You may have heard the news–or at least the joke: there were more clowns than usual in the nation’s capital over the weekend. As Newsweek reported, “Among the thousands of protesters who took to the streets of Washington DC Saturday, some certainly did not look like your average demonstrators. Dressed in creepy clown garb and some sporting punk haircuts, approximately 1,000 demonstrators grabbed the attention of passers-by as they gathered north of the Washington Monument then marched to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.”
So what’s going on?
In the world of hip hop music the best-known clowns are also the most infamous ones: Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, the clown-clad duo comprising the horrorcore (a rap / metal fusion genre) group Insane Clown Posse (ICP). Their stylized logo is a silhouette (seemingly of a crazed clown) running with a meat cleaver.
As it happens I have some experience and background knowledge of the issue, having attended a Faygo-soaked ICP show and written about the controversy in my book Bad Clowns. They have released about a dozen studio albums since their formation in 1989. Their song lyrics often contain depictions of graphic murder, drug deals, violent revenge, and so on. This theme is of course not new; in 1955 country music legend Johnny Cash sang that he “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” and thirty years later gangster rappers such as Ice-T, Eazy-E, and NWA would sing first-person songs about killings and street vengeance (later to be inducted into the Hall of Fame). The difference is that this time it’s popular clowns singing the songs.
Fans of the Insane Clown Posse, called Juggalos, have been labeled a criminal organization. A 2011 report from the National Gang Intelligence Center, part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, identified Juggalos as a violent gang. The report reads in part, “The Juggalos, a loosely-organized hybrid gang, are rapidly expanding into many U.S. communities. Although recognized as a gang in only four states [Arizona, California, Pennsylvania, and Utah], many Juggalos subsets exhibit gang-like behavior and engage in criminal activity and violence. Law enforcement officials in at least 21 states have identified criminal Juggalo sub-sets…. Most crimes committed by Juggalos are sporadic, disorganized, individualistic, and often involve simple assault, personal drug use and possession, petty theft, and vandalism. However, open source reporting suggests that a small number of Juggalos are forming more organized subsets and engaging in more gang-like criminal activity, such as felony assaults, thefts, robberies, and drug sales. Social networking websites are a popular conveyance for Juggalo sub-culture to communicate and expand.”
The FBI argument seemed to be that-like magnets (however they work)–Juggalos inevitably attract crime. As evidence of their inherent criminal tendencies, the report notes that “In January 2011, a suspected Juggalo member shot and wounded a couple in King County, Washington,” and a year before that “two suspected Juggalo associates were charged with beating and robbing an elderly homeless man.” Just to drive the point home–and in an effort to make the Juggalos seem as dangerous as possible–the report includes a photo of facepainted Juggalo woman pointing a gun.
The premise underlying the supposed culture of violence in the Juggalo community rested on a handful of “suspected” Juggalos who were charged with committing violent crimes. Out of the tens of thousands of Juggalos around the word, and the millions of people who regularly listen to the music of Insane Clown Posse but do not self-identify as hardcore Juggalos, there have been a few who have committed serious crimes. Records are of course not kept of the number of crimes committed by fans of other musical groups-asking a suspect’s favorite music is not standard police booking procedure-thus there’s no way to know how many fans of Ronnie James Dio, Neil Diamond, or Katy Perry may have also committed similar crimes (or been suspected of them).
Under what definition might Juggalos qualify as a criminal “street gang”? Well, Title 18 U.S.C. Section 521(a)(A) “defines criminal street gangs as ongoing groups, clubs, organizations, or associations of five or more individuals that have as one of their primary purposes the commission of one or more criminal offenses.” Using this broad a definition, it’s hardly surprising that a group of five or more Juggalos somewhere might join up to commit a crime, but tarring all Juggalos as de facto criminals paints with a broad brush indeed. In early 2014 the group, with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit against the FBI challenging its designation of their fans as criminals. It was dismissed by a federal judge in July 2014, who ruled that the FBI’s designation of Juggalos as a gang was descriptive, not prescriptive-that is, the music fans could technically be described as a gang under Title 18 definitions, but that the FBI report did not state that all Juggalos were by definition criminals or gang members.
According to Jon Ronson (author of The Men Who Stare at Goats and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) writing for The Guardian newspaper in 2010, Insane Clown Posse is, despite a notorious reputation for its over the top songs about violence and misogyny that’s gotten them banned, actually a devoutly Christian group. Ronson noted that “Insane Clown Posse have this entire time secretly been evangelical Christians. They’ve only been pretending to be brutal and sadistic to trick their fans into believing in God…. While some fans claimed they’d actually had an inkling, having deciphered some of the hidden messages in several songs, others said they felt deeply betrayed and outraged: they’d been innocently enjoying all those songs about chopping people up and shooting women, and it was Christian rock?” Regardless of whether the Insane Clown Posse promotes violence or subtly denounces it through clever satire, their legacy in the history of evil clowns is undeniable.