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A gang ... or a 'family'?

A member of Hawthorne Park's Juggalos will tell you the group is "a family that takes care of each other."

Medford police will tell you it's a gang responsible for beatings, harassment and intimidation.

A definition that neither side disputes is that Juggalos are at their roots something else — music fans.

Juggalo is a self-described moniker used by diehard fans of horror core rap group the Insane Clown Posse, often referred to as ICP. Juggalo imagery on T-shirts and tattoos often depicts a variety of dark clown and circus imagery. This isn't Bozo or Barnum and Bailey — these clowns typically look sinister and wear demonic makeup.

The music can have a violent edge, too, but Juggalos members say it can have a spiritual, even uplifting and religious message.

Police say there's nothing uplifting about the violence associated with the group. Lt. Brett Johnson of the Medford Police Department said that Juggalos are frequently responsible for beatings, intimidation, and harassment, particularly in and around Hawthorne Park. Johnson said that the May 2011 stabbing of 21-year-old Michael Gregory was Juggalo-related.

In some common usage, references to Juggalo can be negative, nearly synonymous with "white trash." Urban Dictionary, a Web-based dictionary of slang words and phrases, has no fewer than 248 entries — mostly derogatory — about Juggalos, or Juggalettes, as females in the group are sometimes called.

In Hawthorne Park, the Juggalos are a group of primarily young 20-something's from rough family and economic backgrounds. Not all are homeless, but many have dealt with being homeless in the past.

Juggalo isn't just a catch-all phrase for homeless or transient youth living in or around Hawthorne Park, it's very specifically a group that runs together as a Juggalo family.

Katey Whipps, 21, aggressively defends Juggalo culture, saying it's misunderstood. She calls herself and her fellow Juggalos "brothers and sisters."

She has heard the group referred to as a gang, but denounces this accusation.

"This is not a gang, this is a family," Whipps said Thursday night, "Everyone knows everybody, and everybody looks out for each other. We bring our kids here, why would we bring our kids here if this were a gang? How is this a gang?"

Whipps agreed that the Gregory stabbing was Juggalo-related, but only in that Gregory was a Juggalo and was attacked by non-Juggalos in the park. She said that after being questioned by police about the incident, Gregory's entire Juggalo family traveled to the hospital to make sure he was okay.

She also said past Juggalo events have included food stamp barbecues, camping trips and birthday parties. Earlier Thursday, the family had even organized a baseball game in Hawthorne Park.

"Family friendly" activities notwithstanding, Lt. Johnson said that Medford wasn't the only community that has experienced Juggalo "gang" problems. Johnson said that he knew of problems from Grants Pass and possibly in Klamath Falls as well.

Farther north, the Corvallis Police Department arrested two teenagers in 2010 for multiple beatings and assaults. Police said the two identified themselves as Juggalos.

Additionally, The Seattle Times reported about a series of incidents in 2006 in Pierce County Washington about a group carrying a machete and sometimes in clown face paint robbing and assaulting park visitors, at times while yelling "woo, woo Juggalo."

Todd Bloomquist, Medford School District's human resource director, said the district had been advised that all ICP gear was considered gang-related and was not allowed to be worn in Medford schools.

Johnson said police recognize that many of the youths at Hawthorne Park are not troublemakers.

"We're not just going after homeless youth, it's everybody's park," Johnson said, "But, if they identify as a Juggalo and engage in criminal behavior we will try and document that."

Police have no estimate of how many Juggalos are in the area. Thursday night, it appeared there were 15 to 20 in the park.

A Hawthorne Park Juggalo who gave his name only as Wex, 33, said he knew the Juggalos weren't a gang because he had been in gangs before. Along with his Juggalo clown tattoos he has at least two other tattoos associated with California gangs.

"Sureños, Norteños"… those are gangs, I know gangs." Wex said, "This is family, we don't like to fight people."

Family or gang, Juggalos in Hawthorne Park can expect to get continued scrutiny from the Medford Police Department.

"They identify as a family and identify themselves as Juggalos," Johnson said, "They are definitely considered a gang."

Mat Wolf is a reporting intern from the University of Oregon. Reach him at 541-776-4481 or by email at mwolf@mailtribune.com.

Mat Wolf photo - Mat Wolf