By Brandon Lowrey, The North County Times, 8/6/2011
ESCONDIDO, Calif. — Zealous fans of a decades-old rap duo have been the target of a crackdown by Escondido gang detectives after a string of street robberies and assaults.
The group, whose members call themselves Juggalos, are devoted to the Insane Clown Posse and the facepaint-wearing rappers’ label, Psychopathic Records.
Many of the band’s fans have said they’re a nonviolent “family” of underdogs and social rejects, not a gang. But they admit a few young Juggalos have been causing trouble.
A handful of Juggalos in Escondido were reportedly committing strong-arm robberies and “pocket checks” —- surrounding kids in the park and ordering them to empty their pockets and turn over valuables.
In late May or early June, Juggalos allegedly beat and robbed someone and reportedly punched a woman and held her at knifepoint.
After that, detectives cracked down and frequently visited Grape Day Park —- a gathering point for the group’s members.
The intense police attention has since driven most of the active Juggalos into hiding, detectives and friends of the group said.
But the violence seemed confined to a small subset of the group in Escondido, said gang Detective Erik Witholt.
Out of about 100 people in Escondido who identified themselves as Juggalos, only about a dozen or so have been causing serious trouble. The rest of the crimes tend to be minor, involving marijuana, alcohol or curfew violations, Witholt said.
“We don’t want to keep them from exploring life,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being part of a group as long as it’s not based on criminal enterprise.”
Juggalos typically wear red and black. If they have a logo, it’s the “hatchet man,” a cartoonish silhouette of a man running with a hatchet.
Some have been arrested carrying actual hatchets or found wearing black-and-white face paint, Witholt said.
They sometimes flash gang-like hand signs and shout out code words and sounds to greet one another. Tattoos and other symbols tend to fit with the Insane Clown Posse’s theme, a blend of horror and carnivals.
The Insane Clown Posse evolved from a Detroit gang called Inner City Posse. At least one of the musicians was jailed in 1989 before eventually leaving the gang, according to news reports.
The group has since found commercial success despite being almost universally panned by critics. Its lyrics are often colorfully violent and peppered with profanity, although the rappers have said in interviews the calls to violence aren’t meant to be taken literally.
Frequently, racists and bigots are the villains or targets of the violence in the songs.
In April 2010, the band posted a music video on YouTube for an uncharacteristically reflective song titled “Miracles,” meant to celebrate the wonders in life everyone tends to take for granted. The face-painted duo, clad in glowing white, rap earnestly as images of galaxies, the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge flash behind them.
The production, along with the lyrics, made the video an Internet punchline. Among the lyrics mocked most fiercely: “(Expletive) magnets, how do they work? I don’t want to talk to a scientist, ya’ll mother-(expletive) are lying and getting me pissed.”
The Insane Clown Posse’s members, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, have embraced the negativity, saying in interviews and in marketing campaigns they are “the most hated band in the world.”
Despite the group’s inner-city origins, being a decked-out Juggalo isn’t cheap.
At Psychopathic Records’ official online store, www.hatchetgear.com, a hooded sweatshirt costs $65. Silver hatchet-man necklace pendants run from $65 to $100. T-shirts sell for $20 and polo shirts go for $30.
Repeated calls to Psychopathic Records, based in Detroit’s upscale Farmington Hills suburb, were not returned.
In Escondido, Juggalos and police have said there have been scuffles between Juggalos and established Latino gangs in the area. None of the incidents resulted in serious injuries.
Most Juggalos are white, but the group is not racially exclusive nor supremacist, authorities and members said.
Escondido police officials stopped short of applying that label, saying they hope to prevent the group from getting to that point.
“If they’re going to act like a street gang, we’re going to treat them like a street gang,” said Escondido police Lt. Craig Carter.
Since the Police Department’s aggressive response, friends and associates of the group said the more violent members have been lying low.
Malcom Klein, a respected gang expert and University of Southern California professor emeritus, said police should be careful in applying the gang label and the harsher criminal charges that accompany it.
A group of kids who share an interest and get into trouble isn’t necessarily a gang.
However, “it is also not uncommon for music groups or dance groups or anything of that kind to morph into a street gang, but usually it needs some kind of rivalry (with another group or an existing street gang) for that to happen,” Klein said.
In Grape Day Park on Saturday, Sean Underwood, 18, said he used to wear Insane Clown Posse gear more often before the police began cracking down. That day, he wore a white tank top and red shorts.
The music, he said, is just music. Sure, some songs have violent lyrics, but the Insane Clown Posse isn’t the only band that has those.
Underwood and several other Juggalo members gathered there said they were disappointed with the handful who have been causing problems, especially since they’ve brought heat to the hundreds who don’t commit violent crimes.
“You’re making us look bad,” Underwood said. “You’re bringing us down with you.”
Others there said Juggalos they barely knew helped them when they were homeless or otherwise friendless. One of those was Chris Harrison, 27, a transient from Vista.
He said he’s been a fan of the Insane Clown Posse since the late 1980s and believes to be a Juggalo is to be unconditionally accepting.
“Little, fake people are running around, sporting the hatchet and doing bad things,” said Chris Harrison, 27, of Vista. “It’s not a gang, dude. It’s a family.”
One Escondido Juggalo faces prison time.
Calvin Sanford, 18, pleaded guilty on July 1 to assault likely to cause great bodily injury, a spokesman for the San Diego County district attorney’s office said. Sanford faces up to four years in prison and is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 31.
On June 21, Zachary Miller, 20, was arrested at Grape Day Park as friends looked on. He was a suspect in an assault and robbery, but was later released for lack of evidence.
After officers put Miller in the back of a waiting patrol car, they turned their attention to a crowd of his friends.
They interviewed them, took photographs and examined their tattoos and clothing.
One of the Juggalos called himself “Blaze.” It was a nickname he borrowed from his favorite Psychopathic Records rapper.
Blaze said he’s from the East Coast and has been through a lot before he ended up living in San Diego County with a relative in the military. He has since gone homeless on the streets of Escondido.
But he was adamant that Juggalos aren’t a gang. They’re a caring, loving family who always have his back, he said.
Blaze said he considers all Juggalos and Juggalettes —- the female counterparts —- his brothers and sisters.
“We’re not a gang,” he said. “But if you (expletive) with one of my homies, I’m coming after you.”