When I first started covering Insane Clown Posse and their fans four years ago, I did not expect it would end in me giving a speech at the Juggalo March on Washington DC, but here I was preaching at the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.
In the Reflecting Pool, I saw the Washington Monument reflected and Juggalos holding signs that said, "Juggalo Lives Matter" and "Gang Labels. How Do they Work? They Don't," a reference to the much maligned ICP song "Miracles." One parent held a "Faygo, Not War and Drugs" over his Juggababy in an American flag dress. The entire mall smelt like mowed grass and mountain mist-flavored Faygo.
As I followed Juggalos across the country for four years, from Psychopathic Records Detroit headquarters to a Miss Juggalette Beauty Pageant to an Orlando Juggalo commune called the Sausage Castle, I witnessed how much America misunderstood ICP's working-class fans.
Much of the problems stem from 2011, when the FBI released a Gang Assessment List placing the Juggalos alongside the Crips, Bloods, and MS-13. ICP first laughed at the FBI labeling. "It wasn't a 9/11 moment," Violent J recalled in an interview prior to the march. The gang label seemed too absurd to be serious. "Somewhere in America, there's a serial rapist out there that loves [the band] Bush!" Violent J pointed out. Backstage at concerts, he and Shaggy 2 Dope realized Juggalos had stopped asking for autographs and began crying for help. Multiple fans accused cops of pulling them over for having stickers of ICP's Hatchet Man logo. Several parents claimed their ex-spouses had pulled the gang label card to gain full-custody of their children. Juggalos alleged the military denied their right to serve. America wasn't even letting Juggalos die for their country.
Juggalos have told me similar stories for years, which shocked me because I have seen no more drugs and violence at the Gathering of the Juggalos than I saw when David Guetta headlined Ultra in Miami in the mid-aughts. But this was the first time the FBI had labeled music fans a gang for having unpopular music taste. I couldn't help but be pissed off and join the March.
"Some people like me—members of the media, non-Juggalos—have mocked this march!" I shouted into the microphone on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. "'It's just clowns!' they say. 'They're white trash!' But this is wrong. The Juggalo March has implications for everyone. Everyone deserves the right to sing what they want. Right now the FBI is targeting Juggalos, but anybody could be next."
I had known about the march for over a year when ICP's independent company Psychopathic Records announced the rally at last year's Gathering of the Juggalos.
I began prepping for the protest three days before the March in a Brooklyn warehouse where I met up with ICP. "Get me four shots of espresso!" Shaggy 2 Dope hollered as he bounced through the brass door in full clown face. It was our tenth time meeting, but it was the first time I saw Shaggy and his bandmate Violent J looking exhausted. "[The Juggalo March is] the hardest thing ever done [by Psychopathic Records]," Shaggy admitted. The Juggalo march coincided with the same week Violent J had to get his molars removed. "I would much rather be dealing with Tipper [Gore]," Violent J joked about his current predicaments.
In January 2014 Psychopathic Records teamed with the ACLU of Michigan to file a lawsuit against the FBI. "This fan group is no more of a criminal enterprise than the Washington football team," explains their ACLU attorney Michael J. Steinberg in a phone call. "They get intoxicated, they paint their faces, and they have a symbol that is much more offensive than the Juggalo symbol." The federal government successfully requested the court to dismiss it two times, and the lawsuit has been stuck in legal limbo. The ACLU and ICP return to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals for oral arguments on October 11.
An FBI spokesperson told Noisey, "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. The 2011 report specifically noted that the Juggalos had been recognized as a gang in only four states. The FBI's mission is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution. We investigate activity which may constitute a federal crime or pose a threat to national security. The FBI cannot initiate an investigation based on an individual's exercise of their First Amendment rights."
For now, marching is what the Juggalos have left. "We're marching in Washington [because] that's the only thing you can do to make your point to the people of this country and the government," Shaggy said. ICP asked numerous bands to perform, but they all declined. "Nobody gives a fuck," Shaggy told me. " Nobody give a fuck because it's us. We're clowns. We're jokers at punch line… We're funny, but what's happening is not fucking funny." ICP wanted to host a post-march concert in a private, but every venue around DC turned them down, even 100-seaters, so they had to settle for performing "Neden Game" at the Lincoln Memorial, a public space that remembered as the setting for protests in Forrest Gump.
As enormous media attention grew around the Juggalo March, other groups had latched onto its cause. A week before the March, President Donald Trump's on-again/off-again advisor Roger Stone had an associate reach out to me to connect him with ICP. Jacobin, the intellectual socialist journal, endorsed the protest. A pro-Trump rally was happening down the street, and leading up to the March people tweeted things like, "I dream of a world where juggalos and antifa literally scare Nazis shitless to the point they never show their faces in public again." ICP and the Juggalos' fight with the FBI has evolved Juggalos from the world's most mocked fanbase to a serious cause, but the Psychopathic community is uninterested in being civil rights heroes.
"It's a super publicity stunt to get eyes on the Juggalos [not ICP]," Shaggy explained. "This is our point: 'Hey, man, fuck you. We're not a gang!'" They are demanding nothing else.
The day of the March, I met with Juggalo friends at a brick building in Maryland. More than 15 Juggalos were crashing in the apartment of a Juggalo named Mankini. If you've been to the Gathering of the Juggalos, you know him; he's a fat black man with nipple piercings who only wears a bikini. For the Juggalo March, he had assembled a new American flag bikini.
His apartment smelt like Juggalo: weed, BO, and cotton candy-scented body wash. ("We're carnival people," explained one Juggalette. "We love that [cotton candy] shit!") But in his day-to-day life, Mankini is fairly normal. His stepdaughters' finger paintings covered his living room walls. The only sign of his Juggalo fandom was a bottle of Faygo in a recycling bin and a statue of Shaggy hidden on a high shelf. Mankini's girl explained that her daughter is afraid of clowns. She worried that her her "fat black boyfriend" would get into scuffles with Nazis, because of his appearance.
Throughout the apartment, Juggalos wrote on picket signs and painted their faces. The Juggalos relayed how they had grown up in fatherless homes and drew comparisons to Violent J's own upbringing. In his memoir, "Behind the Pain," Violent J recounts how his stepfather would grab his penis. Subsequent songs discuss murdering pedophile "hillbillies."
The Juggalos also exchanged war stories. Hot Topic has ceased selling ICP merch. (A press representative for Sycamore Partners, Hot Topic's parent company, did not return a call or email requesting comment.) When Psychopathic Records tried to host the 2017 Gathering of the Juggalos on the west coast, nearly every venue denied them, forcing them to settle for the last-minute, dust-filled Lost Lakes camping ground in Oklahoma City. It was still nearly cancelled after several porta-potty rental companies refused to rent toilets to Psychopathic because of the gang label. "You can't have a gathering without porta-potties," Shaggy explained earlier in the week. "Nobody is going to rent their shit to a gang party." They found porta-potties at the last minute, but on the first night, Juggalette feminist leader Rachel Paul was hosting a drum circle when cops led a handcuffed clown right through a group of fire-breathing Juggalettes. Mike Busey, the proprietor of the Sausage Castle, summed it up as "more like the Gathering of the Undercover Cops."
Heather, a Juggalette who the Juggalo family knows as Star Tits, told Mankini about a variety of problems the FBI has caused her. She was leaving her small town Idaho grocery store, pushing her cart to her car when a cop ordered her to stop. She recalled him asking her for her license and registration, and allegedly demanding to see the inside of her car. "I don't think so," she said. "I'm pushing my grocery cart!" He explained that her pink Hatchet Man hoodie counted as gang apparel.
"Jimmy Buffet Parrot Heads can run around. I wear a little guy on my neck and suddenly I'm a gang member!" she yelled. "I honestly don't know [why Juggalos are targeted]. I don't know why we've been put there."
To protest the FBI, Heather has made a red, white, and blue shirt that says, "FIRST AMENDMENT WARRIOR." (It matches the "Clown Love" tattoos on her armpits.) A principal recently sent her 14-year-old son was sent home from school for wearing his hatchet man charm to class. She would prefer he go to ICP shows than other concerts. "He can jump around. He can interact with anyone in there," she explained. "You see a juggalo lay on the ground and you pick that son of a bitch up."
I asked her why Juggalos shock people if they actually operate as a friendly community. She exhaled. "People don't do that anymore," she lamented. "There's no human connection in people anymore."
People haven't been inclusive for a very long time. Heather discovered ICP in the early 1990s, when they still went by Inner City Posse. She was walking out of high school with her baby girl when she passed two dudes blasting the Dog Beats EP in a "hoopty car." "These guys were bouncing and laughing and they were having a great fucking time," she recalled. She was in a rough spot, as a 16-year-old single mom. I want that, Heather thought. She walked over and asked what they were listening to. They said, "Do you want a copy?" The next day he brought her a cassette tape. "That was it!" Heather said. "That was it!
"My daughter grew up in her car seat listening to the clowns. I took her to the American Psycho Tour. She [met Violent J] and told him I was a single mom." Heather teared up and wiped her tears across her face, worried they'd make her fake eyelashes fall off. "I'm gonna cry telling it to you. She told him he's the only man who's been consistent in her life. It's cause [Violent J is] damaged too. People think we're just horrible people and we're not. It's just crazy being profiled like that, to have someone tell you, 'That's who you are.' No, that's not who I am. That's not what I do. It's a kick in the teeth with the police telling us who we are. It's rough. It's like someone going to the gay and lesbian community and says, 'You're straight. I don't care how you feel.' And then you have to comply. No, it doesn't work that way. You can't tell people who they are inside."
Riding to the March in a minivan with a Juggalo named Cupcake, I kept thinking about what Heather had said. The music that was helping so many people was criminalized, the Hatchet Man logo was degraded to a gang symbol. It felt like something out of a Harold Pinter absurdist comedy.
Juggalos' peaceful lifestyle was evident at the a DC brunch restaurant, where Mankini had organized a mini gathering. (The restaurant made a cake that said, "Whoop whoop!" to welcome them.) Outside a clown played the "Chop Chop Slide," ICP's version of the "Cha Cha Slide." "Now shoot that redneck!" Violent J sang. The Juggalos then shot their hands in the air like kids playing cowboys, while chanting, "BUST! BUST! BUST! BUST!" It was far more silly than violent.
The clown scene at the Lincoln Memorial was much more serious and subdued. Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" played over a speaker on a white stage where two "JUGGALO MARCH" signs hung. Juggalos in red volunteer shirts handed out free pizza, while men in clown makeup held, "Faygo Not Fascism" banners. One Juggalo dropped a Faygo bottle on the floor, and another picked it up and tossed it in a trash can. One Juggalo walked around with a garbage bag all day. They seemed obsessed with combatting littering.
Sociologist Robin Petering has studied Juggalos and homeless youth and has seen the gang label change the group. "There has definitely been a shift in the past few years of the Juggalos being hyper conscious of labeling and protecting their community." In comparison to actual gangs she has studied in Los Angeles, Juggalos lack a clear hierarchy or organization. "I see a lot of Juggalos reaching out to help their community that represents inclusivity to me and actual gangs would be the opposite of that. They are extremely exclusive."
Juggalos were running on Juggalo time, so the speeches started late. Kevin Gill, the host of the annual Miss Juggalette Beauty Pageant, ran on stage to jumpstart the event. "The fact that nobody understood it didn't matter to us because none of us give a single fuck what anybody thinks of us," he began.
He welcomed first speaker, Crystal Guerrero. She tiptoed on stage and placed her burgundy dreads behind her face. "My kids were taken from me because I showed up to one concert," she revealed. Juggalos reverted to the line they yell to love at the Gathering of the Juggalos: "Fuck that shit!" "How do I have a clean record?" Guerrero asked. "How do I sit my children down and pray for our meal? I see my children for six hours." Juggalos lost it: "Fuck that shit! Fuck that shit!" Their trademark line, a regular at the Gathering of the Juggalos, had transformed into a protest chant. "They would rather have someone else take care of them… because of my character." Guerrero broke down in tears. Kevin rushed back to the stage and held her up. "Because you went to a concert?" he asked.
"I thought this was America!" she wailed.
I choked up watching her. I have seen a lot of weird shit covering Juggalos—a man pulling an American flag out of a drag queen's asshole, a woman who identified herself as "the second most ratchet stripper in Orlando"—but a woman losing her children over her music taste was surreal and frightening.
Violent J and and Shaggy were as shocked as me. On stage they listed the horror stories they had seen and made clear this was about Juggalos, not ICP. They were sick of authorities targeting their working class fans.
"You know how many times we've heard this? Man, being a Juggalo saved my life," Violent J told me earlier.
"We don't care about being respected, us two, you know what I'm saying?" Shaggy agreed. "We don't give a fuck if motherfuckers put us in a bottle of jokes for the rest of lives, we don't give a fuck. We just don't want that to happen to Juggalos."
On stage at the Lincoln Memorial, they advocated for a peaceful protest. They reminded Juggalos that this was an important free speech battle with implications for everyone. As much as people have advocated for curbing the First Amendment following Charlottesville, Juggalos knew they were an example of what could happen when the government criminalized speech.
Violent J thanked the Juggalo allies who had arrived in support. " Time magazine has our backs!" he shouted in bemusement. "Taking away a man's free speech is like sewing his butthole shut." He paused. He was still in Insane Clown Posse, and even while leading a protest, he lurched to poop humor. The point is, he clarified, "Fuck discrimination."
Roughly 20 ANTIFA members with their arms folded and bandanas covering their faces watched from the side of the stage. A Juggalo had approached ANTIFA earlier and asked them to leave, but they had come back. At one point, the feminist Juggalette Rachel Paul approached them. They offered her a group hug and according to Paul's account said, "We are on guard to protect [Juggalos] from the police brutality through self-defense only should the need arise." Paul assured them that the only issue with the DC police was that they had confiscated ICP's chicken feathers when they revealed they'd be throwing them across the Mall during their performance. "Chicken feathers aside," Paul explained, "we [are[ a nonviolent protest practicing passive resistance in the spirit of Dr. King and Ghandi."
ANTIFA members shook her hands and promised to respect their approach. "I considered them allies," Paul told me in a text message. But C-list Pizzagate Truther Jack Posobiec had arrived in a blue suit to live stream the march. ANTIFA surrounded him. "Nazis!" they screamed. "Nazis!" Posobiec, who has denied relations to the alt-right, smiled. The Juggalo next to me rolled his eyes. "He's alt light!" he joked.
The Juggalos ignored the chaos and took off, leaving provocateurs behind them, and sped around the Washington Mall. Around the corner, a woman sold bootleg "JUGGALO MARCH" shirts.
At the front of the line, Juggalos held a "SCRUBS" banner. Violent J wrapped his arm around his son. Shaggy and his wife, Renee, marched hand in hand in matching black and red jerseys that matched her beehive burgundy hair. She pushed a baby carriage, where her son slept through the entire march. Photographers walked backwards in front of them like Juggalo paparazzi, falling fall on the ground as they dove to get shots of ICP. It was a scene DC probably last saw when Anna Nicole Smith went to the Supreme Court.
An elderly passerby stopped me and asked what was happening. I explained. His response: "The FBI labeled clowns… a gang?"
As day turned to night, Juggalos returned to the Lincoln Memorial, where carnival light ICP sign had been placed. I watched ICP's concert from backstage. "We are making history!" Violent J screamed as backup clowns in silver jump fruits danced around him. Through the C sign, I saw Shaggy pouring Faygo over a Juggalo as the Washington Monument stood tall in the distance. Instead of reflecting the monument, the Reflection Pool showed Juggalos moshing in purple smoke. ICP invited the crowd on stage to pour out Faygo bottles.
"We all gonna die, but I'm not gonna fry," they rapped. "Even though most never try / I'm not gonna let this pass me bye, no."
When the show ended, clown lights spun on the trees lining the Washington Mall. I smiled. In the long, depressing year that is 2017, it was the first time I felt hope. Despite their tardiness, they came organized with clear objectives and peaceful ways to get their demands across. Juggalos presented a centrist, approachable message. They were shining a light on Washington, reminding people what it meant to be an American and how to fight for your first Amendment rights.
Mitchell Sunderland is the Senior Staff Writer at Broadly, VICE's women's site. He is writing a book about the comical, often misunderstood lives of dog breeders for FSG. Follow him on Twitter.