In a ruling that calls into question both the meaning and the relevance of what it is to be defined as a "gang" in the US, a district judge ruled today that the FBI cannot be blamed for any fallout that may have arisen (or may arise) from the determination of Juggalos as members of a gang in 2011.
Fans of the Insane Clown Posse band, recognized for their makeup and attire, were determined a "loosely organized hybrid gang" in a 2011 FBI report on gang culture in the US. Juggalos, as they are known and self-identify, rejected the label, suing the FBI for discriminating against their cultural identity in a way that, according to their ACLU attorneys, violated their constitutional right to free expression.
Indeed, the FBI's application of "gang" to Juggalo culture highlights the paucity of how groups are delineated and understood by US authorities. Given the fact that, as the FBI report itself stated, a number of Juggalos have engaged in "individualistic" instances of crime — including assault and vandalism — the entire community earned gang status.
However, according the most recent ruling, the FBI cannot be held responsible for how law enforcement treats Juggalos, since, according to Judge Robert Cleland, the report specifically "does not recommend any particular course of action for local law enforcement to follow, and instead operates as a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, assessment of nationwide gang trends."
The ruling grossly ignores the work done by determining a group with a shared cultural identity and appearance as a "gang." If not to engender a certain attitude and approach from the authorities, what use, then, to determine a group in such a way?
Such profiling de facto demands that members of any such "gang" be treated with caution and concern by law enforcement. It is a profiling of the many based on the actions of a few, which is the very foundation of profile-based policing — the sort of policing that has plagued black and Muslim communities. The ACLU has stated that they will challenge the latest court decision in order to "clear the Juggalo family name."
The case of the Juggalos is particularly interesting because these are a group of people who identify out of choice with a given sub-culture. The identification certainly entails no violent or illegal behavior. The "gang" determination in a federal report belies this.
In a policing environment wherein young black men are treated as dangerous gang members for little more organized activity than standing together on a street corner, the performative violence of an official "gang" label, given by the authorities, is clear. Legibility as a gang in the eyes of the law is grounds for profiling and discrimination. Juggalos don't deserve it. Nor, to be sure, do the young black men who are treated as dangerous gang members with or without any actual affiliation with existing gangs.
Today's ruling essentially states that the FBI naming a group or a subculture as a "gang" has no traceable impact on how the members are then treated by police. There's a problematic counterfactual at play here, however. If the so-called gang were not already being profiled as dangerous by law enforcement entities, they would not have made it on to an FBI list in the first place, however misinformed and discriminatory such a list might be.
In this way the FBI has a case here (albeit a deeply problematic one): If Juggalos were already assumed as a dangerous element by law enforcement — enough so that they made an FBI gang list — then the FBI report was only reflecting this fact, not making this worse. It has nothing to do with whether Juggalos are dangerous, and everything to do with the self-reinforcing ways our justice system profiles certain groups for little more than cultural identification and appearance.
The Juggalos were not mentioned in subsequent FBI gang reports after 2011. Nonetheless, they are right to fight the case. Because it hits at the heart of the issue of law enforcement profiling. This is not just about defending the name of the Juggalo, it's about rejecting who gets read and treated by the authorities as a dangerous, unwanted element based on visible markers of cultural identities alone.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
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