It began as beautiful chaos. Bobbi Archer, wandering the grounds at the Gathering of the Juggalos, ducking Faygo spray while handing out naloxone and fentanyl test strips. The next year, Jake Neeley was out there, too, carrying a sign that read, “I have Narcan.” Alyssa Bolen set up a table to distribute even more harm reduction supplies.
Then these three friends connected online and turned that chaos into, well, organized chaos, Archer said. They coordinated their grassroots harm reduction work for the Gathering – an annual music festival organized by Psychopathic Records and the Insane Clown Posse – named themselves Wicked Clowns Harm Reduction and brought more volunteers onboard.
At this summer’s Gathering, which took place July 5-9 in Thornville, Ohio, Wicked Clowns Harm Reduction distributed more than 1,000 doses of naloxone and 2,000 testing strips, as well as clean-use kits, condoms, water bottles, sunscreen, Band-Aids, and, because Ohio, Plan B.
The Wicked Clowns don't live near each other. Bolen and Archer are in Central Ohio; Neeley lives in Lake County, Illinois; Justin Cameron in Western Pennsylvania. But they’re a tight bunch. They finish each other's sentences. And say they love each other when they sign off from our Zoom call.
This connection is rooted in the experience of the Gathering, which serves for them as a special place, a yearly pause in the humdrum, a moment of liberation.
"[The Gathering is about] accepting people for being scrubs because most of us are outcasts of society,” Archer said. “That's the same way for people who use drugs; they're outcasts of society. They're looked down upon. Juggalos can relate to that."
The Wicked Clowns I spoke with have lived experience – they are either in recovery or have lost family or friends to substance use disorder.
Cameron, who volunteers with the group, said he knows what it feels like to be in a situation where no one's going to find you if you overdose. On Christmas Day four years ago, he overdosed at home. When he finally came to, it was late at night, and no one knew it had happened. He's been in recovery for four years now and going back to The Gathering has been a challenge. He said he couldn’t find a home with the Juggalos in Recovery or Juggalos for Jesus, but the harm reduction folks spoke to him.
Neeley also has lived experience. "I was hooked on heroin for eight years," he said, "so I feel for these cats. I get it."
And what Neeley gets – what they all get – is that a music festival can be a dangerous place for people who use drugs, but it doesn't have to be. The Gathering has medical services on hand, but they know it’s important to disseminate naloxone and safe use supplies among festival goers. It’s important to be proactive.
Preparing for the Gathering takes a lot of planning for a scrappy group of Wicked Clowns. They collect supplies throughout the year from networking and begging, Bolen said.
"Hitting them with the Oliver Twist: 'Please, sir, may I have some more?" Neeley said.
Wicked Clowns is supported by contributions from Thrive, Harm Reduction Ohio, Central Ohio Harm Reduction, the SOAR Initiative, DanceSafe, and donations from random Juggalos. What isn’t donated comes out of their own pockets.
This year they had base camps around the grounds, but also roamed with backpacks stuffed with naloxone.
"I would walk up to people and ask if they were carrying Narcan, and if they said no, I'd be all, ‘Well, why not?’" Archer said.
"The number one response I get is, 'I don't need that. I don't do that,'" Bolen said. She would tell them, "Well, we can't Narcan ourselves, homie."
"Exactly," Archer said. "I'll say, ‘That's great, because it's not for you!’"
On the first day of the Gathering, they did a brisk business. But then word spread of a fatal overdose.
The mood shifted, and more people came to them for harm reduction supplies.
Archer said it was a reality check for many festival goers, no matter what substance they thought they were consuming. Fentanyl is in a lot of illicit drugs these days, she said, and not everyone wants to believe it.
Neeley said the Wicked Clowns Harm Reduction folks felt like they had to try harder. And they did. Bolen helped concertgoers test drugs. Neeley and Cameron walked the grounds. Archer pushed more naloxone.
But Bolen and Archer said there was a moment when they were going too hard, where they were taking on too much responsibility and guilt.
Neeley said, "It was kind of a relief when we ran out of supplies." He didn't panic. He knew that naloxone was everywhere. Bolen nodded. Running out meant that they had done their job.
After the Gathering, they continue to distribute harm reduction supplies to folks in their own communities and at “Juggalo-related” concerts. Most recently, Bolen had a naloxbox installed in a local church.
Bolen told me in a later conversation that at the Gathering you can be entirely yourself without judgment. "It's a weird magic,” she said.
I wish it didn’t have to be magic.
Bolen is fierce. I first met her in June when a shouting fundamentalist Christian began harassing people before Pride in Granville, Ohio. She got in his face. She's short, weighs all of 95 pounds, and uses a cane.
The shouting man was a good foot taller, muscle-bound, and spitting judgment.
Bolen wasn't about to back down. She demanded he provide evidence for his assertions (he couldn't) and asked which translation of the Bible he read (he didn't know). At one point she shouted, "Do you feel big yelling at a 95-pound girl?"
She told me afterward that sometimes she engages when maybe she should walk away. “But it's because I have watched people change their minds,” she said, “and I know that it is possible.”
Lately, it seems like a lot of folks in power in Ohio and beyond have been punching down. Punching down on trans kids, the unhoused, poor people, people who use drugs.
People like Bolen, Archer, Neeley and Cameron represent an opposing force.
I'm not naive – just a human, a parent, and hopeful. I want to believe that policy can be about helping others. Full stop. Not punishing. Not blaming. Not judging. And when it isn't, I'm glad our neighbors step in to mitigate the harm.
I’m glad there are other forces at work around us – people seeking to make the world more democratic, people who lead with love instead of fear.