The Mall in Washington, D.C., is an awkward place for a rally, especially one that’s drawn a smaller crowd than usual. The lawn between the Capitol steps and the Lincoln Memorial is almost two miles long. Every building around here is constructed at a scale to make you feel tiny in the face of the state.
So the pro-Trump “Mother Of All Rallies,” at its largest a couple hundred strong, feels more like a biker barbecue than a forceful reclaiming of “American values.” And the concurrent march of the Juggalos against FBI persecution—a crowd of a couple thousand evangelical-level fans of Detroit rap-rock duo Insane Clown Posse—feels, between speeches, like an extremely civil music festival but with less weed, more cops.
On both sides of the mall protesters mug it up, striking poses for the press. They’re here to combat the media narrative, though none of the Juggalos I speak to expect their numbers to change the FBI’s mind. This is DC: They’re here to consciousness-raise. One of the kids in clown makeup carries a sign: “2017 is weird and bad.” Well said.
There is a First Amendment issue being highlighted in D.C. on this Saturday morning, but it isn’t at the pro-Trump rally, where people will cite getting shouted off Facebook as an infringement of their Constitutional rights. The centerpiece float says “MOAR” and also “TRUMP” in human-sized letters. When it loops around the Mall at 11am, it’s blaring a men’s acapella recording of “God Bless America.” The float has all kinds of words on it: Flag, Nation, God. American Culture. The Constitution.
The MOAR rally, which was announced in August to “peacefully” unite “Patriots” concerned with the persecution of their “American values,” hasn’t even started yet, but some of the militia guys are already sweating under the weight of their camo. They’ve retired to the shade along with families laying out American flag blankets and folding chairs. The cops stand around looking nervous. They ask the men with helmets moving across the neon-green lawn if they’d heard about anything going down. Beyond them, someone is shouting “CNN is Isis.”
“I came here because I love capitalism,” a girl in her twenties from Oregon tells me. When I ask her name she almost gives it to me, but her mother tells her not to. Mom wants to know if I’m with antifa; I happen to be wearing all black, and that’s what they do: “We know all about antifa—we’re from Portland,” she says.
Last night, the two of them found themselves in a D.C. bar with some Juggalos in full clown makeup, in town for their own rally on the other side of the Mall. “We partied with them. It was tight,” says the daughter. “They hate antifa, too,” Mom adds.
Everyone wants a piece of the hard-partying Insane Clown Posse family today. As Kitty, of the anti-fascist-Juggalo crossover crew Struggalo Circus, tells me, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope of ICP were actually invited to speak at the MOAR rally a month ago. The rappers, who have been planning this march for more than a year, just laughed—which isn’t to say they’re making an issue of leaning either way, just that protesting Juggalos’ inclusion on the FBI’s hybrid gang list takes precedence today. In an “infomercial” for the march produced by the band’s label, Psychopathic, Shaggy 2 Dope reminds the Juggalos what the FBI is doing: “That’s fascism!” he says.
Chris Fabritz one of the subculture’s relatively rare black members and something of an internal politician, says the racial issues in America are “definitely bigger” than the Juggalo issues. “But here, today, it’s not really about the fact that I think Bernie Sanders should have been president, and that I think black people deserve, you know, like basic human rights.”
But in 2017 it’s nearly impossible to be a single-issue protester. And in the weeks leading up to the rally, the largely white, largely working-class Juggalos who were once cultural outcasts have been embraced joyously, absurdly, by the internet’s left. As Dana Bil wrote on Twitter: “2011 me: magnets, how do they work? Lol. “ In 2017: “our juggalo comrades are a strong & necessary flank in the fight against fascism.”
As the ceremony at MOAR kicks off with the pledge of allegiance, two New Yorkers–one far-right, the other on the left—bump chests, shouting into each other’s mouths. They’re mobbed immediately by concentric circles of homegrown and national press.
A little further out, on a nearly deserted 14th Street, five anemic teenagers—one in facepaint, all in ICP T-shirts—make their way in the direction of the rally, which they can hear but cannot see. The Juggalos are grinning; today is their day. All of a sudden everyone is “down with the clown.”
Two men in business casual point them in the right direction, away from MOAR. “Come with us!” one yells over his shoulder. Their crouching, deliberate walks make them look like they’re moving in slow motion, drowning in their enormous shorts.
Another thing about the Mall: All those long empty avenues make for odd, delayed echoes against the marble. “WE ARE NOT DONE TAKING BACK OUR COUNTRY,” a MOAR speaker yells into the mic. The sound bounces off the slanted walls of the African American culture museum, where vendors are still hawking Obama tote bags, and pings back, again, a half-second later, as the Juggalos amble up the hill.
The Mother Of All Rallies, announced a little over month ago, was originally permitted as a First Amendment protest. But its organizers publicly removed the quintessential free speech accessories, banning Confederate flags and displays of white nationalism to redouble on messages of “unity” and “American values.” (This dictum did not prevent a gang of Proud Boys, whose central tenet is “the West is the Best,” from taking the stage in their matching, fitted polos.)
But to understand what’s going on today on the Mall you’d also have to know a little about the Juggalos, who are a subculture in the style of the internet since long before social media made a culture out of every preference. “The Family,” as Juggalos often call themselves, are fond of horror-core fantasy world-building and rolling blunts. The FBI estimates they number 1 million.
Since the early 2000s they have come together once a year for a week-long campground retreat— Camille Dodero, who spoke at the rally on Saturday and has covered them for almost a decade, has called the Gathering “an annual pilgrimage for people who know they are among the most hated on earth.” Juggalos are “outcasts” who’ve found a home, I’m told repeatedly. (As one puts it to me, they’re the types who “showered with their underwear on” when they were kids.)
Juggalos famously have their own collection of rituals—baptizing each other in streams of Faygo soda, a low rumbling rally cry of “woop woop”—and an internal web-media empire to rival the scope of the far right. Historically they’ve drawn mainstream press ranging from the quizzical to the contemptuous. In recent years the press has been less patronizing as the implications of the hybrid-gang label have become more clear.
The Juggalos have been on the FBI’s list of organized gangs since 2011, a transparently senseless designation that’s cost ICP fans custody of their children and their jobs. In 2014, the ACLU got involved, but a second case against the feds has stalled. Which is why the Juggalos are here today, descending on the nation’s capitol, hauling rolling coolers and carrying signs that describe the FBI as, alternately, inbreds, Nickelback fans, and fucks.
Whereas some left-leaning writers once framed a visit to the Gathering as a physically dangerous assignment, today everyone wants to hug a Juggalo—or be one, as with the trio of Baltimore art kids LARPing as members of the Family, faces painted too carefully, clothing way too tight.
In part it’s the dawning realization that for all the clown culture and white-boy posturing, ICP and its fans can position itself in a recognizable way to the left: “We’re like, ‘We hate piggies, we hate bigots, we hate richies,’” says Ape, an Oakland Juggalo and organizer. “Okay well, that’s an anti-racist issue, an anti-police state issue, a class issue.”
All of which helps explains why the D.C. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America are also on the Mall today, handing out signs that say “Faygo, Not Fascism,” and kids from Ohio and Virginia are assembled in black bloc, bandanas strapped to their faces, flying a banner reading “Woop Woop Fuck Nazis.” (“I’m pretty sure they’re on our side?” I overhear a pigtailed girl in full-body fishnet say to her friend.)
The Reno Rydaz, a Nevada crew of Juggalos, are here with custom shirts and flags. So is Struggalo Circus, an anti-fascist group of Juggalos created when a member of the Family and an anarchist medic met on Tinder. I also encounter a militia-affiliated pro-Trump Juggalo in camo: He shows me the patches he and his Army buddies made while they were deployed—eight Juggalos in his unit alone, he says. Under the ubiquitous hatchet man it reads, “Wicked clowns never die.”
At one point I stop to watch two wobbly-eyed Juggalos explain themselves to an out-of-town couple on rented tourist bikes. It gets a little jumbled: The couple keeps asking what this group is for—but they aren’t for much but each other, though they are definitely against the FBI. “The most violent thing we do is throw pap,” says the shirtless Juggalo in baggy jeans, swaying. Pap? “Pap. Like soda.” The couple nods. “Well, it seems like a pretty diverse crowd,” the husband concedes.
Jimmy Werra and his buddies, down from Boston, are flying a sign that’s asking $1 per photo. Jimmy’s wearing an Esham T-shirt and an Esham necklace—the black Detroit rapper was the first to paint his face like a clown, a year before ICP did so, and Jimmy doesn’t want anyone to forget the history. “Why isn’t Esham here?” he asks rhetorically. But creative erasure aside: “This shit is real,” Jimmy says. “The fucking Holocaust camps are happening again, they’re trying to censor music. Look, I’m not into politics super-hard, but I know Trump has funny hair. And I know a lot of his supporters are racist.”
“Celebrity in office? Bad idea. Very, very bad idea,” he adds. He shakes his head, hard. A woman walks by with a sign: “Juggalo Lives Matter.”
I don’t ask the bikers at the Mother of All Rallies how they identify racially, but they tell me, anyway, almost right away. A coalition of pro-Trump motorcycle gangs from New York, Alabama, and Florida, they tell me “being a patriot is all-encompassing,” it transcends boundaries.
“You got Mexican-American, Native American, Southern American, Jews. Israeli-American,” a member of the Bikers against Jihad tells me, pointing to various members of the crew, most wearing denim vests. One of them is one-fourth Cherokee, I hear. “And we all have Patriotism in common.” I keep asking what patriotism is, and keep being told it’s about unity in the face of opposition.
The bikers are here to bond, they say, and share their love of their country. They’ve met at other rallies, they keep in touch online. One tells me that as a Jew, he feels marginalized when people compare Trump to Hitler. Trump hasn’t killed 11 million people, he says. His parents lost half their family. And he’s the one being called a Nazi? His wife, a high school English teacher, says her free speech is being infringed upon by social media. She almost lost her job talking about Trump online. I ask if they feel less put-upon now that their candidate is in office. The answer is yes, but mostly no. “There has never been a less-respected president,” a biker named Connie—“no last name”—says.
“I want people to know that we are people that basically reject the political class narrative of identity politics,” the Biker against Jihad says. Onstage, Peter Boykin of Gays for Trump is plodding through a speech. He names candidates this new, energized movement should be supporting: “America First” senate candidate Bobby Lawrence, Virginian anti-immigrant county politician Corey Stewart. The only one who gets a cheer from the crowd is Kid Rock.
“I have a dream, motherfuckers,” Kevin Gill, a member of Psychopathic Records’ wrestling team, booms into the mic. We are 54 years and a thousand points of reference from the origin of that line. The assembled Juggalos roar. “If the Juggalos are a gang, then the Grateful Dead are the triple OGs of this shit,” he says. It’s an “honor to fight for free speech.” The crowd chants, in monotone: “They fucked up.”
The speeches the Juggalos give are massively touching, if rambling; the ICP fans are so nice. “We don’t care if you’re black, white, Hispanic, straight, gay, trans, fat as fuck, or skinny as a broomstick,” Gill says. When the Juggalos finally march, they lead with a banner that reads SCRUBS. A group of World War II veterans from Iowa, identically dressed in red, look on. I ask them what they think. “This is what we served for,” says one. Another nods, jowls flapping, and repeats a couple times: “Free Speech!”
The Proud Boys prowl around the march, but a lot of the people they might be fighting in D.C. still carry felony charges from the inauguration and are far away from the Mall today. There are 39 law enforcement agencies here—and, the Juggalos and I are fairly certain, a sniper on the Lincoln Memorial’s roof. Around the World War II memorial, an antifa kid in a black bandana hisses “white supremacist” at the passing Proud Boys. The only black guy in their crew turns around and, plucking at the skin on his chest, shouts: “I’m black, I’m black, I’m black!” The Proud Boys roar.
Across the Mall, a handful of New York Black Lives Matter protesters are trudging up the well-manicured hill towards the Washington monument, Pan-African flags tied around their necks. They had come from the MOAR rally, where they were granted a surprise opportunity to appear on stage. “I am an American, and a Christian,” one of the BLM protestors had boomed into the crowd, standing next to MOAR’s organizer, who nodded aggressively. “And the beautiful thing about America is that if you see something broke in your country, you mobilize to fix it.” When he mentions black men dying on television, the crowd starts to boo.
Meanwhile, the sun goes down and ICP breaks out the Faygo guns and purple lights. White limbs are crushed up against the stage; monsters in jumpsuits spray confetti and wave flags. Someone’s wheelchair ends up crowd-surfing. The performers take a moment between every song to tell the assembled they’re proud. “They will respect us,” the Insane Clown Posse tells their united, beloved fans. “We’re gonna make sure of it, fam.”