- Robert Nixon
Surrounded by a savvy legal team decked out in designer suits, Violent J, aka Joseph Bruce, approached a bouquet of microphones in early January and said, in full clown makeup, “People don’t take us serious.” The moment of deadpan humor aside, this was not the time for jokes.
With cameras snapping, the Insane Clown Posse and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan stood united at the press conference, the unlikeliest of couples. The media had been assembled to cover the announcement of a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU and ICP on behalf of the band’s fans — the Juggalos — against the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The lawsuit’s origins dated back to 2011, when, as part of the DOJ’s National Gang Threat Assessment, the FBI classified the Juggalos as a “loosely organized hybrid gang” based on nothing more than individual instances of crime. Whatever your personal opinion of the Insane Clown Posse and its fans (and opinions are often strong when it comes to these clowns), the classification was specious at best, especially when reading into exactly what “hybrid gang” means. The same blanket could be thrown over, say, Red Wings fans, folks who like fried chicken, or Bronies. Find enough individual crimes, find a common interest among the perpetrators, and — boom — you have yourself a hybrid gang. Juggalos just happen to be an easy target.
Bruce is not a man to take shit like this lying down. Though his speech is sloppy and bordering on inarticulate mumblings, none of that matters right now. He’s an imposing figure, even with the makeup. By his side is Shaggy 2 Dope, aka Joseph Utsler, a man who also possesses a menacing stare. The two of them, decked out in blue Juggalo sweatshirts, look just about as out of place as two men could look at a buttoned-up, official event like this. And yet they pull it off, for the most part anyway, because these crazy hoodlums are standing on the side of decency and what is right — a place, they say, they are not used to occupying.
“It’s time for the FBI to come to its senses and recognize that Juggalos are not a gang but a worldwide family united by the love of music,” said Bruce.
One paragraph of the FBI’s Gang Threat Assessment document describes hybrid gangs as “fluid in size and structure, yet tend to adopt similar characteristics of larger urban gangs, including their own identifiers, rules and recruiting methods.”
While the report says that crimes committed by Juggalos are, “sporadic, disorganized, individualistic and often involve simple assault, personal drug use and possession, petty theft and vandalism,” it also states that “Juggalos are forming more organized subsets and engaging in more gang-like criminal activity.”
The use of the word “subset” still suggests that a broad classification of all Juggalos as gang members is excessive. The lawsuit claims “that their constitutional rights to expression and association were violated when the U.S. government wrongly and arbitrarily classified the entire fan base as a ‘hybrid’ criminal gang.”
There’s surely more going on here than widespread, empty vilification of a music group’s fans based on taste and attire. Surely people are smart enough to know that individuals committing crimes in similar clothes does not a gang make. After all, the Juggalos are a massive group filled with decent people and those decent people are being unfairly targeted.
Brandon Bradley is a Juggalo from Sacramento, Calif. He flew in for the press conference. He’s not a crook and he’s not a thug. He tries, he says, to “live his life right.” And yet on three separate occasions, according to the complaint, Bradley has been stopped and interrogated by the police due to his personal desire to sport ICP clothing and tattoos. One instance saw Bradley pulled over for jaywalking and forced to pose for multiple photographs of his face, clothes and tattoos. He was let go without a ticket, but the punishment of undue humiliation had already been dished out. “I hate to think of the cars passing by, thinking that I’m a criminal,” he says.
He’s not the only one. Scott Gandy wanted to follow his family’s tradition and enlist in the military but, when the powers-that-be saw his “hatchet man” tattoos (the Psychopathic Records logo), he was denied the opportunity to serve his country. He paid out more than $800 to get the tattoos covered up, but his application was still denied.
Las Vegas-based truck driver Mark Parsons is originally from Detroit and he considers himself one of the original Juggalos, following ICP since the ’90s. With his shaved head and beard, he looks very much like the archetypal trucker. Parsons went so far as to name his own company Juggalo Express, decorating his rig with the hatchet man symbol. As a result, a Tennessee state trooper stopped and detained Parsons — the logo was associated with a gang, after all.
Asked whether he’d ever considered changing the name of his company to make his life easier, Parsons is defiant. “Absolutely not. It’s about the freedom to be who I am. I’m not so much taking a stand for myself as for everybody else,” he says. “Everybody needs a voice, everybody needs to be heard, so we need to do something to get the Juggalo family out of the shadows and into the light. Let them be proud of who they are and not try to hide it out of fear of retribution or harassment.”
Parsons, who had to shut his company down about a month ago and seek work as a truck driver for another firm, lost time and money because of these delays, but he’s determined not to change. “Hopefully [being removed from the gang list] will make things a little easier and take us off the radar of law enforcement, but if I’m not doing anything wrong out there, I don’t have to worry about that,” he says. “It’s more of an inconvenience for me, and for most of the others. I just wish more of the family would stand up and try to take the lead here, try to get us all back into a better light.”
Andrea Bonaventura has been listening to ICP for 10 years, and writing about them for various publications around town for much of that time. She was teased at school because of her admiration for the group, though the law hasn’t harassed her yet. The Hamtramck-based Juggalette thinks that it’s ludicrous that her people have been classified as a gang, although she can see why people on the outside looking in might get confused.
“I feel like the Juggalos are one of the more rowdy fan bases,” she says. “I feel like ICP has been really big on saying that the Juggalos are part of a big family, and that’s maybe where people are confused. Juggalos will chant things at shows like, ‘FA-MI-LY, FA-MI-LY.’ So I guess I can see why people might get confused, but they’re really not a gang. They’re just a bunch of lower-middle class kids. They get rowdy at concerts maybe more than other fans, but I definitely don’t understand why they’ve singled out ICP’s fans to do this to.”
Bonaventura’s confusion is entirely understandable, but sympathy from the pubic will likely be limited — it’s far too common and easy to paint regular, blue-collar folks with the white-trash brush. Fortunately, they have the right people standing with them.
“To paint the Juggalos as a whole is arbitrary and unconstitutional,” says Saura Sahu, an attorney with Detroit-based Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, a firm acting on behalf of the Juggalos. “These people have trouble applying for a job. We want to overturn the excessive and over-broad gang designation. They want to win the right to be left alone. Juggalos are fighting for the right to be themselves. The FBI wants to demonize the entire group, and they should have solid evidence that it’s a criminal organization before doing so.”
Speaking at the press conference, Michael Steinberg, legal director at the ACLU, said, “The ACLU has always stood up for unpopular groups, religious groups, and racial minorities. Targeting the Juggalos is similarly unconstitutional.”
Of course, he’s right. This isn’t about personal taste, or closely held opinions about the intelligence of Juggalos. This isn’t a class war, and it’s not an excuse to sling mud. Cynics might think that this is a cleverly spun publicity stunt on behalf of the clowns, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The ACLU is a proud organization with a history of helping citizens in need. Those people care not about moving ICP merch.
This is about the freedom to listen to what you want, to wear what you want, and to gather with like-minded people, without the ever-present threat of police harassment.
To be brutally frank: The Insane Clown Posse has built an empire by keying into a previously undertapped demographic — unprivileged white kids. It’s a counterculture, looked down upon, and even frowned upon, by those outside of it. Some people reading this right now will be sneering and feeling superior — they never got tattoos, they listen to Black Eyed Peas, and they have other social groups — more respectable ones — to call their own. Perhaps because of that, the Juggalos will go to extremes to display their devotion to the “family,” wearing shirts emblazoned with the logos of ICP and others artists signed to the Psychopathic label and getting inked with tattoos of those same logos.
This is why ICP felt action needed to be taken. In August 2012, at the annual Gathering festival, the band announced that is was going to be suing the FBI. The following month, attorney firm Hertz Schram filed a complaint under the Freedom of Information Act, asking why the Juggalos had been designated a gang. They received back as much info as the FBI was willing to give — mainly articles from local newspapers around the country (a real deep-dive investigation there) — and saw nothing to justify the “gang” tag. When contacted by Metro Times, Detroit Media Coordinator Supervisory Special Agent David Porter declined to comment.
This case certainly is unusual, if not unique. While the Grateful Dead’s legion of loyal Deadheads were allegedly subjected to police harassment, they were never officially labeled a gang. Writing in the book Perspectives on the Grateful Dead: Critical Writings, Deadhead David L. Pelovitz quoted Gene Haislip, who headed LSD enforcement at the Drug Enforcement Agency, as saying, “We’ve opened a vein here … we’re going to mine it until this whole thing turns around,” referring to the targeting of cars sporting Grateful Dead stickers. Fast-forward to the Juggalos, and that targeting has simply been made official.
Bruce was visibly emotional throughout the press conference, on the verge of tears even. While the band is certainly the benefactor of the cash flow siphoned from the pockets of ICP’s legions of fans, the duo has a more emotional bond than most acts with their followers.
“It’s amazing to have all of these people help us,” he said. “We’ve sold millions of records, we have platinum and gold plaques hanging on our wall, but we’re clowns so we don’t count. I could tell you that merchandise sales have been cut in half since this happened, that chain record stores have dropped our merch.”
Bruce and Utsler know that their music is controversial and explicit, but they also correctly claim that they don’t cram it down anyone’s throats. “We don’t open for other bands,” said Bruce. “You don’t have to be subjected to us on TV when you’re waiting for your Justin Timberlake or Miley Cyrus video. We’re not on the radio. You have to find it yourself. It’s a private club.”
That’s a compelling point. The Insane Clown Posse and its Psychopathic Records label has been an underground, grass-roots organization since its inception two decades ago.
“Juggalos have been fired, denied housing, and subjected to searches, just for wearing a shirt,” said Bruce. “They’re punishing fans for listening to us, and that’s bullshit. We’ve been around for 20 years. Some people got a hatchet tattoo 15 years ago, when they were young. They might be dentists now, raising their family. They get stopped, the cop sees the tattoo, and suddenly they get put on the gang database. It’s insane.”
Two days after that press conference, Metro Times joined the Insane Clown Posse at the Psychopathic Records office in Farmington Hills. It’s a cool place; two beautiful English bulldogs greet visitors, as does Sugar Slam, aka Michelle Rapp, celebrity Juggalette and wife of Bruce. It’s more carnival than record label.
The Josephs are particularly chatty this afternoon, perhaps even more animated than usual, because they feel that the FBI is hitting below the belt by going after their fan base.
“You know what’s crazy about this?” asks Bruce. “It seems like this shit would happen in 19-fucking-50 or something. Here we are in 2014, and this crazy shit is happening. Really? The only reason the whole world ain’t up in arms is because it’s us. Clowns. ICP. Foul music. Everybody hates us anyway.”
“This is beyond anything that’s happened before,” Utsler adds. “Not just banning the music itself, but punishing the fans of the music for listening to it.”
Bruce takes the lead in conversation, while Utsler sits back a little. Bruce explains that they thought it was funny at first when they learned that the Juggalos had been added to the FBI’s gang list back in 2011. Cool, even. Soon though, the stories of police harassment started to roll in from the Juggalos. And then the group themselves inadvertently invoked the fury of the law.
“I never told nobody this, but one time when we were shooting the movie Big Money Rustlas out in California, we were on our way back to the hotel after shooting, and we got pulled over by a cop,” says Bruce. “The cop was totally harassing us over the Juggalo thing. I just thought this was one singular cop being a dick. But he was going to town. He was checking our tattoos, totally searching the car, tripping out over the face paint. We’re like, ‘Man we’re shooting a movie up the street.’ I didn’t know that shit was everywhere. So even we’ve experienced it. Luckily our records were clean.”
So the Insane Clown Posse understands what the Juggalos have been complaining about. These guys have lived it too. There are four plaintiffs on the lawsuit, plus the ICP guys, but countless other Juggalos have suffered because of the gang listing. Bruce and Utsler receive letters every day. “When we’re on the road doing shows and we do meet-and-greets beforehand, we hear stories upon stories, all with the same theme,” says Utsler. “They’re getting fucked with because they’re Juggalos. If not by the police, then by probation officers, child services, everybody. Just messing with people for being Juggalos, and that’s nuts.”
Bruce is overwhelmed that so many people are turning out to help a band widely considered to be the most hated in America. Only last year, GQ ranked ICP the worst rappers of all time. That distinction notwithstanding, ICP has sold millions of records, yet continues to be reviled and dismissed by the mainstream media. For these guys, to have people like the ACLU and a table full of lawyers on their side is an alien concept. People have ICP’s back, and they don’t really know how to react to that.
Here’s another thing too. Launching a record label is fairly easy in this day and age, but keeping it afloat after a couple of decades and making it profitable, thriving even — that’s the tricky part. How many people do you know who run an independent label and make even a dime? The two men of ICP are savvy businessmen. They know their audience, and they know how to sell product to that audience. Bruce doesn’t try to hide the fact that this ruling has hurt the band’s business.
“This is affecting us in a lot of ways,” Bruce says. “Not only is it affecting the Juggalos, but it’s fucked up our business. Our warehouse doesn’t sell what it used to no more because people are scared to wear the shit. Hot Topics don’t carry our shit no more. We used to be in the front window of Hot Topic. When Hot Topic was carrying our shirts, we were rivaling bands like Green Day in sales. They sell millions of records and we don’t even sell 200,000 these days. But our merchandise was on par with them because Juggalos wear the shit.”
Without a doubt, the band is hurting. Attendance at last summer’s Gathering was noticeably down, forcing a change of venue this year. It would be easy to be cynical and assume that this lawsuit is solely about business interests, but that’s not the case. It would also be naive to think that it has nothing to do with business. Of course it does — Bruce and Utsler work hard to make money out of Psychopathic Records.
If the ruling goes in their favor, then ICP will probably reap financial rewards. To ignore that fact would be silly. The Juggalos who already consider them legends will put them onto an even taller pedestal because the band went to bat for its people. They might be a joke to many, but those that they care about respect the group.
“This legacy means something to us, in our world,” Bruce says, later requesting that the band be photographed in a more serious light instead of doing the usual whoop-whoop poses. “Everything that we’ve done means something to us. If all of a sudden, the FBI comes along and says, ‘This is a gang,’ that totally wipes out everything that we’re about and everything that we’ve done, and it just shits on it all. We’re proud of what we’ve done, and if we don’t fight the FBI on this, we just accept it, that just shits over everything. ‘No, you don’t have fans, you don’t have respect. You’re just a big fucking fat gang, you’re no different than the white supremacists.’ How fucked up is that? Fuck that, we have to fight that. Even if it takes all our money and wipes us out, it’s very important.”
If the lawsuit is successful and the Juggalos are removed from the gang list, what differences will that make to the lives of the fans and the group? How will their lives be improved? Bruce and Utsler believe that the people who have been afraid to wear the shirts and display a sticker in the back window of their cars will immediately start waving the flag again. They believe that the family (or “fam”) will once again represent. Right now, far too many of those fans don’t want to risk jail for a shirt, an understandable mindset.
“If you get pulled over, maybe you always carry a little satchel of weed in your pocket,” says Bruce. “A lot of Americans do. You don’t want to get pulled over, so you take the sticker from your back window. I think if we get removed from the gang list, Juggalos are going to put two or three stickers in their back window and people are gonna wear that shit to school, to work and to the mall. Wear that shit in public again. We used to see a Hatchet man in the back window every day. Today, you don’t see any stickers in the back windows, not even at the Gathering.”
Perhaps a greater concern should be the very real notion that shit sticks. Even if this lawsuit goes the way of the Juggalos, the damage may have already been done. After all, racial profiling is illegal and immoral, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
“Before this even happened, Juggalos were discriminated against all the time anyway,” Utsler says. “But not like they are now, now that it’s official and they put a stamp on it. So it’ll probably return to what it used to be. You get hassled, but at least you’re not getting your head cracked open by the police.”
“Of course, we’re worried about that shit,” Bruce adds. “That shit is gonna happen. But at least the legacy will be free. Maybe it won’t happen for long, a couple of years or whatever. It’s like the Deadheads following the Grateful Dead. Eventually cops will just know that it’s not a gang. To think it’s a gang is so fucking ridiculous. Like there’s organized moves being made, we’re going for this neighborhood, and we’re shipping guns.”
Whatever the lazy, misguided reason that the Juggalos ended up on the gang list, there’s a very real sense that the haphazard file of newspaper clippings is nothing more than a physical manifestation of fear of a socioeconomic subset, not evidence of a larger hybrid gang.
“It’s because there are Juggalos out there committing crimes,” Bruce says. “When they pulled them over, everybody’s wearing the same shit, just like a gang. They’re all Juggalos. So the cop puts two and two together and says, ‘This is a gang.’ They’re not committing crimes in the name of Juggalos, for Juggalos, or because they’re Juggalos. They just happen to have their favorite band T-shirt on, and they’re committing crimes. Dolly Parton fans commit crimes. Our fans, they’re very devoted and very proud.”
Right now, with the lawsuit pending, the band is seriously out of pocket, having paid for hundreds of lawyer hours since 2011. The ACLU is now helping out, but the band has spent a lot of money already and will spend plenty more fighting the feds. But to these guys, it’s worth it. They are, they say, prepared to go broke over it.
“This could happen to anybody; that’s why it’s important that this shit don’t happen,” Bruce says. “It’s very important that we win this case, and even more important to us is that everybody knows we’re fighting it. We don’t mind if we’re the world’s most hated band. We’ve been facing that forever. When you attack our fan base, that’s different.”
Utsler sits forward and asks, “If we just took it up the ass, who knows who it could happen to next?”
And that is a very sobering thought indeed.