TAR HEEL VIEW: FBI should drop Juggalos’ careless gang designation

For fans of the rap group Insane Clown Posse, the First Amendment’s freedom of association has been replaced with guilt by association.

Thousands marched through the streets of Washington on Saturday to protest the FBI’s designation of Juggalos — loyal fans of ICP and other bands signed to its independent record label — as gang members.

After a string of media reports on crimes committed by individual Juggalos and small groups, the U.S. Department of Justice branded the Juggalos a “loosely organized hybrid gang” in its 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment. Fans who enjoy the group’s music and have no criminal ties say they’re being smeared.

While membership in a gang isn’t illegal in and of itself, validated gang members face increased scrutiny from law enforcement and may be denied employment with government agencies and private companies. They also can be punished more harshly when convicted of crimes even if the charges have no connection to gang activity.

Insane Clown Posse members Joseph Utzler, who performs under the name Shaggy 2 Dope, and Joseph Bruce, whose stage name is Violent J, sued the FBI and Department of Justice in 2014 along with four Juggalos — including North Carolina resident Scott Gandy — alleging the gang label violates their due process, free speech and free association rights.

Gandy, of Concord, claims in the lawsuit that a U.S. Army recruiter expressed concern about his ICP tattoos due to the federal gang designation and recommended that Gandy have them covered or removed so he could enlist. Gandy spent hundreds to alter the tattoos so they were no longer Juggalo symbols, but the Army still rejected him.

Other plaintiffs say they’ve been harassed by police who allegedly cited Juggalo tattoos, clothing and the band’s “hatchetman” insignia on a truck and referenced the gang designation as the sole reason for the stops.

A Michigan federal judge threw out the civil complaint, ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing, but the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned that decision in September 2015. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is assisting the Juggalos in their legal fight.

We agree with the plaintiffs and the ACLU that federal officials have unfairly painted Juggalos — a fan base estimated somewhere north of a million — with too broad a brush. The gang designation is unprecedented given other ties between musicians and organized crime.

The Grateful Dead is popular with members of the Hells Angels, an outlaw motorcycle gang. In fact, Hells Angels members were even hired to provide event security at a 1969 concert where the Rolling Stones performed and the Grateful Dead were scheduled but did not appear. Yet the FBI hasn’t seen fit to brand all Deadheads as gangsters.

Rapper Snoop Dogg was a member of the Rollin 20 Crips, but fans who wear Snoop Dogg merchandise are not considered gang members. Hip-hop artist The Game has ties to the Bloods. His fans are not automatically stigmatized.

Insane Clown Posse’s music isn’t for everyone — vulgar and violent lyrics have made the group controversial. But Juggalos shouldn’t be arbitrarily labeled gang members based on isolated incidents involving a few wayward fans.