The FBI’s classification of Juggalos as a gang should worry all Americans about the protection of their free speech.
As a reporter, I have interviewed many controversial Americans, from Mike “Bite Off His Opponent’s Ear” Tyson to literal Nazis, but my family and friends have only expressed concerned for my safety over my time with Juggalos. “Don’t die!” someone texts me every year before I travel to Thornville, Ohio, for the annual Gathering of the Juggalos. “Juggalos are dangerous!”
I always laugh at their hysteria. Sure, crazy shit goes down at the Gathering. Juggalos shot firecrackers off RVs last year. Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J ripped up scarecrows in 2015. And who can forget the year Ratchet Regi bathed in milk? But I’ve never seen a fight at the Gathering, and I have witnessed teenagers snort way more drugs at Ultra, an annual EDM festival sponsored by corporations like Uber and Heineken.
Since 2011, though, the FBI has classified Insane Clown Posse and their fans as gang members. The government’s decision turned Juggalo merch into gang symbols and led to profiling of Juggalos. At the Gathering, I’ve heard stories about Juggalos getting pulled over for his bumper sticker of a hatchet man, the logo for ICP’s record label Psychopathic Records, and people losing jobs over their love for ICP.
The attack on ICP is often an attack on what people view as symbols of white poverty. Many ICP fans call themselves “scrubs.” They grew up poor, like ICP. Violent J and Shaggy inverted symbols of poverty—Faygo, broken-down bikes, shitty clothes—and turned them into swagger. ICP helps people feel proud, and their affect has scared both the right and left. I’ve heard snooty, religious relatives blaspheme ICP for cursing and drinking Faygo, a drink they associate with the poor. The soda—yes, something as simple as a brand of soda—has also outraged New York Democrats, who I’ve heard refer to Juggalos as “trashy” and “dumb” for drinking Faygo and listening to “Miracles.”
The band’s critics often point to ICP’s violent lyrics as proof of their danger to society. They do rap about violence. It’s true, but many of their violent lyrics have a more complicated meaning. Take “Chicken Huntin’.” On first listen, the song sounds like an ode to murder rednecks, but as readers of Violent J’s memoir, Behind the Paint, know, Violent J experienced sexual abuse from a hillbilly as a child. Violent J raps about killing pedophiles as a means of expression, healing.
Violent J and Shaggy also do occasionally use murder as a comedic device. People may find the jokes offensive, but the First Amendment protects Americans’ rights to make jokes. All Americans should take seriously the FBI’s classification as a gang
based partially on offensive rap songs. Throughout American history, controversial artists like ICP have had to defend the right o Free Speech for all of us.
In 1988, for instance, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt won a Supreme Court case against televangelist Jerry Falwell. He had sued Flynt for parodying the preacher as a man who enjoyed sex with his mother. The case sounded ridiculous, but the Court ruled in Flynt’s favor, setting a precedent for writers to parody public figures—a ruling that can now be used to defend comics who mock Donald Trump, a president-elect who has discussed curbing writer’s free speech.
On September 16, Juggalos will descend on Washington DC to march and protest the FBI. All Americans should join them. The FBI’s attack on the Juggalos is about more than the right to wear face paint, a rock a Hatchetman tat, and spray Faygo. It’s about the right to say what you want to say when you say it, because if the FBI takes away people’s right to wear clown makeup and sing-a-long to “Chicken Huntin’,” who knows who they will persecute next.
Mitchell Sunderland is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE Media. He has written profiles of Insane Clown Posse, Mike Tyson, Paris Hilton, Ann Coulter, and many other celebrities. He lives in Los Angeles.