Juggalos seem intimidating. They cover their faces in black and white paint and wear clothing and jewelry stamped with a hatchet-wielding cartoon figure. The group says their universal call-"whoop-whoop!"-is an expression of love and affection, but it can sound more like a war cry.
The term Juggalos refers to the devoted followers of the Insane Clown Posse, a rap duo hailing from Detroit, Michigan, known for its horror-themed lyrics and hits like "Miracles," "Rainbows N' Stuff," and "Down With the Clown." The group's super fans spawned a full-fledged cultural identity that's on display at the annual Gathering of the Juggalos, a drug-addled three-day festival held in Cave-In-Rock, Illinois, featuring carnival rides, nudity, wet T-shirt contests, wrestling matches, and a lot of Faygo, the inexpensive soda favored by the group.
They've also created a mutually supportive community. Attendees at the annual Gathering often come from backgrounds that resemble that of Insane Clown Posse's Joseph Bruce and Joseph Utsler, who "were the outcasts in school, the scrubs, the dirty kids, the slow kids, the uneducated-the ones whose home lives were so bad that they don't make it to school," says journalist Camille Dodero, who has covered this topic for Gawker and The Village Voice. "But they rebelled against that perception, worked really hard, and managed to reach a whole group of fans that nobody had ever spoken to or reached out to in music."
The annual Gathering is a homecoming of sorts, "to connect and meet and actually feel loved, make friends, and relate with people," according to one regular attendee. Members look out for one another at the festival and refer to themselves as one big family.
Federal law enforcement officials have a different take. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) classified the Juggalos as a "hybrid gang" in its 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, accusing the group of "criminal activity" and "violence." In the years since, they've often been subject to routine stops, detainment, and interrogation by local police, who use the DOJ's assessment as guidance for how to understand the group.
Now the Juggalos are fighting back. In January 2014, the Insane Clown Posse along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan sued the federal government over its classification. "Branding hundreds of thousands of music fans as gang members based on the acts of a few individuals defies logic and violates our most cherished constitutional rights," said Legal Director Michael J. Sternberg.
"They became Juggalos because they were persecuted, and now they're being persecuted for bonding together," says Dodero. "These are a group of people that no one else in America has ever cared about, and then this one band gave them a sense of identity."
Dodero says Juggalos are more likely to commit crimes than average citizens, but that has more to do with their backgrounds than with their membership in the group. "Somebody caught on to the fact that those kids who have that hatchet man on their shirts sometimes steal things," she says. "That's part of who Insane Clown Posse has been reaching-people with really bad upbringings."
"We'll rough each other up a little bit and put each other back in line, but we're not going to harm anyone unless someone does harm to us," says a Juggalo woman who spoke with Reason TV at the 2013 Gathering while smearing black paint over her right eye.
The ACLU lawsuit is expected to get its day in court next year. "There are a lot of people who don't want you to live your life how you want to live it," says another member of the group. "And they want to try and stop you from having fun, being yourself, and being free."