Cops and Clowns

07.28.14

A Report From the Misunderstood Gathering of the Juggalos

They have the tattoos, the face paint, and the tattered clothes, and they hold the door for people and say “thank you.” ‘This is not a place where you’re going to be judged,’ said Hippie Joe, between huffs of a morning joint.

THORNVILLE, Ohio—Notable omission: The drug bridge is no more. And as always, there are undercover officers in the crowd of 4,500 at the annual Gathering of the Juggalos.

The demise of the bridge is not a bad thing, said a spokesman for Psychopathic Records, the label operated by rap-rock duo Insane Clown Posse, which also operates the Gathering. The festival concluded Sunday and is rightfully billed as a four-day music event full of “people with open hearted kindness to one another.”

“There was no reason to have [the drug bridge] and it had gotten out of hand,” said Jason Webber, the spokesman, a one-time journalist and former legislative aid to the mayor in Dayton, Ohio.

Is this a concession in the land of the anything goes world of Juggalos?

Relatively few people suffered ill effects from the more open consumption and sale of substances in prior years. But the death last year of 24-year-old Cory Collins prompted the mid-Gathering closure of the drug bridge, which was for years a place to hawk substances of all kinds at a campground in southern Illinois, where the Gathering had been held since 2007.

“They used that as an excuse to stop the bridge,” said Sandra Rosko, a 28-year-old actress from Los Angeles attending her 10th Gathering.  She stood outside the gates of the festival on the first day with a truck packed with camping gear for the weekend. She said the drug bridge drew the predictable sensationalism from a press throng that took its drug use cues from tamer festivals. And that attracted an outside element. “It was really time to do it. Some people were coming to the Gathering just for that, and it reflected pretty badly on the whole event.”

The Gathering, now in its 15th year, was held this year at Legend Valley, a new venue for the first time since 2007. The grounds burst with sideshows, from unabashed nudity to the incessant blare of hand-held loudspeakers, turning any Keystone swiller into a carny barker. Makeshift shanty towns, with lean-tos hiding well-crafted camps that include high-end grills, refrigerators, and sound systems, packed the rim of the rutted roads that cut through the site.

“No matter what they do to the Gathering, where they have it, what they close and open, it’s always good to be home, which is what the Gathering is,” said Hippie Joe, a 40-year-old pipefitter and father of four from Detroit. With that, he took a huff off a morning joint and moved into the throng of jovial patrons. Some wore the clown face paint made famous by the members of ICP, some wore the T-shirts emblazoned with Psychopathic logos, and some wore little to nothing. It didn’t matter. “This is not a place where you’re going to be judged,” Hippie Joe said.

The Gathering has evolved from what the uninformed public considered a cultural, low rent free-for-all to a formidable music festival. Well, one that caters to the freedom-craving world of Juggalos.

“You know there’s girls walking about topless and it gets everyone huffin’ and puffin’ and arresting her,” ICP’s Violent J told me a while back in a chat at Psychopathic headquarters in suburban Detroit about the Gathering.  “People pay good money to get in there and if they want to walk around topless, please, let it go, man. She’s partying at a rock concert. The only time we have problems is when there are people interacting with Juggalos. The Gathering is their time. There are no problems between Juggalos and there’s no reason to interfere.”

Added J’s partner, Shaggy 2 Dope: “Especially authorities. They don’t need to control Juggalos, and that’s been the problem in the past, putting their hands on them trying to control them. No grown man wants someone to put their hands on them.”

“Really, who cares if they have marijuana?”

Finally, they’re getting their wish, at least in part. The cops sat on their hands for the most part at the Gathering. They cruised the grounds, along with the promoter’s 70 staffers that range from stagehands to keepers of the peace, at the behest of promoter Steve Trickle, who required cops inside the venue as part of the Gathering deal.

The deputies often returned the Juggalo greeting—“whoop whoop”—in kind, earning a smile from a group that has been misguidedly looked at by law enforcement.

The classification of Juggalos as a gang in the FBI’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment report has garnered support from a public that had looked askance at what well may be one of the few remaining subcultures in America. In the process, the mainstream has damned Insane Clown Posse as one of the world’s most hated bands and Juggalos as the “most obnoxious fans in the world.”

“No matter what you think of the music and Juggalos, everyone knows discrimination is wrong,” Webber, the Psychopathic spokesman, said, referring to the FBI designation.

Is there a fear that any form of popular embrace would damage the cred of ICP and the label?

“We’ll always be the most hated band in the world,” Webber said. “You can’t just turn that off. There will always be that elitist attitude toward us.”

“We love it,” Violent J said. “We're the most hated band in the world, that's our claim to fame.” 

* * * 

Law enforcement in Legend Valley, an old-school shed with the main stage at the bottom of a jagged, steep hill, is provided by the Licking County Sheriff’s Office, which keeps a trailer on site for all of the shows at the aged outdoor venue.

“It’s an area that we mostly have country music shows,” Col. Chad Dennis said, watching the Juggalos set up their tents, campers and trailers. “This one is a little unusual for this place.”

It was just as unusual in 2006, when the Gathering was held down the road at a place called Frontier Ranch Music Center. The cops had riot gear at the ready—tear gas, flash bang grenades and rubber bullets—because of their intel on Juggalos, which described them as a disruptive crew with a dislike for law enforcement.

The equipment was never unpacked. Cops said that this weekend was calmer than most of the shows that they encountered at Frontier Ranch. On Wednesday night, as the main stage acts raged, Capt. Chris Slayman cruised the perimeter of the Gathering.

A drunk guy who had fallen asleep in a stranger’s car was as out-of-hand as it got. Slayman eased the young man—Matt, from Pennsylvania—out of the car and got him on his stumbling way.

Other officers drove through the grounds of the festival on golf carts. They all agreed that the routine practice of smoking weed would not be policed. “We understand there are a lot of drugs but that’s not our concern,” Slayman said. “Really, who cares if they have marijuana?”

He sees Juggalos as any other group he has to police.  The country music concerts, he said, tended to have the most violence. “They get drunk and fight, that’s just what some of them do,” he said. “I was raised very conservative and I am a Christian and that’s who I am. I also believe in America and the Constitution and everyone has rights.”

Including one of the most inalienable, the right to be stupid. And under that one, the right to gobble hallucinogenics and wander around naked, clutching a cellphone, which is how officers found a festival attendee early one morning, walking down a main road bordering Legend Valley.

“He told us someone was chasing him,” Slayman said. Sadly, he had a warrant and had to spend at least a night in the Licking County Jail.

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The next night, a deputy leaving around 6 a.m. saw a man walking up the on ramp to nearby Interstate 70. He pulled over to help the confused pedestrian, who said he was leaving the Gathering before breaking into a run and shucking his clothes off along the way. He was corralled and subdued.

“Once we got him under control, he told us he had no idea what had happened,” an officer said.

Four men who represented themselves as agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrived on Friday afternoon, at a back gate over by the wrestling ring at an obscure gate near a small pond. Two yellow-shirted employees of the promoter were sitting back there, watching the production crew gate, making sure no one sneaked in. The agents arrived on individual ATVs. No one knew which direction they came from. The nearest ATF office is 32 miles away, in downtown Columbus.

The men demanded to be allowed inside, claiming there were reports of minors drinking on the premises. Why the ATF gives a shit about minors having a few beers is one of those mysteries rooted in a history of bullying and intimidation.

The guards were wise enough to know that having the ATF on the grounds, if that’s who they were, would be a bad idea. 

One of the guards got a Psychopathic honcho on the walkie talkie, and he immediately called Farris Haddad, a Detroit lawyer and Juggalo who was in attendance.

“No, you can’t come on this property, you don’t have permission,” Haddad told the ATF bruisers, who sat on their vehicles flummoxed at how quickly the Juggalos could legally defend themselves. Haddad asked to see their badges. The agents refused.

They then turned tail without a word, driving away to the east, the last one flipping the finger to Haddad, or, more likely, the entire Juggalo culture, a world that he could never conceive of.

* * * 

It was pure good fortune that landed the Gathering in Licking County, a farm-strewn block of land east of Columbus. The festival left its home since 2007, Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, after a dismal last year, where a meager 3,000 people showed and law enforcement and vendors sued Psychopathic for unpaid debts. Add to that a batch of misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges and a few felony drug raps, and it was time to move.

They landed a spot at Cry Baby Campground in rural Miller County, Missouri, for a second until local outrage and a prosecutor waving a law from the ’70s putting tight restrictions on music festivals chased them away.

“We had seen all the news reports and this group is particularly infamous for rowdy behavior,” said Miller County Prosecutor Matt Howard, who in a letter advised Psychopathic that it could face legal problems if it moved forward with the Gathering. “Also, though, it’s good marketing for Insane Clown Posse to get out word that they are banned or asked to leave. They want to be this scary thing and it works. The phones were burning up, people were starting petitions to keep them from coming. When we told most of the people around here that they were going somewhere else, 90 percent of people were cheering from roof tops.”

Steve Trickle operator of Legend Valley, which has hosted everyone from the Grateful Dead to Rod Stewart since the ’70s, reached out to Psychopathic. 

It was an Altamont-like rescue; like the Rolling Stones in 1969, who wanted to stage an outdoor free concert and had a hard time finding a place to put it, the Insane Clown Posse and its label were struggling with Establishment backlash stemming from the FBI gang designation.

The report ranked Juggalos next to Bloods and Crips in terms of dangerous gangs, a ludicrous legal pockmark that resulted in a federal civil rights lawsuit by the ACLU against the U.S. Department of Justice that earlier this month was dismissed by a conservative judge in Michigan.

As a result of the FBI designation, ICP was persona non grata in numerous places, including many potential Gathering sites.

Even before the gang thing, though, reputation trumped truth in many places.

“You know they worship Satan, I heard the services, the noise,” Claudette Van Dyne, who lives just outside the Frontier Ranch Music Center in nearby Pataskala, told me last month in an interview. In her upper 60s, she’s served on zoning boards and has been an active member of the community over the years. The Gathering was held at Frontier in 2006. She was warned of the Juggalos by her son, who was 39 at the time. And she still remembers the weekend.

“They take animals for their sacrifices,” she added. “We had four head of cattle that we locked up when the Gathering happened. Some ‘Jiggalos’ threatened to take my dog.”

When told that the Gathering was back in her area, she was distressed.

“Oh no, does the county know about this?”

Of course.

“They take animals for their sacrifices,” she added. “We had four head of cattle that we locked up when the Gathering happened. Some ‘Jiggalos’ threatened to take my dog.”

In May, a number of people, including a woman purporting to represent local residents troubled by the idea of face-painted music lovers in their midst, met with Ohio state Sen. Tim Schaffer at his Columbus office.

“The gang thing was brought up,” said Schaffer spokesman Justin Stanek. “The citizens had done a lot of research and came in with articles on vandalism and violence, not just at other concerts, but in general. “ 

* * * 

Which brings it back to the evolving Juggalos, who will always sit gleefully on the margins despite growing public attention. The media list at the Gathering was capped this year at 50 passes, almost double what it was five years ago, when many bloggers posed as journalists and used the freebie to bag on the Juggalos.

National attention to the Gathering and Juggalos simmered for years before blooming with the FBI designation and wider reports of deaths at the Gathering.

“The media really started to pay attention when someone died in 2011,” said Kenny Fritch, a 28-year-old from Mesquite, Texas. “People die all the time at [electronica festivals]. We’ve had what, three deaths in 15 years? They have three deaths, at least, every year. But the public and the media seemed to start watching us as soon as those started to get publicized.”

He’s right. One can watch any number of ill-conceived “documentaries” on Juggalos and assume that loading up on cheap beer and low-grade weed is a daily ritual for just about all of them.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The mythologized Juggalos are more breathtaking, with painted faces and warped minds adoring tales of murder and serial killers delivered by ICP.

It’s the admission to a world of freedom, silliness, and yes, sometimes intoxicated idiocy. Just like some of the mental-patients-in-waiting from the 1986 documentary, Heavy Metal Parking Lot, which chronicled the scene outside a Judas Priest concert, Juggalos have performed for cameras in full-blown, shit-faced drunkenness much to the detriment of the group at large.

“There’s people being stupid in any group and we’re no exception,” said Shad Adamson, a Juggalo from Salt Lake City, attending his seventh Gathering. Still, you love them like family, which is how they refer to each other.

“We’re friends from all over the country, all over the world, who take their one week of vacation together,” said Adamson, a round-faced, broad-bodied gentleman who works as a bouncer. Juggalos who don’t come to the Gathering aren’t likely to have the same spirit as those who make the pilgrimage at least once. “This is where I learned to help others,” he said.

It took a few years of fandom before Bart Spanfellner began to gather.

“I saw this Gathering on the Internet and I said to my wife, ‘I’m going to see this,’” said Spanfellner, 39, who lives in northern Ohio. “I’d been going to shows for years, but after that first one I knew that any time they have one of these things I’m going. Everybody else has a family vacation, I have a gathering vacation.”

Having the FBI as an enemy in the age of anti-fed sentiment and NSA spying is a good thing for the Juggalos, who may eventually be seen as those lovable, Faygo-swilling/spilling music fans. There is no questioning their fellowship and effort to dispel misplaced preconceptions.

“It seems like they go out of their way to make sure that they contradict their image,” said one sheriff’s deputy sitting in his car at a gas station across from the Gathering site. “They have the tattoos, the face paint and the tattered clothes, then they hold the door for people and say ‘thank you’ and pick up after themselves.”

Indeed, in a world that seems bent on social stratification, the Juggalos are still busting things up, confusing the Man.  They don’t even need a drug bridge to do it.