Insane criminal prosecution
The FBI claims Sacramento is a Juggalo 'gang' epicenter. But local Insane Clown Posse fans like Brandon Bradley say they're peaceful victims of profiling.
Before Brandon Bradley knew what was happening, on that dark street in Citrus Heights last January, two cops in bulletproof vests cornered him near a guardrail as they took photos of his tattoos and clothing, and accused him of being in a gang.
“I was really scared and just wanted to get that situation over with,” Bradley, now 20, recalled during a recent interview at his apartment.
Like a million other fans, Bradley is a passionate devotee of Insane Clown Posse, an ecstatically deranged rap duo out of Detroit. Since the early ’90s, the group has thrilled followers and vexed music critics with its trashy brand of horror-laced hip-hop, selling 6.5 million poorly reviewed albums in the process.
The band’s most ardent admirers—dubbed “Juggalos”—sport body art and, sometimes, scary-clown face paint to affiliate themselves with ICP and its “horrorcore” genre.
But ever since the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center released a February 2011 report on emerging crime and gang trends within the Juggalo community, being “down with the clown” has become synonymous with gangbanging in states like California, where at least four Juggalo subsets have been identified.
Sacramento is an epicenter of this disputed gang activity, with cliques in Stockton and the counties of El Dorado and Solano. Unconfirmed rumors of a Juggalo crew in Sacramento’s Del Paso Heights neighborhood once circulated as well.
Of the six law-enforcement agencies that SN&R contacted, however, none could cite an example of Juggalo-related gang activity in recent years. Some had never even heard of them.
“Those are the ones who paint their faces like clowns, right?” one lieutenant wondered.
Yet, to date, 69 Juggalos have been validated as gang members in Sacramento County.
Despite a spotless record and plans to become a correctional officer, Bradley believes he’s now on that list. “To look up to somebody that’s looking down on you, it feels very upsetting,” he said.
Earlier this month, Bradley joined music idols Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope in Michigan as co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice. The complaint slams federal authorities for painting an entire fandom with its “hybrid” gang brush, even while acknowledging that the “majority of fans exercise their lifestyles in a peaceful manner.”
This isn’t the first clash between personal expression and government overreach. But it just might be the first time the clowns aren’t laughing.Fan or menace
Squatting on an old TV set in his tidy apartment, Bradley—soft-spoken with a brown buzz cut and nappy chin hair—was just a youngster when a neighbor turned him on to Insane Clown Posse's brand of demented hillbilly rap.
Before last year’s frightening encounter with Citrus Heights cops, Bradley said he was stopped and hassled twice for being a proud and inked Juggalo.
The legal complaint, filed two weeks ago by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, alleges that a Citrus Heights police officer stopped a bicycling Bradley in or around September 2012 and questioned him for 15 minutes about his musical tastes and tattoos, which include a Twiztid band logo couched inside of a retro-looking Batman symbol on his inner right forearm. After writing down his answers, Bradley said the officer let him go with a warning: Get a bicycle light.
About a month later, Bradley said he was crossing a street in downtown Sacramento when a sheriff’s deputy stopped him and accused him of being in a gang. According to Bradley, the deputy took his wallet and identification and ran a background check. The deputy eventually let Bradley go with another warning: Use the crosswalk.
The most recent encounter occurred 12 months ago. This is how Bradley remembers it: He was hoofing his way along a darkened bike lane when the swirling reds of an unmarked patrol cruiser crept up on him. Two male officers exited the vehicle and commanded Bradley to stand in front of a guardrail with his back to them. They snapped photographs of his jacket, with its encircled logo of a cartoon “hatchet man,” a symbol of Juggalo fandom. The cops then ordered him around and took photos of his face and tats. Then the interrogation began, just like the first two times.
“They were asking a lot of questions that didn’t have anything to do with the stop, but they decided to harass me based on what I like musicwise and what my body looks like,” Bradley said. “You don’t know how to take it emotionally. You just feel kind of stuck in a corner.”
He and his attorneys think the officers entered him into a database of nearly 15,000 validated gang members across the region.
A Citrus Heights Police Department spokesman, Officer Seth Dexter, will confirm only that the January 2013 contact happened, but said he “can’t divulge any gang-validation stuff,” because it’s considered proprietary intelligence.
Generally speaking, Dexter said officers submit their reports of possible gang encounters to detectives in the special-investigations unit for review before official validation paperwork is filed.
The officer added that he was somewhat surprised that Bradley was one of six plaintiffs in the ACLU suit, given his limited contact with local authorities. (Dexter said he found no record of the 2012 bicycle stop that Bradley described.)
Bradley should hope he isn’t on a gang list. The consequences of such a designation are dire: Law enforcement can track his whereabouts and log each new encounter with him in a file that can be used in court if he’s charged with a crime. If he’s ever convicted of a felony, the validation could result in an automatic 25-year sentencing enhancement. And if he’s ever a victim of crime, Bradley would be ineligible to receive state victim compensation.
Local criminal-defense attorney Keith J. Staten said a gang validation sticks for five years, longer if law enforcement chooses to renew it. Bradley may never know whether he’s on the list, as law enforcement isn’t required to notify anyone who’s 18 and older that they’ve been labeled a gang member.
To get unvalidated, Staten explained, Bradley would have to go through an official “drop-out” process that involves him turning over any information he has about the “criminal gang” to which he belongs. In other words, he would have to narc on his fellow music fans.
Being a Juggalo has already exacted a toll.
When Bradley visited Sacramento Police Department headquarters to inquire about a career, he says he was told he would need to remove his tattoos before he’d be considered. Bradley’s co-plaintiff and fellow ICP fan Scott Gandy claims he’s been blocked from military service, while two other plaintiffs in the suit say their careers have been negatively affected.
“I can’t do the main thing I want to do in life,” Bradley said. “Everything that I really want to do that’s big and good for me, I’m literally not able to do because of music.”'Juggalos are a gang'
Sacramento-area authorities have long had a scattershot track record of differentiating true gangsters from the poor and brown.
In 2007, West Sacramento cops and prosecutors tarred two mostly Latino neighborhoods with a gang injunction and lifetime curfew, despite vehement protests from residents and the ACLU.
An SN&R analysis of data shows the number of validated gang members in Sacramento County shot up 33 percent in just over two years, to 14,821 today, due largely to authorities expanding their definition of what it means to be a gangster.
“You’re spreading your net wider, so now you’re obviously going to get more,” Staten posited.
Meanwhile, some agencies won’t even turn over the criteria by which they determine gang affiliation.
Citrus Heights’ Officer Dexter talked SN&R through the 10-item list his and other Sacramento County agencies employ. It includes admission of being in a gang; being arrested in the company of gang members; regular association with known gang members; being photographed with known gang members; being snitched on by a rival gang member; and displaying tattoos, clothing or other indicia associated with a specific crew, among other things.
Anyone who falls into three of those boxes is subject to an official validation.
Because of the FBI’s hybrid gang designation for Juggalos, just about any of those items apply.
Attorneys for the ACLU of Michigan contend that the entire process is way too one-sided.
“Putting people on a criminal gang list before any hearing raises serious constitutional issues,” said cooperating counsel Saura J. Sahu. “No matter what you think of gang lists in general, we can all agree that a person should not be placed on a gang list merely for being a fan of a music group.”
The FBI declined to comment on how gang-validation policies are set, citing the ongoing Juggalo lawsuit as its reason. But, as the National Gang Intelligence Center opined in its report, Juggalos “exhibit many of the same characteristics as a traditional gang such as throwing hand signs, wearing matching tattoos, and dressing in similar clothing.”
This could similarly be said about the Girl Scouts of the USA or Grateful Dead fans.
“What about Dead Heads?” Staten cracked. After all, they travel in large groups from city to city and use and sell dope, he said. “Hell, we can make anything a gang.”
“It’s one more thing that they can do to invade your privacy and delete your rights,” added Shawn Kline, a fellow Sacramento Juggalo who deejays under the moniker “Joker.”
The gang designation riled Kline up so much, he slapped two big hatchet man tattoos on the back of his forearms in protest. “If I’m walking away, you see my pride right there,” he told SN&R.
Which may be why there are conflicting beliefs, even within law enforcement, about how to categorize Insane Clown Posse lovers.
“This is not a simple yes or no question,” Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Dan Morrissey explained via email, adding that the community is divided between law-abiding citizens and leaderless, unstructured criminal sets.
“Juggalos are a gang,” declared Citrus Heights police watch commander Jay Mackanin. “I know sometimes they say they’re not, but they are.”
If they are a gang, they aren’t much of one.
In the last year, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department recorded only 13 calls for service that listed the word “Juggalos” in the content of the call, Morrissey noted.
Dexter counted “less than 10” such incidents in Citrus Heights, with a few involving narcotics and at least one weapons charge. “Nothing that would make me say, ’Geez, we have this huge Juggalo problem in our city,’” he added.
Going back five years, Elk Grove police recorded only one Juggalo-related crime, in 2009, when a couple of young clowns scrapped with a 19-year-old jogger with whom they had a previous beef.
And in the city of Sacramento, police spokesman Officer Doug Morse recalled citing a Juggalo a few years ago for marking up a public restroom with a permanent marker, but that was it. Even his gang detectives resisted terming Juggalos a gang.
“They’re not seeing that trend, that violent-crime trend, to really satisfy that [definition],” Morse told SN&R.Demon warlord Samaritans
Much like Bradley, local hip-hop artist Robert “Brutha Smith” King came to Insane Clown Posse at a young age, when someone handed him a tape. The band's junky-sounding early stuff, filled with darkly metaphorical morality tales about battling one's inner demons, served as a cathartic outlet for King, whose parents struggled with drug addiction.
“I never knew my parents sober growing up,” King shared over piping classical music inside a tony East Sacramento coffeehouse. “It let me get over those things.”
But it would be a few years before King, a married father in his 30s, identified as a Juggalo. For him and Bradley both, along with two other fans interviewed by SN&R, it wasn’t the cartoonishly violent rhymes about peeling cats and snuffing chickens that demanded their allegiance.
It was ICP’s underlying message that everyone deserves respect—black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight.
“Just being a good person, that’s what it is,” Bradley said of what it means to be a Juggalo.
As crazy as that may sound regarding a bunch of scary-looking white dudes who paint their faces like demon warlords and mosh to psychedelic acid rap, it’s also kind of true.
King offered up an experiment to test the hypothesis.
“In your free time, if you do a Facebook search for ’Juggalos against,’ just that term, you’ll find hundreds of Facebook groups based off of fighting homophobia, [supporting] suicide prevention, civil rights,” he said.
He’s right on the money. In addition to the above causes, there are multiple Juggalo Facebook pages devoted to ending domestic violence, bullying, pedophilia, stereotypes and—wait for it—gangs.
“And that was happening long before the hybrid gang classification,” King added. “It was a natural result of being a Juggalo.”
ICP’s message of acceptance, camouflaged as it is in loud, angry blasts of hatchet-wielding rap, has resonated with legions of poor, dispossessed youths who often feel judged and discarded themselves.
People like Justin Clark, a “retired” fan who still answers to the nickname “Faygo,” which is the cheap Detroit-based soda ICP drenches concertgoers in at shows.
The 33-year-old Clark is homeless, a population law enforcement fingers as the prime driver of Juggalo-related criminal activity. But Clark’s no clown-faced homey; he’s a progressive activist who chooses the streets over his friends’ couches because it keeps him plugged into various causes, including Occupy Sacramento events and organizing a “poor people’s campaign” on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“Where I can be would take me away from where I need to be,” he reasoned.
As for the gang designation and the shoddy treatment that young homeless Juggalos sometimes experience from Downtown Plaza to the malls in Reno, Nev., Clark points to the two Santa Ana cops recently acquitted for fatally pummeling a schizophrenic homeless man during a videotaped altercation in 2011.
“Listening to music doesn’t make you a criminal,” he said. “If you want to find criminals, look at the ones who are beating people to death.”
Or chasing them out of the park.
King used to organize family-friendly barbecues to collect clothes and food for the homeless multiple times a year. But during one Juggalo gathering on Memorial Day 2012 at Howe Park, he said police cars started rolling by in 15-minute intervals, driving up on the grass and along the walkway. On the fourth or fifth pass, officers exited their vehicles and walked through the crowd of roughly 70 Juggalos.
He said an organizer walked over to explain that they had a permit to be there and were doing something for charity, but was brushed aside. The officers approached a man they said was drunk, hauled him off and shut the party down.
“That entire gathering, that entire barbecue, was to gather food for a homeless shelter,” King said. “And they were coming there and harassing people who weren’t breaking the law.”
Sacramento police logs include no mention of the alleged incident on that date.
As a result, King said Juggalos now avoid Howe Park. He hasn’t organized a charity event in more than a year.'Just a fandom'
In many ways, Insane Clown Posse's two members—portly lead rhymer Violent J and skinny hype man Shaggy 2 Dope—are the most successful losers in pop music.
Sure, they’ve sold millions of albums, draw thousands to their annual “gatherings” events and have their own record label and cable show on Fuse network. But outside the warm-soda embrace of their rowdy fans, ICP doesn’t get much love: Critics deride their stuff as dumb and derivative. Eminem beefs with them. Quasi-celebrity Tila Tequila once got feces literally thrown at her during one of their four-day shows.
And now ICP is on the government’s shit list.
The rappers say they’ve already suffered one canceled show as a result—their annual Hallowicked event in Michigan—and that they’re hemorrhaging ticket sales because fans don’t want to be seen in groups of more than three, lest they be accused of gangbanging.
At a January 8 press conference announcing the lawsuit in Detroit, Violent J, born Joseph Bruce, summed up the gang designation thusly: “bullshit.”
“It’s just music, you know,” he continued. “If it’s not your cup of tea, that’s fine, but believe me, it’s just another form of music, and we’re proud of it.”
For Bradley, the press conference was a surreal moment, sitting beside his heroes. Even more so when he got up to face the bright lights of the big-city press and read his own statement.
“To be able to stand up for a whole bunch of people that are afraid or aren’t able to stand up for themselves … it’s a really magical thing,” he said. “It means the world. I can’t describe how good that feels.”
At the time of the interview, Bradley wore an ICP T-shirt with the duo animated onto a fake comic-book cover. His apartment walls are slathered in trippy-colored posters and lithographs depicting ICP and the big carnival tent they’ve pitched for all their fellow freaks. He’s also dedicated generous space on both inner forearms and one of his calves to the artists he loves.
He goes to the shows, sure, but also to local gatherings just to hang out with fellow Juggalos. One of the hip-hop loyalist’s closest Juggalo buddies is a “country nerd,” Bradley said. “All the people are really good to me and to each other.”
Yet scrutiny from law enforcement persists. King says he was pulled over 11 times in a two-year span beginning in 2010 by police in Galt and Lodi. The enforcement stops ceased the moment he took a hatchet man sticker off the back of his car, he added.
“They kept asking me, ’What are you?’ Like they wanted me to say the word,” King said.
While the FBI and Justice Department have until March to respond to the ACLU complaint, King believes his community should spend the interim putting its own house in order. He says Juggalos like him can do a better job of reaching out to the younger fans and steering them away from more literal interpretations of ICP’s lengthy catalog, which, on the surface, can come off as provocatively nihilistic or just downright misogynistic.
“There’s an open door to everybody. That’s also a double-edged sword, though. We get people that aren’t very good, that throw that moniker around,” King said. “I would never say that we’re a bunch of white-knight awesome people who go around doing great things. We’re just a fandom, you know?”