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Down with the Clown: Why Your Hatred of Juggalos Is Toxic and Dumb The Gathering of the Juggalos Isn't Something to Be Mocked

Mocking the annual juggalo music festival is all the rage anymore. When did mean-spirited classism become fashionable?

If you’re in the mood to make fun of poor people with impunity, just call those poor people “juggalos” and you should be fine. Juggalos, the literally clownish subculture of fans who obsessively follow the Insane Clown Posse, have become America’s favorite painted punching bags. The group is mocked year-round on the internet and in wider popular culture (see SNL), but that jeering reaches a peak around ICP’s now annual “Gathering of the Juggalos,” which took place this past weekend.

The Gathering, as it’s called in common parlance, started in 2000 as a small-scale show in ICP’s home state of Michigan. It’s since swelled to a major music event, for which 20,000 fans descend on the normally quiet Cave-In-Rock, Illinois (pop. 346) to see dozens of bands and performers. Basically, it’s a music festival like any other subcultural music festival in America (Rock the Bells, Pitchfork, Coachella). The only difference is that, unlike Coachella, which draws movie starlets and other wealthy celebrities, most of the people who attend the Gathering are what racists call “white trash,” and making fun of white-trash culture—trailer parks, Southern accents, junk food, etc.—is one of the last widely accepted forms of bigotry in American society.

If you don’t think juggalos face discrimination, consider the common arguments against them: The first is that they’re violent criminals who listen to violent music that promotes their behavior. That complaint has been invalid since Tipper Gore leveled it against rap music decades ago, and nowadays it’s invalid and boring.

Do some people who consider themselves juggalos occasionally commit heinous crimes? Absolutely. But so do fans of hip-hop, country, heavy metal, and, probably, Britney Spears. After running down a litany of studies that linked heavy metal to bad behavior in It’s Not Only Rock and Roll: Popular Music in the Lives of Adolescents (PDF), Stanford professor Don Roberts concludes, “If there is a ‘syndrome’ at work here, it is a ‘troubled youth syndrome,’ not a heavy metal syndrome. … The best way to phrase the relation is to say that white adolescents who are troubled or at risk gravitate strongly toward the style of music that provides the most support for their view of the world and meets their particular needs: namely, heavy metal.” In other words, angry people are drawn to angry music; they’re not made angry by music. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot up Columbine High School because they were very mad and depressed, not because Marilyn Manson told them to.

Where crime is concerned, the juggalos’ Gathering finds people engaging in lawlessness about as much as any drunken outdoor mega-festival. This year, Cave-In-Rock police arrested 37 juggalos. Compare that to this year’s Coachella, which saw 49 arrests and 48 medical transports. At 2010’s Electric Daisy Carnival rave, an electronic music festival held in the L.A. Coliseum, 60 people were arrested and one person died of a drug overdose. Somehow, though, you don’t see people calling DJ Z-Trip and Spank Rock, two Electric Daisy Carnival performers, dangerous drug pushers.

But it seems that more and more media outlets fixate on the Gathering each year. This week Deadspin published an article by Emma Carmichael about her “undercover” trip to the Gathering (a trite concept, but whatever). Before she went, Carmichael wrote to Camille Dodero, a Village Voice journalist who last year filed a report on this strange alien culture of young people listening to music. Dodero warned Carmichael that she “could get into trouble” if she didn’t acquiesce to juggalo sexual advances. In other words, she could be raped.

I’ll not say that rape isn’t possible at the Gathering. What I will say is that rape is possible at any event where a lot of young people get together and get drunk and high. In the wake of Woodstock ‘99, which you’ll remember turned into a riot on its final night, New York police were left investigating four rapes, and crisis intervention workers who had attended the event said they’d personally seen “many more.” Rape culture is a part of American culture, and it exists regardless of whether you’re listening to ICP or The String Cheese Incident, which played Woodstock ’99.

Other critiques of juggalos and the Gathering focus on the crassness of the men, who are frequently photographed holding signs and wearing t-shirts asking women to bare their breasts. That sort of behavior is, of course, indefensible and misogynistic. But is it any worse than what goes on at Mardi Gras, one of the most beloved American parties? And what about all the wet t-shirt contests at spring breaks from Santa Cruz to Key West and back? The only difference, once again, is that those events are often the realms of the collegiate and the moneyed, so they avoid the hatred while the juggalos are laughed at.

From beginning to end, the mockery of juggalos is an ugly cycle: People who get made fun of for being different turn to the intentionally isolated juggalo culture, where difference is augmented with noisy music, face paint, and ridiculous, gaudy clothes. Made to feel like freaks, like the punk rockers of old, juggalos adopt freak-dom wholeheartedly—which in turn leads to more mockery. That’s one of the main reasons all these undercover reports on the Gathering are so gross: It’s the one weekend a year juggalos have to revel in their culture together and they can’t even do that without people flying in from New York to make fun of them.

Writing for Billboard magazine, Kevin Rutherford, yet another journalist who crashed the gathering to report on the crazy weirdos, actually found that there wasn’t a lot to report. “I'm not sure how meaningful this is going to sound, as I've been to a mere four festivals in my life other than the Gathering,” he wrote. “But of these four, the altogether-friendliest was that which I attended these past four days. Friendliest people, friendliest staff, even friendly talent.” Sounds pretty awful, huh?

The least-important criticism most people have of the Gathering is that all the face paint is stupid and the music is bad. I’ll grant you that the face paint is stupid. But bad music? This year’s Gathering included performances from Parliament Funkadelic, Lil Jon, Busta Rhymes, Ice Cube, Bobby Brown, and DJ Quik, artists you’ll find in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and on the Top 40 charts. Indie comic Brian Posehn did a standup set. You may hate the music of ICP, but the artists who play the Gathering are varied, and beloved by millions of people. Juggalos, it turns out, like some of the same stuff you like.

If we’re going to get along as an increasingly diverse nation, we’re going to have to start learning to empathize with marginalized cultures—even self-marginalized ones—and it’s time to start having a broader understanding of what marginalized actually means. One needn’t have dark skin to be oppressed, and starting rumors that a minority group is full of maniacal rapists is what used to get black men lynched 100 years ago. That isn’t to say that the plight of the juggalos is in any way as serious as the plight of African-Americans, but prejudice is prejudice. Slandering people who dress differently from you and listen to different music is prejudice. Face paint or no.

photo via (cc) Flickr user pommru

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