One of the few true countercultures left in the shadow of an ever more pervasive monoculture, Juggalos have long fought police prejudice and social ostracization. Like their beverage of choice, Faygo, alienation runs in their blood. That fight continues today, taking on fresh clown paint amid a changing drug culture and the aftermath of a wacky FBI investigation.
Insane Clown Posse (ICP), the underground hip-hop duo from the dregs of postindustrial Detroit, boasts a massive following in low-income rural communities across the United States. Once a year, thousands of the ICP devotees, known as Juggalos, swarm an unassuming Midwest locale for the four-day bacchanale known as the Gathering of the Juggalos. They come for “the Family” — the term for the Juggalo collective — for drugs, and especially for the music.
These gatherings have often been met with heavy-handed shows of police force; police in at least twenty-one states have postulated the existence of fictional Juggalo gangs. The Juggalos have even been targeted by federal police enforcement, under frameworks established by anti-communist laws passed during the hysteria of McCarthyism. Despite suffering — like many lower-income communities, especially in rural America — from the blight of drug addiction and overdose, their real crime seems to be their existence as a very visible subculture of poor and working people.
In Good Company
At the third Gathering of the Juggalos in 2002, riot police lobbed tear gas through the halls of the Peoria Civic Center in Peoria, Illinois, in an attempt to clear crowds of the hip-hop fans. The 2008 Gathering at Hogrock in Illinois saw twenty-two arrests and almost four hundred vehicular tickets issued, while the “Soopa Gathering” of 2019 saw almost eighty arrests by local police.
At 2006, 2009, and 2014 Gatherings, police donned riot gear ahead of planned tactical actions under the guise of mass drug enforcement, according to Juggalos and Gathering media. Meanwhile, police at “upscale” music festivals like Coachella, Firefly, Burning Man, or even Lollapalooza — where illegal drugs are also, of course, abundant — wouldn’t be caught dead in riot helmets.
Eventually federal law enforcement took an interest in the wicked clowns. In 2011, the FBI labeled the Juggalo musical fandom a “hybrid gang” and launched a federal investigation into the group spanning all fifty states. This was when Juggalos, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union, first became aware of the federal law enforcement campaign being mounted against them.
Juggalos may not know that they have joined the ranks of many loosely organized groups tracked by the US government since the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950, also known as the “Concentration Camp Law,” passed over Harry Truman’s veto at the height of the second Red Scare. The act established the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB), a federal agency designed to monitor and investigate left-leaning government employees.
Officially, this initiative was touted as a security measure for the Department of Defense. It involved the Department of Justice and therefore the FBI, however, in a provision that required communist organizations to register with then attorney general James Howard McGrath (though none did voluntarily). For its part, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover took a keen interest in investigation standards set by the act, which opened the door to federal investigations of groups based on ideology alone. It was open season on individual citizens, meanwhile, as investigations were authorized based on loose affiliations with such ideological groups. Ties to labor organizations, student movements, and political parties were — and still are — enough to find your name stamped on a manila envelope in the belly of an FBI filing cabinet.
The SACB was abolished in 1972, but the damage was already done — Congress had set the standard for military and federal law enforcement agencies, who continue to use the act, officially known as Security Act 50 U.S.C. § 797, as a framework for group surveillance to this day.
And if state investigations of the Left were a farce, the investigation into Juggalos was a clown show.
In recent years, a large dossier on the now-abandoned investigation has been unclassified. The ultimately fruitless 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment linked Juggalos to a number of nonviolent crimes such as narcotics possession and graffiti. Almost half the dossier is dedicated to reports of “Juggalo gang action” perpetrated by groups as small as three — though most alleged gang crime was carried out by a lone actor. Perpetrators become “button men” based on loose associations, while Juggalo friends become “shot callers.” Those Juggalos who have engaged in physical violence are mostly those who are also members of actual gangs, like the Crips or the Aryan Brotherhood.
One such “Juggalo gang member,” Daniel Crawford of Carson City, Nevada, was arrested in 2011 for selling marijuana to a confidential informant. Crawford admitted to tax-funded detectives that he had sold weed to at least twenty-five people, but the count might be as high as fifty. This ranks the ICP fan among the lower rungs of drug dealers who worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
More astute investigators might see a pattern in these reports — that the Juggalos are no gang at all. Instead the dossier ups the stakes, with a statement, for example, that “the Juggalos are in a type of gang war in California with the MS-13 gang and are holding their own against them.” Sensationalist reports within the dossier cite such reputable sources as StreetGangs.com and Encyclopedia Dramatica.
The Plight of the Juggalo
The 2011 report is a silly example of the lengths the FBI will go to pitch a circus where none exists. But the FBI classification has caused significant harm to those who call themselves Juggalos — this, while arguably more more deserving fandoms go undisturbed.
Juggalos have been harassed by police and denied enlistment in the Army. They lose custody battles and jobs on the basis of their cultural affiliation. Cars with hatchetman decals — the ichthys symbol of ICP’s record label, Psychopathic Records — are common targets for traffic stops, thanks in part to the Threat Assessment dossier, which tasks local police with “interviewing” as many Juggalos as possible for the sake of gathering intelligence, resulting in circumstantial arrests and citations.
At this year’s Gathering, Jacobin spoke to a number of Juggalos about the consequences of law enforcement discrimination. (Some names have been changed to preserve anonymity.)
One Juggalo who has been affected is Carmen, a drug dealer from Baltimore. Carmen, thirty-seven, spends the summer living out of her 2004 GMC Envoy, tricked out with decals and gems and cards from triumphant hands of poker. By day she sells cocaine, a trade she picked up in the Baltimore suburbs when she was seventeen; by night she is a Juggalo. The first Gathering she attended was the first ever in 2000 — labeled a riot by Detroit police and press alike. This is the only life she’s known.
In 2023, Carmen sat through the stifling Ohio heat to enjoy the Gathering lineup from the parking lot. Financial troubles stemming from drug addiction and law enforcement crackdowns on cocaine dealing meant that she could not afford the $250 four-day pass. Though the outside of her car boasts more decals than empty space, she doesn’t dare risk declaring her Juggalo heritage with hatchetmen or wicked clowns.
A quarter of a mile away inside the festival grounds, police from the Licking County Sheriff’s Department ride two abreast in UTVs past stalls selling all things wicked: from LSD and DMT to crack pipes and coke. They’re here, security personnel told me, to prevent violence and make sure nobody dies — a big departure from the law enforcement ethos of Gathering’s past.
Carmen’s current goal is to get off the street and find a job in trauma counseling, a dream made difficult by her rap sheet and the alleged gang affiliation evidenced by the hatchetman tattooed on her arm. “I just want to help people and give like I never got. It’s all about love.”
Asked what she wishes outsiders could understand about Juggalos, Carmen replied: “[That] we’re really just nonviolent hippies, like we’re Deadheads — except we’re poor.”
Like many less affluent Americans, especially the rural poor, substance use disorder dogs the Juggalo community. This does not make them any more deserving of targeting by law enforcement than, say, cocaine-addled Dimes Square acolytes, or revelers at music festivals where designer drugs are rampant.
The Gathering is a well-regulated mecca of drugs and backyard stunts. When one well-known Juggalo named Derek Brown died of an alleged fentanyl overdose at the 2023 Gathering, Juggalos wasted no time tracking down every known drug dealer and testing their supply. One video obtained by Jacobin shows Juggalos berating an alleged fentanyl dealer as eight sheriff’s deputies make an arrest. Fentanyl panic, sure — but also a well-intentioned display of clown solidarity.
Meanwhile, volunteers like Bobbi Ann put in shifts at Wicked Clowns Harm Reduction sites. It was Bobbi’s third year of handing out supplies like fentanyl tests and Narcan to other Juggalos. The group has never been officially recognized by either festival organizers or police, despite having at least nine harm reduction checkpoints across the 230-acre site.
According to Bobbi, “We ended up giving a lot of our Narcan out to the security so they would have it on them. . . . We passed out about 440 double packs of nasal naloxone and probably close to two thousand fentanyl test strips.” Bobbi says that a handful of Juggalos were saved with their Narcan, a wicked victory for a volunteer group vying for community recognition and financial aid. Wicked Clowns Harm Reduction hopes to organize as a 501(c)3 before next year’s gathering.
The Juggalos’ struggles with discrimination and overpolicing are representative of the larger crises affecting poor people across the United States. But Juggalos don’t ask for pity, and they don’t pity themselves. The Juggalo Family fights alienation and builds community through a celebration of culture. That is the lesson the clowns teach us: that in the face of adversity, solidarity and mutual aid are essential.