Rachel Healy of the ACLU on why the civil rights advocacy group is getting “down with the clown”

Yesterday it was announced that the Insane Clown Posse (ICP) would be teaming up with the ACLU to sue the FBI and Justice Department in defense of their fan base (widely known as Juggalos).

I talked with Rachel Healy, Director of Communications for the ACLU of Maine, about the involvement of the Michigan branch of the civil liberties advocacy powerhouse in the Insane Clown Posse’s federal lawsuit against the FBI and Justice Department.

Of the lawsuit The New York Times reports:

The seeds of this lawsuit were sown in 2011, when the F.B.I.’s National Gang Intelligence Center published a report that described Juggalos as “a loosely organized hybrid gang” whose members were “expanding into many U.S. communities.”


The Michigan rap group Insane Clown Posse filed suit on Wednesday against the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, saying that the United States government had made the “unwarranted and unlawful decision” to classify fans of the band as criminal gang members, leading to their harassment by law enforcement and causing them “significant harm.”

ICP and the ACLU held a press conference yesterday where they identified a number of examples in which Juggalos either suffered or were targeted by law enforcement agencies merely as a result of their identification as fans of the band.

I read a number of articles about the lawsuit yesterday, but I talked with Healy to get a better sense of why the ACLU felt compelled to “get down with the clown.”

I have been peripherally aware of ICP since high school, and I was aware that the FBI had made this move to classify them as a decentralized gang. But why did the ACLU see this as one with which they should be involved?

The ACLU of Michigan [ICP is based in Detroit] brought this federal lawsuit along with ICP on behalf of Juggalos. The lawsuit argues that the constitutional rights of Juggalos to expression and association, both First Amendment Rights, were violated when the government wrongly and arbitrarily classified the entire fan base as a criminal gang. Our interest in this is in the dampening of their right of freedom of expression and association brought on by that unfair blanket classification.

There are specific instances that were brought to my attention that showed the extent of the consequences. There was a guy who was photographed by police for wearing Juggalo related clothing and they extensively photographed his tattoos. There was a guy who spent all of his money to have his tattoos covered up because he couldn’t get into the army otherwise. There was a truck driver [who was pulled over because he had an ICP sticker on his truck] and there was a guy who is in the Army and fears that he could be discharged for his association with this so-called “gang.”

I think ICP fans and Juggalos as a whole tend to go without sympathy based on a number issues largely related to culture and class. Why should someone who is not particularly interested in the plight of Juggalos, or who is generally put off by ICP, be concerned with the outcome of this lawsuit?

The music of ICP is not for everybody and the first instinct of a listener might be to question the group’s value to society because it might be hard for some people to understand why they would want to dress the way they dress or wear that makeup. But it is really no different from any other kind of music fan who has found themselves part of an identifiable group that listens to a particular band. Organized crime is not a part of the Juggalo culture. There might be a few bad apples, but that is true of any fan base of any band. Think about Deadheads, PHISH fans or Parrot Heads who like Jimmy Buffett. They all identify as this one particular group and there are people among them who have committed crimes, I am sure. It is pretty obvious that there are members of Deadhead culture who have done things that are against the law, but that doesn’t mean that it would be okay to classify the entire fan base as a gang and then somehow treat them differently in the eyes of the law.

I think that is what is happening here with Juggalos. It might be easy to discount it because it might be hard for people to understand, but people in this culture consider themselves to be a family, they are supportive of each other, and they are oftentimes people who have found difficulty fitting in otherwise and this is the first group into which they have fit. Choosing to make themselves associated with this music certainly does not make them criminal.

Well the ACLU has a rich history of defending positions taken by those who aren’t always everybody’s favorite people.

That is absolutely true. The most famously contentious case is the defense of the right of a neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois. Because we are a group that defends the constitution, that have been led us to be involved in cases with people who have some controversial views. We are not defending what they say or do, but their constitutional right to say and do those things.

So it is almost like these larger conversations we now have about the decentralization of terror and organized crime can be used as red herrings for law enforcement agencies to prosecute anyone at will.

I think that is a great way of putting it. First of all, there is the issue over who gets to decide what behavior and speech is accessible and what isn’t. While we might be comfortable with that happening when the person who is deciding it agrees with us and sees certain behavior in the same way we do, that’s not always going to be the case. We are not always going to have the same viewpoint of the person who is in charge. So there is this idea that the government should be the arbiters of taste and that could translate to their ability to declare a whole group of people criminal, which is obviously problematic. Then there is the fact that yeah, we see this attempt to criminalize more and more behaviors as problematic as well. Here in Maine just in the last session alone there were dozens of laws proposed to create new crimes and resultant penalties as a form of control over our behavior.

It all sort of has the feel of security theater. I don’t think that the FBI spending that much time harassing Juggalos is going to make us any safer and I certainly wish they would be spending their time going after real threats.

What makes me nervous is seeing these emerging reports about the changing nature of gang affiliation, where affiliations are becoming much more fluid and less rigid than they were even a decade ago. Based on this changing scene, and these blanket assumptions of affiliation, the FBI and other agencies could ultimately justify going after any black or Latino kid in urban areas based on a suspicion of affiliation by proximity.

I think that is an absolutely valid fear. It lends itself to having even the smallest signifiers be reasons to stop someone to harass them, from the way they wear their pants to whatever handshake they do with their friends. That is not something we would want to see.

PHOTO SOURCE: Revolver Magazine

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.