Class Clowns

Juggalos are marching on Washington tomorrow — and the Left should support them.

An Insane Clown Posse concert earlier this summer. insaneninja / Flickr

When the news broke last month that the “alt-right” America First Patriot Rally would occur on the same day, in the same place, as the Juggalo March on Washington, the Internet responded as it often does: with a torrent of memes.

Insane Clown Posse fans were shown battling, and easily defeating, Pepe the Frog. They were imagined into the mythology of Lord of the Rings. Their iconic face paint was splashed across the visages of Lenin, Engels, and Marx. No longer were they the Juggalos we mocked — they were the Struggalos we needed.

That one of the most ridiculed music fandoms could become progressive protagonists in a serious political battle does, admittedly, sound like the punch line to a bad joke. In a year that has so consistently challenged the boundary between satire and reality, Juggalos marching against white supremacy is easily up there with Mike Pence claiming Marco Rubio dared him to touch sensitive NASA equipment.

But despite the ridiculous visuals and silly puns, the reality is far from comical. In 2011, the FBI officially designated Juggalos a gang, including them in a report alongside the likes of the Aryan Brotherhood. Tomorrow’s march is an organized effort to protest that label.

Though on a wildly different register than the March on Washington or the Stonewall Riots, the Juggalos’ day of action nevertheless represents a demand for recognition and equality. A mostly impoverished community will gather in the nation’s capital to wave their middle fingers at a system of power that has pushed them to the margins of society, then targeted them for managing to survive.

Seen in this light, the Juggalo March transcends the ready-memed spectacle of face-painted weirdos shouting “whoop-whoop” in a street fight with alt-right idiots. Instead, the demonstration’s participants come into view as a community worth defending — and perhaps even an exemplar, however unlikely, of class solidarity.

The Juggalo Mythos

Based out of Detroit, Insane Clown Posse (ICP) have built a fan base in the decaying towns and cities of the Rust Belt.

Their followers were the outcasts, misfits, and fuckups in high school, considered too ugly or freakish to sit at the cool kids’ table. They are the cashiers at Walmart and the servers at McDonald’s, spectacles of misfortune either ignored or blithely exploited for cheap laughs. They live a life of menial labor that elite ideology insists they deserve.

Many liberals, who would blanche at the use of racial slurs, are nevertheless quick to call them rednecks or trailer trash — undesirable miscreants at best, socially backwards adversaries at worst. But, if we bracket their hatchet-wielding, face-painting, Faygo-spraying theatrics  —  and any other cultural trappings that allow so many outsiders to feel smugly superior to ICP’s acolytes  — we are left with a working-class community acutely aware of, and actively resisting, its profound alienation and social rejection.

Much of this understanding stems from the way Insane Clown Posse express class struggle in their music. Despite the group’s elaborate mythology and over-the-top performances, the duo manages to honestly reflect social marginalization, no doubt thanks to their own backgrounds.

Both Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope grew up extremely poor, dropped out of high school, and struggled to find some semblance of dignity in a declining industrial city. Whereas many contemporary musicians fake class consciousness by dressing the part and aestheticizing poverty, ICP have constructed an elaborate narrative that embraces horror, fantasy, and sexual deviance to articulate the ugliness of class exploitation.

As Drew Millard explained earlier this year in Vice:

[W]ithin the downtrodden, post-industrial milieu of [Detroit], there was (and remains) real economic pain. In turn, that leads to social pain, which then leads to Insane Clown Posse, who rap about inflicting that pain upon others as a way of communicating what they themselves feel. There is no point in offering social commentary when your audience has all the same problems that you do; it’s much more cathartic to rap about dressing up like a clown and eating someone’s head (“Ghetto Freak Show”), putting the word “fuck” before a bunch of nouns (“Fuck the World”), or announcing that your balls are so gross that insects flock to them (“Bugz on My Nutz”).

While Millard doesn’t mention it, ICP also rap about their hatred of racists, rich charlatans, and misogynists. “Don’t like bigots and richie boy fucks,” they sing on The Amazing Jeckel Brothers, and earlier albums find them hunting down wife-beaters for sport. Their songs elevate all the taboos authority figures taught us to avoid.

I speak from some experience. I discovered ICP in the mid-1990s, just as I was beginning to make sense of the divisions that structured my community. I grew up poor in a small city about ninety minutes south of Detroit, an area of Ohio that is a mixture of rural farmland and suburban sprawl. The class divides were, and remain, very stark. The oil industry’s presence produced a decent middle class that continues to thrive. But basically everyone else, including my family for much of my childhood, lives in trailer parks and working-class neighborhoods branded with an unspoken stigma. Class chauvinism assumes the form of small-town civility and manners: the impoverished and uneducated are treated as inferior because they wear the wrong clothes and don’t care about the football team.

ICP’s music gave me an aesthetic expression that matched my experience of class frustration and alienation. I liked that the Juggalo mythology, with its macabre humor and celebration of abnormality and failure, offended those who demanded compliance with bourgeois taste. Like most teenagers, I embraced deviant culture in order to rebel against those who wanted me to conform.

But Insane Clown Posse sit at the far edge of typical adolescent rebellion. Observers have derided Juggalos as vile and depraved, beyond the point of reform, lost causes that embody cultural decline and stupidity.

Aware of society’s opinion of them, Juggalos see themselves as part of a family that must look out for itself because no one else will. It’s a genuine community that accepts those who would otherwise be cast aside and allows the marginalized to express themselves without fear of ridicule. It’s sutured itself together through members’ shared understanding of their status as the dregs of society, a genuine example of class-consciousness that any socialist should admire.

Of course, the Juggalo community — not unlike many left organizations — suffers from its share of racism, sexism, and homophobia. This is not an ethereal subculture, untarnished by the oppressions of the broader society. But regardless of its foibles, the mythology the Juggalos have embraced captures, and facilitates resistance to, the exploitation that structures the lives of poor and working-class people.

The Insane Clown Posse’s horrific imagery evokes the wretchedness of life in postindustrial landscapes, where ugliness and decay exist alongside hopelessness and alienation. To rap about murdering racist hillbillies rather than using your body to make profits for the boss refuses these realities. Juggalos affirm that these broader structures of exploitation — and not any personal inadequacies — determined their failures, and ICP’s music replaces ugly desperation with acceptance and camaraderie.

The figure of the Juggalo, in other words, turns the shame of a damaged life into power.

The Juggalo March

The Juggalo community shows how effectively class can bring people together. Its members have constructed theatrical identities as ninjas and hatchet-wielding clowns determined to fight oppression — and have a good time in the process. Such playful imagery expresses the frustration any poor or marginalized person feels when attempting to resist the indifference and quiet violence of those in power.

This shared experience as impoverished outcasts fosters incredible solidarity, allowing them to organize against a common enemy: bigots, rich boys, the FBI. Tomorrow, they might add the alt-right, fascists, and dapper neo-Nazis to the list.

The Juggalo March on Washington presents the Left with an opportunity to start building a coalition that exchanges the battle of cultural authenticity for the battle against oppression.

You don’t have to like ICP’s music or understand why anyone would join their community of outcasts and freaks, but you can recognize that these young men and women have found themselves, after generations of structural inequality, at the margins of an economic system that has intentionally pushed them aside in order to maximize profit.

They did not turn on each other but instead came together, recognizing their shared interests. They have used this knowledge not just to throw a raucous yearly festival, but also to organize a march against a federal agency that stands for state violence.

And hey, if the idea of socialists linking arms with Juggalos still sounds absurd, perhaps a little ridiculousness  —  a clownish embrace  —  is exactly what we need in the age of Trump.

Pass the Faygo.

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Adam Theron-Lee Rensch is a PhD candidate in the English department at University of Illinois at Chicago. His writing often appears in the Guardian and the Brooklyn Rail, and he is currently finishing a book about the white working class.

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