The entire Juggalo March is an exercise in secondhand embarrassment. On September 16, on the National Mall in Washington, DC, I am embarrassed for the three boys standing in a circle scream-rapping an Insane Clown Posse song I can’t recognize, their hair in little braids with bandanas around their crowns, the sleeves of their T-shirts cut off. (They are singing about buttholes, a real recurring theme in the Juggalo/ICP universe.) I am embarrassed by the utter wealth of white people in dreadlocks. I am embarrassed for the countless people who greet strangers not with “Hello” or “How are you?” but rather “Whoop whoop,” sometimes jubilantly, or sometimes like a guttural war cry, or sometimes just a simple, subdued acknowledgement of camaraderie — Whoop whoop to you, fine sir.
And I am, of course, cripplingly embarrassed by the signage: “Juggalo Lives Matter,” “Clown Lives Matter,” “The Only Gang Banging I Do Involves Your Mom and Sister,” and a fist ramming into a butthole labeled “FBI.” (God, these people are just obsessed with buttholes.) But no one else is embarrassed, just me — some normie who can’t even sing the chorus to “Hokus Pokus” by heart. (Hokus Pokus, joker’s ride / Come take a spin on a carnie ride.)
Juggalos are, by their simplest definition, fans of the band Insane Clown Posse, which was formed in 1989 by Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J (originally just two dudes named “Joseph”) and has been releasing horrorcore rap music ever since. It’s hard to know who’s a Juggalo unless they’re dressed like one, often in red and black and a face covered in literal clown makeup. They call each other “ninjas,” and their community “the family.” Once a year, ICP’s record company, Psychopathic Records, hosts a drunken, rowdy music festival called the Gathering of the Juggalos in rotating cities across the country.
The Juggalos have had a bad few years. In 2011, the FBI’s National Gang Threat Assessment listed Juggalos as a "loosely-organized hybrid gang" of people who "exhibit gang-like behavior and engage in criminal activity and violence." This false assessment, the Juggalos claim, has led to countless civil rights infractions: people losing custody of their kids for alleged gang association, getting fired merely for liking ICP on Facebook, getting suspended from school for wearing red and black, or even having their parole revoked for having a sticker featuring the Hatchetman, the unofficial logo of the Juggalos, on their car.
Conditions have apparently gotten so bad for the Juggalos in the last six years that last year, Psychopathic Records started organizing a Juggalo March, a protest that rode the wave of other historic civil rights marches this year. In a video from ICP on the official Juggalo March website, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope rally the family to meet on the mall for a historic march against injustice. “We need you to come together and fight this. Ninjas are being punished for waving a hatchet flag in public, rocking a tattoo,” says Violent J. “That’s fascism and it’s fucked up!” The video ends with an image of the protest poster over a row of flames, a child’s voice echoing the word “bitch.”
Non-clowns like me may feel the ripple of secondhand humiliation for Juggalos, but their community does offer them a legitimate kind of comfort they don’t get anywhere else. Juggalos tend to be white men, overwhelmingly working class, and a lot seem to have backgrounds that make them feel isolated, weird, and alone. They call themselves “scrubs,” even wearing T-shirts that say so, a way to own their class label. All the people here, like at their other gatherings, have owned the things that made their childhoods hard, the symbols of what made them feel powerless. Because here, among their own, they have a family.
Laughing at Juggalos feels too easy; they’re a largely harmless group of adults who like horrorcore, and many of them are vehemently anti-fascism and anti-racism and find the Confederate flag deeply offensive. So it makes sense that in the weeks leading up to the Juggalo March, a community usually known for acting as an easy punchline became the subject of a civil rights argument: Should the government, and law enforcement, be able to target you merely because of the music you like (“I Fucked a Cop”) or the way you look (a literal clown) or your income bracket?
Positive news coverage of their cause, combined with the news that MOAR — Mother of All Rallies, a pro-Trump march — would be happening at the same time, in the same area, turned the Juggalos into unlikely heroes in the time of Trump. Picture it: adult clown weirdos with the privilege of being (mostly) white and male as our unlikely saviors in the battle against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and the quiet destruction of civil rights.
But like so many resistance movements before them, the Juggalos seem to be a disjointed, clumsy activist circle, often forgetting about the intersections of race and gender in their movement. Some Juggalos are like those who support the worst kind of white feminism, making sure they eat first while forgetting about taking care of the less privileged around them. It’s surprisingly easy to stand with the Juggalos — sure, yes, wear your Hatchetmans! Hatchetmen? — but after embedding with them at the Juggalo March, I can’t help but want a little bit more from them. The Juggalos could be the heroes we need, if only they were better at acknowledging the many other marginalized communities whose battles might overlap with theirs. If only they came out in droves for those with bigger problems than music-based discrimination. After all, at the end of the day, they can take their clown makeup off.
Within a few hours of the march’s 2 p.m. start time on Saturday afternoon — turns out Juggalos are notoriously late — the National Mall is filled with hundreds of marchers and the air reeks of Halloween store makeup. People are painting each other's faces (including that of BuzzFeed News’ own reporter), chain-smoking Newports, crushing orange cans of Faygo, and running into old friends they haven’t seen since the last Gathering. (Juggalos are all quick to remind each other that this isn’t a Gathering, this is a protest, a march, a political rally. They demand to be taken seriously.) They outnumber the MOAR rally multiple times over, so any threat that this might turn into an us-versus-them fight is quickly extinguished.
Shannon Kelly, a 34-year-old from Lexington, Kentucky, and a manager for Sonic, says she’s been to every single Gathering of the Juggalos since they began in 2000. She’s compact at 4’11”, but with her head in a blue and purple wrap and her big round hazel eyes rimmed with electric pink and blue eyeshadow, she’s hard to miss. Seemingly a pro after attending 18 Gathering of the Juggalos, she can rattle off all the cities — Novi, Toledo, Peoria, Garrettsville, Pataskala, Cave-in-Rock, that place near Columbus, then Oklahoma — in one breath, before taking a pull on a cigarette. She’s putting heart stickers on her poster, which says “I’m an aunt, a taxpayer, a mother, a woman, and I am a damn proud Juggalo.”
Kelly says she was targeted in Ohio for being a Juggalo back in 2008, when a cop pulled her over and claimed she was driving recklessly. She thinks it’s because of the Hatchetman sticker — the outline of a man holding a hatchet, I’m sorry, I don’t know why — on the back windshield of her car. “There’s never been any other music group labeled as gangs, and I can think of so many groups who had big followings, whether it was Kiss, the Beatles, Beatles-mania, Phish, the Grateful Dead,” she says. Indeed, ICP has had a surprisingly hard time getting venues to allow them to play, and in some cities where they’ve planned Gatherings, the locals signed petitions to keep them out. A number of Juggalos recite this line — that no other band’s fans have been linked to criminal activity the way they have been — which always feels like a bit of a blind spot when it comes to how the criminalization of rap music is used as a tool against black men.
Kelly, and most of the other Juggalos here, are framing this as a civil rights issue, one that is emblematic of the larger erosion of personal freedom happening in the country. (Or, as one of the speakers will say later on, “First they came for the Juggalos and I said nothing because I wasn’t a Juggalo … yadda, yadda, yadda.” His hair is dyed green and spiked out like Lady Liberty herself.) Kelly attended the Women’s March and has marched for gay rights, says she has family members who were involved in the Stonewall riots, supports DACA, and voted for Hillary Clinton. This has been a big year for her and her activism. “I wanted to come to Washington for a while and protest something. When they announced this, a year and a half ago in the beginning stages, I was on board from the get-go,” she says. “Look at it this way: If we don’t stand up for us right now, who’s going to be next? Are you next?”
It seems that the Juggalos — and Juggalettes — are aware that all of this is a little absurd. They gleefully refer to themselves as weird and as outcasts, and the clown iconography seems like another self-aware way to lean into feeling like a misfit. They’re singing songs about comically impossible violence, chanting “I-C-P” (which, I remind a few people, sounds like they’re screaming “I see pee,” which only makes them laugh along with me), and so many of them have soul patches it’s useless to count. But the Juggalos feel that such behavior is the core of freedom of speech — you should be allowed to do these things and not be targeted by the police or by the FBI for foggy reasons. (Though the FBI did list the Juggalos as gang-affiliated in its 2011 report, they haven’t been listed since. In a written statement to BuzzFeed News, an FBI spokesperson said, “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.”) All the Juggalos want is a little awareness for their cause, to prove that they’re not dangerous, and maybe an apology from the US government for a six-year-old FBI report. Two out of three isn’t bad.
While I watch Kelly put more stickers on her poster, glossy little hearts around the “Juggalo,” a redheaded man in a red T-shirt and basketball shorts runs through the crowds screaming “HUG” and grabbing people into fierce embraces. Another Juggalo sees him doing this and yells back, “Go fuck yourself — I want a hug!” They hug very hard, one of them dropping his cigarette and the other one spraying orange soda on everyone in the vicinity.
Of the handful of speakers at the march, the most striking is Solana Patterson-Ramos, a 29-year-old black Puerto Rican woman who works as an educator, activist, and haunted house employee in Milwaukee. Pinned to her blazer are two buttons: a Black Lives Matter pin and a Hatchetman with the words “Equal Rights” on top. Her speech, unlike the others, deals directly with race. The crowd is mostly white, but it’s more diverse than you might suspect: There are a few people of color, plenty of queer-identifying folks, and a number of people with disabilities.
In her speech, Patterson-Ramos talks about how hard it is to be a weird black girl, and begs people who misunderstand Juggalos to just approach one and ask them some questions. “Come ask me! I’m an educator!” she says. “Come ask me about Juggalos. Come ask me about Black Lives Matter. Come ask me about black Juggalos. Come ask me about Puerto Ricans, about geeks.”
But she seems to lose the crowd briefly when she pleads with them to stop ripping off Black Lives Matter in their signage, ones that say “Juggalo Lives Matter” or, worse, “Don’t Shoot,” as if being a clown and being black in America share an equivalency. “We shouldn’t co-opt each other's revolutions,” she says. She says someone in the crowd called her a racist.
While Patterson-Ramos is shushing the crowd and trying to get them to listen to her, I’m looking for Aaron Deeds. Deeds and I spoke weeks before the rally; he’s a 31-year-old software engineer from Dublin, Georgia, a longtime ICP fan who also manages the @JuggaloPage on Facebook, which has nearly 70,000 likes. “It’s hard to explain exactly what a Juggalo is,” he told me over the phone three weeks before the march. “It’s more about the community that we have, to know that there’s people out there from really down, impoverished areas. We don’t feel comfortable in our own skin, that kind of thing. It’s a fight to be you without being judged.”
Deeds thinks the FBI has targeted the Juggalos as a way to criminalize poverty, since so many of ICP’s fans are poor, lonely kids who just wanted to build a community for themselves. “I’ve been a Juggalo since I was 14. I got ICP tattooed on my arm when I was 15. The entire time we’ve always been treated as this underdog, this white trash. This label gets thrown on us immediately and there’s no evidence behind it,” he says. “Of course there’s going to be some white trash people who are Juggalos, but not everybody’s like that. There’s black Juggalos, white Juggalos, Mexican Juggalos. If you feel like you’re a Juggalo, then you’re a Juggalo.” Deeds admits to having had a pretty rough childhood. He grew up poor with a father with alcoholism and a mother who was addicted to drugs, neither of whom were very present in his life. It’s clear that being a Juggalo is about more than just music for him — and so many other people here. It’s a lifeline in a very real way. “I honestly feel like it saved my life,” he says. “I had no one. I was alone and afraid. Juggalos were there for me when I needed them.”
The day of the rally, Deeds agrees to meet me in person, which actually seems like a great feat for him. Despite the bravado he displays when he talks about his Facebook page — how many pageviews, how much reach — he’s terribly shy and often refers to himself as a “loner.” Even in the world of Juggalos, this is an oddity: Everyone here is a part of a community, and no one seems to stand alone for long. But when I find Deeds, dressed in all black with a white towel around his neck to mop up sweat from a sweltering day, he’s alone. He ends up acting as my informal guide for the day. “Have you done your first ‘whoop whoop’?” he asks. I haven’t. “Fair enough. You have to earn it.”
Deeds did a surprising amount of research on me before we met. After we first got in touch, he bought my essay collection and read it twice, and was quickly able to recite details of my own life back to me. (He posted a photo of my book on his personal Facebook page with the caption “Deep research is deep.”) He knows plenty about my history and my family and my feelings about things like Black Lives Matter (good) and white privilege (bad). He gets uneasy when I talk about race — namely when I refer to him as white, even though he is, indeed, white. “I can see that you have this filter of being a brown woman. I don’t see you as a brown woman, I just see you as a woman,” he says. “I don’t feel like you’re less than me or more than me, I just feel like we’re equally human.”
Deeds talks often about this idea of there being “a few bad apples” among the Juggalos, the ones who maybe do have gang affiliation and have ruined the community for everyone else. Sure, there’s the ninja who cut his friend’s pinkie off and drank her blood, but that’s hardly a representative sample group. Besides, the real bad apples aren’t gang members, they’re the same bad apples who cause problems in plenty of activist communities — who struggle with intersectionality, with giving equal weight to marginalized voices, in and out of their movement.
Like members of movements before it (the Women’s March comes to mind), some of the most vocal Juggalos don’t know how to weave race, gender, and sexual orientation into their activism as an underrepresented group. It can be a challenge at times to explain to some here why being a black Juggalo might be even harder, or why other social movements like Black Lives Matter are important to other people the same way the Juggalo March is important to them. No matter the economic or social disadvantages the majority of the protesters here have, they are still predominantly white, and predominantly male. They still struggle with understanding why that matters.
The Juggalos have gotten a lot of media attention in the last few weeks, first because their movement seemed outwardly ridiculous — clowns! Washington! What’ll the writers think of next? — and later because their fight seemed like a legitimate freedom-of-speech issue. Both of these angles might be true, but we should actually be paying attention because their dynamics are so emblematic of other social and political movements before them. White feminism is often criticized for this exact thing, the inability to bring in other, also marginalized voices to further contextualize how, say, being a black woman comes with its own specific kind of oppression. Juggalos often talk about not caring about anyone’s gender or ethnic identity, how they’re welcoming to all, but moments like the crowd souring on Patterson-Ramos are emblematic of the limits of color blindness.
Offstage, Patterson-Ramos tells me that she spoke to Psychopathic Records to discourage them from using “Juggalo Lives Matter” themselves. “People of color — we can take off all the Juggalo stuff, we’ll still get harassed for something,” she says. Still, she sees this rally as important because it’s part of a bigger battle. “If I don’t fight for this, but I’m just going to fight for Black Lives Matter, I’m not doing my job. Just like some people are in Black Lives Matter but they don’t really talk about LGBT black people. That’s not really fighting for equal rights in the world. If you’re really about helping the world, then you’ll be helping every group that you can.”
Patterson-Ramos knows that there are a lot of Juggalos who don’t understand the importance of intersectionality in any given political movement, but she’s still pleased to see so many people speaking out. “This is the biggest mostly-white-people march against police harassment I’ve ever seen,” she said. Which, if true, only suggests that white people need to be better about standing with black people in their dissent. The Juggalos are a surprisingly powerful force, united when they want to be, with an inherent privilege that could protect them and others in public spaces. Imagine Black Lives Matter getting the support of thousands of white men from rural America — dressed as clowns or not — standing in physical solidarity with black people fighting for their lives.
The Juggalos seem to want to be woke, to be considered a legitimate civil rights movement, to get some respect — if not for their musical tastes, then at least for their freedom of expression. But a lot of the ones I speak to tend to shut down when challenged on the misogyny in their music, the way black and brown Juggalos are treated among the family, or the claims that the Gatherings have become increasingly hostile toward women. (Kelly herself says the later Gatherings have been more violent toward women, and she’s noticed Juggalos getting in more physical altercations with Juggalettes. “We’re taking it back, though,” she says.)
The Juggalo movement as a whole is hard to define. They aren’t all completely ridiculous the way so much of the mainstream has labeled them; they aren’t all dangerous the way certain law enforcement has defined them; and they’re not all the peace-loving beatniks they believe themselves to be. They manage to be all things at once, which is why it’s so easy to support their cause while simultaneously considering them disorderly and bizarre.
But their intersectionality hasn’t been a total failure, even if it’s improving very slowly, like with most political movements. After her speech, countless people pull Patterson-Ramos in for a hug, telling her that she’s amazing, that she used her voice. The white guy with hair like the Statue of Liberty gives her his Hatchetman pin, the one he has on his lanyard: “It was gifted to me, and I’ll gift it to you.”
The day is long, filled with speeches and marching and one instance where a man named Flip Flop politely asks to lick my feet, and I am forced, for the first time in my life, to say, “Please do not lick my feet.” (A few days after the march, Deeds emailed me a kind of postmortem. “I really enjoyed how you handled Flip Flop The Clown,” he said. “I got his attention and had him come mess with you just to see how you would handle it.” Apparently, I passed the test.)
The rally ends late in the evening with a performance by Insane Clown Posse. Initially intended to be a free two-day concert in DC, ICP had to change plans and perform only once at the march because they say no concert venues would have them because of their gang label. “The facility has revoked the dates reserved by Psychopathic Records last July to hold the free Juggalo March concert,” Psychopathic Records said in a statement. “When Psychopathic attempted to schedule the concert on a different date, they were flatly told that they would NEVER be allowed to book a show at the venue on any date, presumably due to unwarrented [sic] fears of Juggalos.”
What’s clear to me by the time their concert starts is that the only real crime of the Juggalos — if any — is that their taste in music is terrible. By my metric, which I personally consider pretty reasonable, Insane Clown Posse is unlistenable, their songs largely about murdering people with axes, pulling on a woman’s boobs like putty — have any of them seen boobs? — violent misogyny, and buttholes. (Sizes of buttholes, creating buttholes, things happening to and from buttholes.) Some of their music does have a social justice slant (“My axe is my buddy, we right planets’ wrongs / Me and my axe leave bigots dead on richy lawns”), but it tends to be overshadowed by how much of it is about punishing women for perceived sexual misdeeds — largely cheating — usually by murdering them. “Our Hero” is about a man who breaks out of a psychiatric hospital when he finds out his girlfriend is cheating: “He plans to kill her, but he hasn't had any sex himself in over three years.” He slits her throat and and then pins the murder on her lover, who is then sent to death row. People keep telling me songs like these are a joke, but who’s laughing? A lot of stans make allowances or excuses for the problematic nature of their preferred artists' musical content, but it’s tough to justify “I’d order you a drink and stir it with my dick / And then to get your attention in the crowded place / I’d simply walk up and stick my nuts in your face.”
In terms of cultural offensiveness, their music lands somewhere between the condescending blandness of white rappers like Iggy Azalea or Lil Debbie — ICP winning points only because they don’t affect a blaccent — and the sound your stomach makes after you eat gas station meatloaf, a preamble to a far worse fate in, oh, let’s say 45 minutes. Making fun of Juggalos for their clown iconography, for their whoop-whoop greetings, for calling each other ninjas, is boring because it’s not the worst thing about them: The worst thing is that their music could be used as torture.
Deeds and I watch their concert far behind the crowd — it’s still so ear-splittingly loud we can barely hear each other. He explains more about whatever mess is happening onstage without my even having to ask: ICP and their fans are obsessed with Faygo because it’s an affordable soda, one that most of these kids grew up drinking in their rural or depressed hometowns because they couldn’t get name brands. Deeds gives off little whoops as we watch and it’s deeply infectious, even if I find the music to be tuneless, sexist noise. I get perilously close to giving up a whoop of my own; I sorely want to join in, but I just can’t commit. I feel a whoop whoop in my heart, but not out loud, and not as loudly and gloriously as all these ninjas. I just haven’t earned it.
ICP’s backup dancers start dumping literal buckets of Faygo on the crowd, followed by chicken feathers during the song “Chicken Huntin’.” (Chickens are racist rednecks, says Deeds, making the song about murdering racists.) During the last song, the entire stage is rushed by soda-soaked Juggalos, the support beams shaking, and yet nothing is being destroyed. I’ve never seen any other event that creeps so close to total destruction without actually breaking a single thing. ●