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Juggalos and the Criminalization of Style

Members of the Insane Clown Posse and their fans have sued the FBI and DOJ for classifying them as a "hybrid gang." The struggle represents nothing less than a war on style.
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(Photo: Courtesy of the Insane Clown Posse)

(Photo: Courtesy of the Insane Clown Posse)

Mark Parsons feels such a kinship with the horrorcore Michigan-based rap duo Insane Clown Posse and its dedicated, tattooed fan base "of Faygo-swilling, facepaint-wearing Juggalo minions" that he operates a trucking firm called "Juggalo Express LLC," named after what he and most of his associates call "the family." He owns and drives a semi-truck emblazoned with the group's seminal and violent "hatchetman" logo.

Last summer, he and a company trainee were driving it along a stretch of interstate on the outskirts of Knoxville, Tennessee, when they were pulled over by a state trooper at a weigh station. The trooper demanded to know whether Parsons was a "Juggalo," a group he categorized as a "gang." Then, the officer detained Parsons, searched the truck, and questioned him "for about an hour." After discovering nothing, the officer released Parsons. No ticket or citation was issued, and the officer never indicated "any reasonable suspicion" for the search, besides the logo of Parsons' favorite band.

A new federal lawsuit filed against the FBI and Department of Justice this week by Parsons and three other Juggalos (all represented by the ACLU) along with the band members, Joseph Bruce and Joseph Utsler (known respectively as Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope), challenges the Juggalos' classification in the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment as a "loosely-organized hybrid gang" and outlines several other incidents of Juggalo profiling. The lawsuit argues that the group's criminalization has violated constitutional rights, including freedoms of expression, association, and due process. According to the lawsuit:

This gang designation has caused real harm to ordinary Juggalos from coast to coast. Defendants widely published the designation to state and local police agencies through an online law enforcement database, as well as through reports and other means. As a result, state and local police routinely stop, detain, interrogate, photograph and document people like Plaintiffs, who do not have any connections to gangs, because they have exercised their First Amendment rights to express their identity as Juggalos by displaying Juggalo symbols.

Those symbols include "distinctive tattoos," like the one above, of "Psychopathic Record art and icons;" clothing with similar markings; and clown face-paint. And though their music has been criticized as violent, misogynist, and racist by critics, the lawsuit maintains that the Juggalos are a peaceful group which is not interested in "engaging in criminal activity." For the record, the band has also publicly criticized racism and bigotry.

"Many Juggalos embrace 'Juggaloism' as a philosophy, an identity, and a way of life," the suit reads. "ICP’s lyrics, through their description of a “Dark Carnival,” address themes of good and evil, heaven and hell, and acceptance and tolerance of others. Juggalos follow these ethics and try to live by the moral code of the 'Carnival.' Many Juggalos also see themselves as social outcasts and look to one another for acceptance and support." They are also known to get raucously drunk and high at concerts and yell "Whoop Whoop!" with glee.

Though certain Juggalos have been involved in serious crimes, the suit argues that every group has its bad apples, and that it's "wrong to designate the entire group as a criminal gang based on the acts of a few." According to the FBI's assessment, the crimes they do commit are "sporadic, disorganized, [and] individualistic" and the "lack of structure within their groups, coupled with their transient nature, makes it difficult to classify them."

The band also seems to defy simple categorization. Its lyrics are certainly dark. Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope cake on make-up, scream, and spray soda in the faces of their adoring fans. As the Guardiannoted in 2010, they both also claim to be Christian. At one moment, they are "hating sluts." In the next, they praise God and name-drop miracles, like giraffes, rainbows, and elephants. And they can't stand science: "Fuckin' magnets, how do they work? / And I don't wanna talk to a scientist / Y'all motherfuckers lying and / getting me pissed."

It's all very weird and inappropriate, sure, but should the band's cadre of obsessives really be targeted as criminals?

Being categorized as different, or as an "other," when it comes to economics, religion, nationality, and race has long led to criminalization among authorities and the media: the poor, gypsies and immigrants, and young black men, just to name a few. But cultural preferences, too, can also be criminalized, as sociologist Jeff Ferrell noted in a 1995 paper in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture.

In the paper, Ferrell suggested revamping the way criminologists think about crime, and argued that cultural style is a key variable in the way it's constructed. "Various groups and events conventionally placed under the heading of 'culture' regularly suffer criminalization at the hands of moral entrepreneurs, legal and political authorities, and others," he wrote. "Further, the criminalization campaigns launched against various subcultures and subcultural activities themselves operate not only by constructing legal statutes and enforcement procedures, but by deploying mediated symbols and mobilizing powerful cultural references. To account for the culture and subcultures of crime, the criminalization of cultural and subcultural activities, and the politics of these processes, then, we must move toward an integration of cultural and criminological analysis -- that is, toward a cultural criminology."

Outlandish art and music, of the type the Juggalos embrace, can drive the very phenomenon Ferrell described. He noted that those associated with the Sex Pistols, N.W.A, and Florida rap group 2 Live Crew were also harassed. And the trend is not limited to the "low brow," either: think Robert Mapplethorpe and Jock Sturges, a photographer who was harassed by San Francisco police and the FBI for nude photos he captured of friends in France. 

Where Ferrell eventually stumbles is fascinating. The authorities have their own aesthetic, too, a certain banal idealism and sterility they wish to see rendered before them. If your style clashes with their mold—if you guzzle orange soda and celebrate the bizarre—you can easily be labeled an enemy in the eyes of power. He writes:

Legal and moral authorities operate within an "aesthetics of authority;" from inside a set of aesthetic assumptions and legal controls that define the beauty and desirability of "decent" public art, "clean" cities, and "appropriate" personal style, these authorities condemn and criminalize controversial art, street graffiti, homeless populations, and "tough looking" kids. And they do so not only because these identities and styles threaten legal or moral control as such, but because they undermine the stylistic certainty and aesthetic precision essential to the broader functioning of legal authority and social control. In this process of condemnation and criminalization, as we have seen, authorities are moreover able to mobilize their own powerful stylistic resources to reshape the public meaning of tough kids or disputed art. Style in this sense constitutes the turf over which young punks and old authorities, street corner toughs and street-wise cops, alternative artists and anti-obscenity campaigners battle. And as they engage in these aesthetic turf wars, the combatants continually negotiate the boundaries of culture and crime.

The wars will certainly continue. And in this case, Insane Clown Posse and the Juggalos seem determined to win.