Without Insane Clown Posse and their fan base, the Juggalos, Moon Brown would probably be dead. So a 16-hour bus ride from Detroit wasn't going to stop Brown from seeing ICP for the first time at Saturday's Juggalo March on Washington. Brown, 25, wearing a brown felt hat, black pants held up by a Grateful Dead belt and shirtless with a black leather vest, came to D.C. on Friday with a few bucks in his pocket, and he slept the night before the march behind the Lincoln Memorial. Carrying an aqua knapsack that he's had since his days hitchhiking across America, he wanted to be only a few steps away from the stage for the event, excited about the prospect of seeing so many others who are like him.
Brown is skin and bones, with his black, white and red face paint that he had applied a day before beginning to wear off. With a wild brown beard, locks of long, wispy hair and a green half-crescent moon tattooed on the middle of his forehead, Brown, whose name is a pseudonym, has never been big on going to ICP shows or attending a Gathering of the Juggalos, the subculture's annual music festival. But he credits the horrorcore rap duo of Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, and Juggalos in general, for a support system that eluded him – and had him contemplating taking his own life a decade earlier.
"ICP built a family for those who didn't have one," Brown says. "Maybe they didn't realise what they were doing, but they did something great, and I have the appreciation and love for that." He adds: "If they're going to call us out to be at the March, then I owe them."
This feels different than your regular ICP show or Gathering. Sure, about 1,500 people are passing around litres of Faygo, smoking cigarettes like they're going out of style, and yelling their fraternal call – "Whoop! Whoop!" – at anyone who passes by. Men walk around in Jason and lucha libre wrestling masks, women are in schoolgirl outfits and toddlers are in face-paint and ICP T-shirts. It attracts all ages, from the older man in the wheelchair to the little girl with curly brown hair holding a face-painted doll's head on a stick. But Gatherings don't happen at the National Mall, and they certainly don't have the political feeling this one does. You see signs of the day: "Juggalo Lives Matter." "Don't Shoot/I'm Just a Music Fan With a Really Big Family." "FBI: Foolish Bunch of Inbreds." "The FBI Listens to Nickelback."
Since 2011, the Juggalos have been branded by the FBI's National Gang Threat Assessment as "a loosely-organised hybrid gang" in four states – Arizona, California, Pennsylvania and Utah. The report, which was collected from data submitted by state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide, recognised that subsets exhibited "gang-like behaviour and engage in criminal activity and violence" in at least 21 states. In 2014, ICP, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the FBI. Though the initial suit was dismissed for lacking "legal standing," an appeals court reinstated the case in 2015, on the basis that the gang designation has brought significant harm to Juggalos. (Oral arguments on the appeal are set to begin October 11th.) "You might not give a fuck about ICP, but how are you not going to give a fuck about the situation that's going on?" Shaggy says.
Whether you sip the Faygo or remember ridiculing the kid in high school who wanted to wear a Hatchetman shirt, one thing about this case has united people: The move to designate ICP's fan base as a gang is unprecedented. Never before has the U.S. government targeted a fan base of an artist or music genre, and labeled anyone associated with it, as part of an organised gang. Though the Juggalos were not specifically named in the FBI's 2013 or 2015 National Gang Reports, the gang label is the stain they can't remove. That's why they're marching.
"You now have people examining the issue and understanding how wrong it was," says Steve Miller, author of Juggalo: Insane Clown Posse and the World They Made, on the gang classification. "That was the problem before – you didn't have people seriously taking a look at this as a true First Amendment legal issue."
Off in the distance is the Mother of All Rallies, a relatively small demonstration in support of President Donald Trump. Despite the online clamouring for the face-painted Juggalos to confront and pummel the crowd, the gathering's focus is civil, focused and disciplined. Antifa make their presence known in case there is a problem with the pro-Trumpers, but they remain off to the side, not impeding on the Juggalos or the event. Most Juggalos tell me that this day isn't about the red hat-wearing assholes over there. It's about them. It's about their rights. It's about the future of an American subculture that, in their eyes, has been unfairly labeled by the federal government and affected their lives for the worse.
One by one, Juggalos of all kinds – military veterans, registered nurses, fast-food cooks, government employees – step up to tell their stories to this family of misfits and outcasts. Despite never receiving a negative work review, Jessica Bonometti says she was fired from her job as a Virginia probation officer last year for showing appreciation on Facebook for ICP. Because she saw an ICP show, Crystal Guerrero says she lost a custody battle for her two children in New Mexico, now only seeing them six hours a week. Ashley Vasquez recalls instances in which she was almost kicked out of the military for her tattoos and wearing clothes supporting ICP's music.
"That's the biggest misconception about people outside looking in, thinking that Juggalos are just a piece of shit, inbred, uneducated fuckheads, you know what I'm saying?" Shaggy tells me. "It's the furthest from the truth."
Talk to some Juggalos on this steamy September day at the nation's capital and they'll rattle off about every insult thrown at them for the last 20 years. Losers. Freaks. White trash. Rednecks. Meth addicts. Mistakes. Criminals. They've grown numb to the barbs, largely ignoring the constant ridicule that's followed the marginalized fan-base. But one hurts more than any other: Gang member.
"What happened to us never happened to any band in the history of rock and roll that I know of," J tells Rolling Stone. "Nothing like it."
He adds: "You wanna call us something, call us a family, because a lot of us don't have a family and all we've got is each other. This shit is real for us, man."
Like almost every Juggalo I spoke to about their life growing up, Brown's childhood was pretty shitty. Living in the Florida panhandle, his drug-abusive parents caused Brown to run away from group homes and bounce around the foster care system in Pensacola until he was around nine. On the steps at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, Brown refers back to the time he had to pull a needle out of his mom's arm, and how his dad sold crack and forced him to smoke weed when he was four. Time and time again, foster parents would take him in, only to make it clear they really didn't want him and that they only took him to not separate him from his sister. The last pair of parents, he says, constantly punished him, forcing him to run away again when he was 12.
It was around this time that he found an MP3 player on a school bus. When he popped in headphones and hit play, he listened to a few songs from ICP. He was hooked. But even with his newfound love couldn't shield him from what was happening at home. He says that shortly after his foster family dropped him off with his biological parents, he was left to fend for himself. Between the ages of 14 and 18, Brown was homeless, living on the streets. "Homeless at 14 is not a good way to be in Pensacola," he tells me. During that time, he says he was taken in by a few different families of Juggalos in the area for stretches. When he was 15, Brown was told by a friend what he already knew deep down: He was a Juggalo.
"Meeting the Juggalos and hanging out with them, I saw how people had each other's backs, just this blunt, honest attitude," Brown tells me. "It was real. That gave me something to lean toward."
Brown remembers the first ass-kicking he got for being a Juggalo. When he heard the "Whoop! Whoop!" call at a party, he instinctively responded with one of his own. But these 20-somethings he was partying with were instead talking trash about Juggalo culture. Quick to fight, Brown, then 15 or 16, says he was repeatedly kicked in the stomach, with the anti-Juggalo group furiously stomping on his head. By the time they were done with him, Brown left with a bloody nose, a ripped shirt and a reminder of how people simply enjoy picking on Juggalos.
"People don't get us," he tells me.
Brown's journey to Washington hasn't been without its setbacks. When he was 17, he says he was given nine months in a low-risk juvenile program for improper display of a firearm at school when he unknowingly had a gun in his backpack. And trouble would find him again. Not long after the firearm incident, Brown and a buddy would walk up and down Michigan Avenue in Montclair, what Brown calls the ghetto of Pensacola, in hope of selling drugs to the area's residential junkies. When he was apprehended for resisting arrest after tripping a cop around 2011, police found a custom knife he found in a gutter in his waistband.
The possession of a concealed weapon charge got him 14 months in jail. When he was getting booked, he says police saw his tattoos and asked him if he was a Juggalo. He says he confirmed he was, and saw the official at the jail mark down that he was a gang member. Brown says he didn't care about the label at the time and that he hasn't let it impact him since then, but one thought has stayed on his mind: What the fuck?
Sitting inside a studio at the Rolling Stone office days before the Juggalo March, J and Shaggy say they knew a while ago they had to do something. Initially, they joked that the FBI's gang classification of their fan base was yet another reason why they proudly own the title of "most hated band in the world." But the group's outlook would take a sharp turn from glee to despair. When they'd hit the road for meet-and-greets and in-store signings across the country, they found that the FBI's gang label had real-life consequences for Juggalos: Longer terms in jail for offenders. Parents losing kids in custody battles. People getting fired from their jobs. Potential recruits not being able to get into the military. And on and on.
Even with the increased attention on their cause, the duo say that it's hard to do those meet-ups with fans nowadays, as the stories they keep hearing from loyal Juggalos affected by the gang label are heartbreaking. Yes, there are probably a few fans who are gang members, but, they argue, why isn't that same flimsy standard of blanketing an entire group applied to people in gangs who like other artists?
"There's fucking Bonnie Raitt fans that are in gangs," J says.
While they downplay the effect the gang label has had on them and keep the focus on their fans, it has impacted their ability to earn, specifically from the venues that are skeptical of booking them because of the Juggalo designation.
"The more that spreads, the harder this shit is getting, and fuck, man, where does it end?" J says.
When reached by Rolling Stone for comment, the FBI reiterated to that the 2011 report was "compromised of information shared with the National Gang Intelligence Center and the FBI from law enforcement agencies around the country."
"The FBI's mission is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution. We investigate activity which may constitute a federal crime or pose a threat to national security," an FBI spokesperson said in a statement. "The FBI cannot initiate an investigation based on an individual's exercise of their First Amendment rights."
The duo knows that getting the FBI to rescind the label, or at least acknowledge the matter, is a pipe dream. Shaggy says he knows already that'll never happen. That's why ICP became the latest in a decorated history of political demonstrations in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
"Whether [the FBI] want to admit it or not," Shaggy says, "they fucked up."
By 3 p.m., the chanting, laughter and clouds of cigarette smoke have made this a full-blown party. This might not be a Gathering of the Juggalos, but it's a celebration of the culture and the people who make it possible. There's Richard and Stephanie Miller, a couple from New Castle, Delaware, that's helped organise a Juggalo carpool system, coordinating rides for people from as far as California and Washington State. There's Amanda Donihoo, whose husband, Scott, otherwise known as Scottie D., president of Faygoluvers.net, gives an impassioned speech of his life for the Juggalos that mentions how him and his wife, an IT professional and a registered nurse in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, respectively, reflect how the group is pigeonholed and criminalised because of the actions of a few.
"We are some of the most straight-laced people ever," says Amanda Donihoo, 35. "But since we don't always wear the attire you expect or perceive a Juggalo would wear, people don't understand."
ICP has no plans to make this an annual event, so the Juggalos are making the most out of the day.
Hannah Baxter drove seven hours from New York state to be at the March. Baxter, 27, has been to roughly 50 ICP shows and two Gatherings, but it's hard for the former group-home kid to describe what she's feeling while looking at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
"This is the first time we're actually banding together as a family to show everybody that we're not as bad as they think we are," she says. "Just 'cause we like people that rap about something a little crazy, we're normal people, too."
By the time ICP take the stage around 5 p.m., the Juggalos are hanging on their every word. While they speak on stage, two Juggalettes yell at a guy with a camera wearing a backwards "Make America Great Again" hat, telling him he'd get his ass beat by a family of a thousand clowns if he didn't leave now. He says, "Fuck you, bitch," and flees. Aside from that, this moment is festive and positive.
"This is our day! This is our year! Are you ready?" J asks the jubilant Juggalos. "The Juggalo family and the Wicked Clowns will never die. Let's march, motherfuckers!"
ICP is at the beginning of the procession, looking almost overwhelmed by the love of the unlikeliest of families. It's from this love that they push forward to lift the Juggalos' gang label.
"It's scary because this ain't a movie," J tells me. "This ain't something anybody's been through. And you don't know how this is going to end."
Brown's March starts, and ends, with him walking through the crowd, carrying his third clear trash bag of the day. In an effort to help turn around the perception some may hold toward Juggalos, Brown, who works with prototype car parts for Chevy and Ford back in Michigan, packed some garbage bags and vowed to clean up the trash left behind on the Mall. It's his way of giving back to a subculture that's given him so much. At the back end of the March around the outside of the Washington Monument, there isn't a piece of trash that Brown doesn't pick up. He's in D.C. for the next few days before heading back to Michigan, unsure of what's next or where he'll spend the night. For now, he's bottling up the energy and the positive feelings of the day the Juggalos took Washington, a day he met more extended members of his family.
"That was epic," he tells me, flashing his biggest smile of the day. He then darts to every piece of trash in his path, saying to anyone who will listen at the tail of the March: "Throw your garbage away! Give me your trash!"
Topics: Insane Clown Posse