In 2012, Scott Gandy walked into an Army recruitment office in North Carolina. Asked if he had any tattoos, Gandy revealed several large chest tattoos, all logos and artwork related to the rap group Insane Clown Posse (ICP). The sergeant told him to leave; fans of ICP, also known as Juggalos, were on the federal government’s national gang list. After Gandy denied being a gang member, the sergeant told him the tattoos had to go if he wanted to join. But hundreds of dollars and hours of painful surgery later, Gandy’s application to join the Army was still denied.
Though GQ magazine and others consider it one of the worst bands of all time, ICP is more than just a band for fans like Gandy — it’s a lifestyle. Now, it’s also the basis for a lawsuit. Gandy, along with three other Juggalos and both members of the rap duo, has launched a case against the FBI and Department of Justice alleging discrimination against ICP and its fans. Backed by the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), they claim that the FBI’s designation of Juggalos as a gang infringes on their freedom of speech. In September, a federal appeals court ruled that the band and its fans would get a second stab at justice.
ICP’s founders, Joseph Bruce and Joseph Utsler, hail from urban Detroit and met as teenagers. They spent their time wrestling and rapping, later forming a gang called Inner City Posse. After a string of arrests for robbery and death threats, the two decided to channel their energy into music, using scary clown personas in a style called “horrorcore” to vent personal experiences. They soon gathered a dedicated following that connected with ICP’s style and message. Juggalos — many of whom are white, come from low-income backgrounds, and have histories of hardship — see themselves as family.
While many find community and kinship in the Juggalos, the FBI sees them differently. In 2011, the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center released a report claiming that Juggalos were a “loosely organized hybrid gang…rapidly expanding into many US communities.” The report described their crimes as sporadic and often petty but recognized that some members had progressed to felony assaults and robberies. These claims were not totally unfounded: Leading up to the report, ICP-inspired hatchet attacks occurred across the country, and similar gang activities were reported in 21 states.
This designation has led to more suspicious treatment of Juggalos by local and state officials. Fans have been stopped by police, asked to leave stores, and have had their businesses placed under scrutiny. The band itself has felt the consequences too; a Detroit-area venue was forced to cancel one of its concerts at the request of local police. Though many of these offenses have been minor, they add up to a pattern of discrimination against fans, leading the ACLU to take up the case in 2014 as an attack on free speech.
Protesting the designation and the vague language of the FBI’s report, the ACLU points out that the vast majority of Juggalos are simply attracted to ICP’s music and the community’s sense of camaraderie. The ACLU also emphasizes that only a relatively small number of Juggalos commit crimes, a fact that the report glosses over. The ACLU claims that the effect of the report has been to treat the entire fanbase as criminals, which the organization in turn claims is discriminatory and perpetuates a chilling effect on free speech. Several of the plaintiffs report refraining from wearing ICP merchandise in public in fear of a police encounter. For some, hiding their affiliation is impossible given the prevalence of tattoos.
The debate over ICP is fundamentally a clash between civil liberties and governmental authority. The FBI argues that informing authorities and the public about potential gang dangers is its duty and in the public interest. And the presence of a criminal element in Juggalo culture, however small it may be, is undisputed. To prevent the FBI from disseminating information about legitimate crime would neuter the agency. Furthermore, the agency claims that the report is only suggestive and that there’s nothing legally binding law enforcement agencies to inspect or arrest Juggalos.
Until now, questions over whether the offenses committed against Juggalos are rooted in the FBI report or are just failings of local police have kept the case out of court. The judges dismissed the complaint on jurisdictional grounds, adding that the plaintiffs’ experiences don’t amount to constitutional injuries. But the ACLU claims that the report was the primary motivating factor for the way its clients were treated and that the myriad injustices they’ve faced could have been avoided with a retraction of the report.
The larger question rests on whether freedoms of speech and association have been infringed upon and if that is, in fact, acceptable given the threat of violence. While no one is denying that some members of the Juggalo community have committed crimes, that does not differentiate them from any other group with members that happen to be criminals. Correlation, in this case, may not be causation. And if the courts find that the government can issue documents that essentially give police a reason to investigate and otherwise harass perfectly innocent individuals, who all happen to be fans of the same band, the right to freedom of speech could in turn be at stake.
Though no court date has been set, barring any setbacks, ICP and its fans will be taking on the federal government by the end of the year. It’s easy to trivialize a case involving a band called Insane Clown Posse, but its significance should not be downplayed. Discrimination based on appearance has a complicated history, and a ruling that expands that power to taste and affiliation would be troubling. The decision in turn could be a landmark in modern interpretation of First Amendment rights at the federal level and not just for the fans of ICP. Even those without an interest in ICP’s lyrical stylings should pay attention — or even the most vanilla musical tastes won’t be safe.
Art by Emily Reif
Correction: This post was updated to reflect that fact that Juggalos are predominantly white.