The Persecution of the Juggalos in United States of Insanity
Tom Putnam talks Insane Clown Posse's First Amendment fight
By Richard Whittaker,
2:31PM, Tue. Oct. 26, 2021
What's the difference between Deadheads and Juggalos? The FBI doesn't classify fans of the Grateful Dead as gang members, but that's the tag hung around the necks of Insane Clown Posse fans.
It may sound like a joke, but owning ICP albums, having the famous Hatchet Man tattoo, hanging with other Juggalos, even just being Facebook friends with a Juggalo, has meant people have lost jobs, houses, custody of their kids, even had parole revoked. When documentarian Tom Putnam started looking into what was reported as a comedy footnote about the horrorcore duo of Violent J (Joseph Bruce) and Shaggy 2 Dope (Joseph Utsler), he quickly realized that what was really happening was a full-blown abuse of unaccountable power, and a clear First Amendment violation.
His new documentary, The United States of Insanity, follows the seven year legal fight against the FBI's designation of the Juggalos (as ICP fans are known) as a gang, and how destructive that has been to the band and the people who love it. The film debuts nationally with a special Fathom screening tonight, followed by a wide release on Nov. 12, before debuting on VOD Dec. 10.
The documentary, directed by Putnam and longtime collaborator Brenna Sanchez, may seem a complete change of pace from his last film, The Dark Divide, a poetic wilderness adventure starring David Cross, but there's actually a surprising amount shared. Putnam shot the two at the same time, they're both about people mocked for their fascinations, and both involve weird goings-on in the woods (in The Dark Divide, the hunt for Sasquatch, and in The United States of Insanity it's the annual Gathering of the Juggalos). Plus, Putnam said, "For whoever those two demographics cross, there's about five ICP Easter eggs in The Great Divide."
Contrary to what the FBI would like you to think, Putnam called the Juggalos "the most polite group of people I've ever met. It was always 'please' and 'thank you.' When we were filming at concerts, it was 'Can we carry your equipment?' 'Look out, there's Faygo coming in!' If we had to level the tripod legs, there'd be 20 lighters right there. I think they were happy that somebody was paying attention and not just making fun of it."
Ever seven years of filming, the filmmaker has had a rare insight into one of the most maligned fandoms around - so much so that the Juggalos have even given him a Juggalo name. Putnam sighed and laughed. "Buttman."
Austin Chronicle: The FBI gang designation wrecks lives and ends up costing millions of dollars, going all the way to the Supreme Court. But did you ever find out who started this whole farce?
It turns out the FBI doesn't have a process, and it seems really arbitrary. They have a three-item check list, of which ICP and Juggalos only check off two - and, by the way, those two items can apply to any sports team, any other fan base. It seems to be a really arbitrary process, and there's no person in an office who's responsible for it.
If anything, I think the FBI is pretty embarrassed about it, and they certainly didn't want to talk about it
AC: There is a lack of footage with law enforcement outside of press conferences.
TP: Yeah, although there were actually FBI agents who were really helpful off the record. You saw we went to the Salt Lake City gang task force meetings, that's because the FBI agents introduced us to them. But officially they can't say anything because they're going to get sued by a million people.
AC: It's like they've painted themselves into a corner, and it doesn't matter how many hours they waste at SCOTUS, they have to continue because it's a top level case.TP: I think that, about the midpoint of the film, you start to realize, oh, wow, this isn't happening to some other group of people. This is something that, with this precedent, can happen to anybody that belongs to any group whatsoever. That is the thing that's scary to me - when you have a large government agency where nobody's responsible, there's no public framework for their decision making. This was a company and a million people with the backing of the ACLU that had been in this fight for seven years. Imagine when something like this happens to an individual.
AC: So how did you even hear about the case?
TP: I directed and produced a movie with Brenna, a firefighting documentary named Burn, about the Detroit fire department. With that movie, we were riding around on fire trucks, chasing firefighters into burning buildings, and filming things blowing up. We wanted to follow that up with something half as exciting, at least.
Brenna grew up in Detroit, she'd worked for a number of music magazines in Detroit, so she was really familiar with ICP. I just knew as much as the average person knows, which isn't a ton. She read a New York Times article with the guys and was surprised they were still a thing, let alone how successful they'd been, so she just called them up. Turns out, they had seen Burn, they were fans of it, they're from Detroit, and they said, "Oh, can you have a film crew here tomorrow? Because we're having a press conference, and we're going to announce we're suing the FBI. And that's how the movie opens.
The movie really does mirror our experience of following the court case, and getting to know them.
AC: Talk about fortuitous.
TP: Yeah, glad we didn't wait a day. We've just been hanging in there with them, gone on tour with them, went home with them, met Violent J's mom, filmed her.
AC: At what point did you realize, this is a bigger story than just a straight music documentary?
TP: I can answer that really simply. We shot the press conference, and then we sat down and we interviewed them. I said, "Let's all just sit down, let's film something, let's see how it feels, and if there's a movie there, if if you want to work with us and we want to work with you."
I was so blown away in that first interview. They were so open, and so candid, and so funny, and they laid out for us one of the greatest American success stories I have ever heard. Two guys who were high school dropouts, really difficult family situations, and here we are 30 years later and they've built a $10 million a year empire, sold 10 million records.
They said something to us in the interview that really surprised me, and it was that nobody had ever asked them any of those questions before. They're always just sort of joke interviews. That got me really excited, and immediately fell in love with the story. Then, as we continued to film and the results of them being gang listed got exponentially worse at a level that is pretty shocking to most people, we then felt we had an obligation to not just tell the story but tell it with a level of depth that you don't necessarily get when you're chasing rock and rollers around.
The United States of Insanity special Fathom screenings take place tonight. Listings and details at austinchronicle.com/events.