What is a Struggalo? Inquiry at the Juggalo March

“We got pot?”

The Struggalo Circus, a group of radical activists who are also dedicated fans of Insane Clown Posse and Psychopathic Records, were finishing their preparations before we headed to the Juggalo March. The four (nom de guerres: Ape, Dimension, Kitty Stryker, and RaiderLo) had split a hotel room in Chinatown, waking up early to don their regalia. Ape, his fully made-up face framed by bleached blonde hair and beard, looked oddly appropriate for the juggalos’ leap into DC protest politics: he wore a suit. “I dress like this all the time,” he told me. During the day he fielded at least a dozen interviews.

After years of scorn — and a few years of prurient interest following positive coverage in Vice — the fate of juggalos has become an important political issue. The Juggalo March seems exceedingly well-timed for an era of increasing radicalization and renewed interest in protest. According to Psychopathic Records’ director of public relations, Jason Webber, the idea for a protest march had been “percolating for a number of years,” ever since 2011 when juggalos were classified by the FBI as a hybrid gang. The rise of the Juggalo followed in the aftermath of the shocking election of Donald Trump, as intellectuals and politicos filled reams of columns with musings on the “white working class.” This shibboleth had, it was erroneously argued, thrown the election from the staid neoliberal Clinton to the raving reactionary Trump.

Reeling Democrats have continued to strategize on how to appeal to the white working class, and even leftists can’t help but ponder the question, even if only to refute it. Meanwhile, Insane Clown Posse and its associates have cultivated a fanbase — by FBI estimates, a million members strong — largely from those disaffected white victims of deindustrialization considered so crucial to the election. This, along with the cartoonish novelty and obvious righteousness of the March’s cause, made the juggalos the “darling of the radical left.” The Industrial Workers of the World and the Democratic Socialists of America both released statements of support, and sent groups in solidarity to the March.

But the Struggalo Circus has a slightly different approach. Formed this past spring by seasoned Bay Area activists, the Circus doesn’t approach the juggalos from the outside. They are juggalos themselves, most of them since long before they became dedicated radicals. They seek to connect juggalos, now mobilized into resistance to state oppression, to the techniques and organizations of the radical left. And the left may have much to learn from the juggalos in return. “Juggalos are all about family and mutual aid,” Stryker told me. “They are anti-hierarchy and anti-sectarian.” Ignored by mainstream media outlets and corporate sponsors, the Gathering of the Juggalos, the carnivalesque festival of music and intoxication that is central to juggalo culture, is itself an experiment in mutual aid. The self-organized Scrub Care Unit provides on-site medical care and other necessary items for juggalos in need; most recently they organized relief for victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Stryker has a long history of involvement with activism in the Bay, but is a recent convert to the juggalo community, having attended her first Gathering this past summer, in Oklahoma City. She’s part of queer and trans art collective the Degenderettes, and has just finished a book on consent culture. Juggalos haven’t always been associated with progressive gender politics, but Stryker is hopeful for the future. The Gathering’s Miss Juggalette beauty contest, once hosted by a leering Ron Jeremy, has become, under the agitation of feminist juggalo organization Lette’s Respect, “a celebration of wild women, reinventing standards of beauty with no bounds.” Last year it featured a trans contestant. For Stryker, this is the grounds for a deeper intervention into the politics of gender and sexuality. Juggalos are “not homophobic,” she says. “They’re chill about being queer.” Stryker came to DC equipped with street medic gear, though I assured her that marches on the Washington Mall tend to be far tamer affairs than the recent Berkeley protests of which Struggalo Circus were a part.

“Whose book is this?” I asked, spying Lenin’s unmistakable forehead crowning through the rumpled sheets of the hotel room’s fold-out bed. Imperialism in the 21st Century, it read, in bold yellow on a red background, immediately calling to mind Marxist-Leninist pamphlets. “Who put this out?”

“It’s from the Party of Socialism and Liberation,” the affable Dimension volunteered.

“The PSL! I know them. Are you a member?” He pointed to his button in affirmation.

Dimension has been a juggalo for much longer than he’s been a revolutionary socialist. “I came from a Republican family, and I was libertarian, because that’s the rebel version of being Republican.” But then he found himself working in the low-wage service sector. “People were talking about raising the minimum wage, and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m making minimum wage.’ Tax cuts don’t do shit for me.” A Walmart employee, he threw himself into the OUR Walmart campaign when organizers came calling. From there, he attended the People’s Summit in Chicago, where he connected with PSL activists. He had recently completed the party’s training program, and became a full member. He hoped to connect with the party’s Congress, convening in DC that same weekend. But the Juggalo March came first.

“Are any of you in other orgs?” I asked.

“Universal Zulu Nation,” beamed RaiderLo, displaying his chain with the ghostly logo of the hip hop cultural foundation that, under the leadership of Afrika Bambaataa, emerged from the street gangs of the Bronx. RaiderLo had been in the Zulu Nation for three years, but a juggalo for two decades. Born and raised in Oakland, his dyed-red shock of hair recalled the horrorcore rapper and juggalo favorite Tech N9ne. “We’ve got Tech Eight with us,” Ape mused.

The pre-March breakfast meetup was a delightful collision of the boisterous mass of Juggalos with the prim yuppies of DC’s brunch crowd. One tall black Juggalo from New Jersey, a late-shift 7-11 employee from Morris County, used a portable speaker to blast “Homies,” ICP’s hugely popular paean to juggalo solidarity — what everyone referred to as “Family.”

If you wasn’t blood, would you still have love?

Or, in fact, does the blood make you think you have to love?

Look, I probably love my family more than anybody here

But my homies are family too, third cousins get outta here

I talked to quite a few juggalos that Saturday, and none had been to Washington, D.C. before, outside of a few who mentioned school trips. Few were political, though several pointed to actions and causes they supported. A juggalo named Sideshow, from Marion, Ohio, who later carried a sign festooned with anarchy symbols, had been involved in local protests against Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. ETP was in the process of constructing a new pipeline through Ohio, and had been responsible for two major ecological accidents.

At the breakfast, Sideshow had met up with Lucy, an old friend from Ohio who now lived in St. Petersburg, Florida. There she’d organized actions against Monsanto and worked with Food Not Bombs on homeless outreach. “I’ve been homeless myself,” she told me. Homelessness and housing security is a central issue for both juggalos and Struggalo Circus. “A lot of juggalos have been homeless,” Stryker said, a statement confirmed in a report by social worker Robin Petering — her research found that one in six homeless youth in Los Angeles identify as juggalos. A comrade who goes by the name of “Faygo” had organized an occupation outside Sacramento City Hall in protest of anti-homeless ordinances. Though her political credentials are now substantial, Lucy was a juggalo before she was an activist. “The music wakes you up,” she explained. “It makes you want to be a better person.”

I’m an Ohio native myself, and I was familiar with Insane Clown Posse and juggalos before the subculture surfaced to national awareness. Headquartered in Detroit, their fandom quickly spread to the surrounding Rust Belt, making Ohio a hotbed of juggalos — the annual Gathering of the Juggalos has been held in Ohio numerous times. At the March I met many Ohio juggalos, including Josh, the self-described “Literate Juggalo” who works in IT at my alma mater, Ohio State University.

My own youthful experience with ICP’s music was something quite different from making me want to be a better person. It made me want turn off the stereo. I found the rapping rudimentary, the lyrics cheesy and the beats derivative of more skilled productions by Public Enemy and Cypress Hill. Even in the process of researching for this article, I’ve found the music difficult to enjoy.

Now I understand the music better than when I was a teenager who yearned for the sound of something more urbane than my provincial surroundings. ICP’s music is aggressive and titillatingly vulgar, like a lot of music that appeals to teenagers, but its artlessness and total lack of pretense sets it apart from its shock-rock brethren. The elaborate mythology of the Joker Cards is both baroque and immediate. The costumes are garish, but relatively simple. ICP’s music is recognizable as hip hop — rapping, DJing, sample-based beats — but it is also something else.

Hip hop aesthetics turn on the contradiction between relatively simple and participatory forms and the imposing technical requirements constructed around its competitive modes of expression. It is at once dramatically levelling and intensely hierarchical. The music of Insane Clown Posse lacks this latter dimension, which would be contrary to the group’s aesthetic. In music, events, videos, and in its full-length films, ICP flaunts both a lack of skill and a lack of taste that can be disarming. This was embodied in the rambling and repetitive, but undeniably genuine speech that Violent J and Shaggy gave during Saturday’s rally. “Intelligence is how to make a nuclear bomb, but wisdom is how not to use it. Juggalos possess mad wisdom!” Whoop whoop.

ICP is a far cry from Eminem, their fellow rapping white Detroiter with whom the clowns once had beef, and whose legend, ensconced in a major Hollywood production, came from glorious victory in freestyle battle through intense focus and marvels of wordplay. ICP is not about marvelous wordplay, and they are not about winning competitions. The radical acceptance at the heart of juggalo culture is recognition, and embrace, of losing, of being on the bottom. “Being poor is never celebrated but ICP celebrates it,” PR Director Jason Webber told me. Unlike most hip hop, it declines to construct its own competitive hierarchies of skill, making the culture astonishingly open to participation. You do not have to compete to be a juggalo; you can be who you are. If the music were too skilled or technical, it might lose this dimension.

This antipathy for hierarchy inflects Violent J and Shaggy’s lyrics. ICP’s 1992 debut album Carnival of Carnage features “Your Rebel Flag,” in which the duo eviscerates Confederacy-supporting racists; in 1999’s “Bring It On” Violent J avows that ICP “Don’t like bigots or richie boy fucks.” At the Juggalo March, speakers, including Shaggy and J themselves, seemed keen to emphasize ICP’s anti-racist commitments, avowing their acceptance of “all races, genders, creeds, and nations.” As March emcee Kevin Gill put it, “We don’t care if you’re black, white, Hispanic, straight, gay, trans, fat as fuck or skinny as a broomstick.” When a speaker said that ICP had been ahead of the curve when it came to taking down Confederate monuments, the crowd erupted in cheers.

For a subculture built around a rap label, the music of Psychopathic Records is secondary to juggalo culture. “For a lot of juggalos,” critic-cum-juggalo Nathan Rabin writes in 7 Days in Ohio, his memoir of the 2016 Gathering, “the Gathering is more about spending time with fellow juggalos than it is about any of the acts themselves. It’s a celebration of fandom as much as it is of music.” In Webber’s estimation, “Music is the spinal column. Everything else branches off from that. It’s a well rounded culture: morals, ethics, fashion.” And as Lucy told me, “Music introduces us, brotherhood keeps us together.”

Indeed, the word ”family” was one of the most common chants at the DC march. It’s a central concept for juggalos, many of whom are forced to establish networks of aid, companionship and reliance outside of their biological families. “Juggalos tend to be products of brokenness,” writes Rabin, a late convert to the fandom who himself grew up in foster care. “They come from broken homes and broken cities.” This brokenness is at the core of Insane Clown Posse’s story. As told by Steve Miller in Juggalo: Insane Clown Posse and the World They Made, Violent J’s father left when he was two, and his mother suffered a string of bad jobs and bad men to support her children. One of these men physically and sexually abused J as a child. When J’s biological father attempted to reconcile with him, he wrote a song called “Fuck My Dad (Richard Bruce).” At the march, a couple of neatly dressed women stood on the sidelines, holding a sign that read “We Support Alternative Families.” A juggalette with neon-green hair leapt over the path’s chain railing to hug them.

Struggalo Circus was not the only, or the largest, openly leftist group at the rally. About 30 members of DC’s DSA chapter arrived with coolers of drinks (Faygo and otherwise) and snacks, along with juggalo-themed handouts. The “FAYGO NOT FASCISM” posters proved as popular with the juggalos as the refreshments. I’m not certain that there was much in the way of genuine crossover socializing between the Capital’s young socialists and the juggalos themselves, but the DSA’s pitch seemed to strike the right note.

Less successful, in my eyes, was the 20-strong antifa contingent in intimidating black bloc attire. Ostensibly there to provide security against interlopers from the pro-Trump “Mother of All Rallies,” they proved completely unnecessary: the Juggalo March was 10 times the size of MOAR, and the better part of a mile away. Most of the juggalos looked like they could easily hold their own against any denizen of Kekistan. Antifa huddled together, barely interacting with juggalos, even though one told me he’d been “down with the clown” for 20 years. During the actual trek through the Mall, they conducted their own chants — “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” — that had little to do with the goals of the Juggalo March. Several juggalos were clearly upset by their presence, though Struggalos attempted to defuse the tension. “They gave me a hug!” Dimension insisted.

Whether any of these groups, from Struggalos to democratic socialists to masked-up antifascists, will transform juggalos from an aggrieved fan culture into a political force remains to be seen. Struggalos seem to have developed the most promising techniques, which draw from the actually existing values and practices of the juggalos themselves. There is no easy translation between a counterculture and radical politics, but it is wrong to deny any connection whatsoever, or to think of culture as a “distraction” from a pure workplace politics. I’m reminded of the autoworker Stanley Aronowitz talks to in False Promises whose interest in communist agitation was part of his self-described “hippy” identity and psychedelic pastimes. Or the successes the German Social Democratic Party had organizing workers through leisure activities, rather than the shop floor, as described by Alf Lüdtke in  Organizational Order or Eigensinn? Workers’ Privacy and Workers’ Politics in Imperial Germany.” Even the AFL-CIO has seen fit to partner with the Harry Potter Alliance, a grassroots organization that emerged from a fandom.

Beyond a simple opportunism, radical organizations, which sometimes have only tenuous links to oppressed groups, have much to learn from the methods and practices surrounding the self-organization of poor people into support networks openly espousing views critical of law enforcement and racism, and which are increasingly hospitable to queer and trans people. As Ape described the Struggalo Circus political practice, “We try to explain to them and let them explain to us.” This is the essence of inquiry, the kinds of militant research into the autonomous activity of workers and the poor, and of the reshaping of radical politics around the composition of the forces of the marginalized. Perhaps we can look forward to a future when, instead of trying to lead their own chants, antifa shouts “Whoop whoop!” as they go chicken huntin’.

Author of the article

lives in Washington, D.C.