparations onstage, wheeling out large drums that were stocked with two-liter bottles of Faygo. The crowd’s anticipation grew as they squeezed together at the front of the stage like a fist clenching.
One Juggalo carried an inflatable sex doll on his shoulders, its face done up with clown makeup. A woman in a bikini rode atop the crowd on an inflatable shark, and two others surfed the pit on an inflatable mattress. Beer cans, water bottles and toilet paper whizzed over the crowd. A bottle rocket skittered off the stage scaffolding, and another exploded directly in the middle of the pit, sending sparks showering over fans. No one seemed particularly fazed. Suddenly, the stage lights cut out and the Juggalos erupted. “Woop! Woop!”
Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope entered to a singsong version of the “Brady Bunch” theme narrating the history of ICP to a loping hip-hop beat: “They fight for Juggalo family and together we say f— the FBI!”
The crowd roared, and ICP plowed into its set, prowling across the stage for over an hour. Violent J wrenched the caps off Faygo bottles and cradled them like footballs, sending gushing streams of soda onto the crowd as he rapped. (ICP goes through about 700 two-liter bottles in a show.)
Toward the end, ICP invited Juggalettes onto the stage. The women danced across, unleashing torrents of Faygo themselves. Soon, Juggalos began pulling themselves over a barrier and onto the stage. ICP melted into the crowd.
“It can be so lonely,” J rapped at one point. But the stage was so crowded with bouncing Juggalos some nearly toppled off. Then a group of Juggalos that remained below carefully lifted a Juggalo in his wheelchair over the barrier in front of the stage. They strained beneath the weight but crossed a breach and with final pushes heaved the man and his chair onto the stage. More cheers — and Faygo — were hurled upward. Some women ripped off their shirts. Men turned and mooned the crowd.
ICP finally ended its set, but the Juggalos remained. This was their show as much as ICP’s. With arms raised and Faygo flying, they ecstatically chanted for nearly a minute: “Fam-muh-lee! Fam-muh-lee! Fam-muh-lee!”
Shaggy 2 Dope addresses fans at the 2017 Gathering of the Juggalos.