Straight Edge or Violent Edge?
By Meghan Fay, Assistant Editor

The “Straight Edge” philosophy is one that promotes a drug, alcohol, caffeine and smoke-free lifestyle in addition to no “casual” sex. Although most parents and teachers are thrilled when youth espouse these beliefs, there is a violent subculture within this broad philosophy that is reason for concern. 

Unfortunately, a sect of youth are violently enforcing the positive philosophy on fellow students who do not choose the Straight Edge lifestyle. Not all “Straight Edgers” should be labeled as a threat, but understanding the roots of this philosophy and of the violent tendencies that could occur may help fellow youth, parents and school officials recognize potential danger before a beating takes place or worse – a death.

Origins and Symbols

Most gang experts agree that the philosophy emerged from the punk rock music scene in the mid-1980’s when the phrase “Straight Edge” was coined from a song of the same name by the band Minor Threat. The straight edge symbol is the letter X, a symbol that is commonly placed on youths’ hands at bars and concerts to indicate that they are not of age to consume alcohol. For group members, it is not uncommon to see straight edge written out -- sXe. 

Those who have taken on the beliefs of the Straight Edge lifestyle usually have the X in a visible location on their body. The triple Xs are a symbol for “Hardline” straight edgers and some are considered to have violent tendencies, according to Michelle Arciaga, Research Associate with the National Youth Gang Center and national expert on Straight Edge. 

Click here to view a sampling of various Straight Edge logos. 

Other Interests

Hardline individuals have expanded on the principles of Straight Edge to include activism for animal rights, environmentalism, anti-abortion, anti-sexism and anti-racism. The Hardline Manifesto states that any means, even violence, is appropriate to accomplish the goals of the manifesto, which include furthering the above causes. According to Arciaga, it is through the hardline movement that animal activism and terrorist groups like Animal Liberation Front became associated with the outer fringes of the Straight Edge Movement.

Some of the first Incidents that placed a national spotlight on the movement were the fire bombings in Utah of a McDonald’s restaurant, a mink feed cooperative and a Tandy Leather and Crafts Supply store. These events also linked Straight Edge and animal activists together.

Violence Increasing

Salt Lake City, Utah has had some of the most high-profile violent straight edge incidents. In 1998, a 15-year-old boy was stabbed and beaten to death after being chased by a group identified as Straight Edge gang members. According to William Riley, Washington Department of Corrections Security Threat Group Coordinator, the Hardliners and Straight Edgers were also active participants in the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle in December. 

“The philosophy in and of itself is an admirable thing. The thing that we’re concerned with from the law enforcement perspective are the acts,” said Lt. David Williams of the Dayton, Ohio Police Department, who points out that only a small percentage of youth have become violent. The incidents in Dayton revolve around Straight Edgers who obtain jobs as bouncers at bars. They are ideal job candidates for bar owner because, stereotypically, a Straight Edger is physically intimidating and won’t get drunk. However, patrons of the bar have been beaten by bouncers trying to force their beliefs on them. According to Williams, the positive straight edge youth have labeled these violent youth “Hate Edgers.”

How the Philosophy Has Evolved

Gang profilers have labeled the Straight Edgers as youth with average to above average intelligence levels and who are extremely computer literate. There is no argument that cyberspace is the Straight Edgers playground. There are thousands of websites dedicated to the music and culture of Straight Edge and many believe the philosophy has spread primarily through youth surfing the Internet. 

According to Arciaga, no one is exactly sure how the Straight Edgers turned violent. Straight Edge, which primarily based in the music scene, has changed over time from its original concept because the people involved are young and there has been much turnover.  Arciaga cautions against labeling Straight Edgers with one broad stroke because her research has shown that each group is different all over the United States. 

Williams believes that the underground music culture isn’t that large and many groups begin to overlap in a medium size city such as Dayton. It is in this condensed underground scene that groups such as the straight edgers mingle with animal activists, which can lead to the combination of cultures and sometimes these additional influences lead to violence. 

Are They a Gang?

Arciaga believes that it is difficult to classify Straight Edge as a gang because in one city there are many different groups of Straight Edge that all behave different from one another. “We try to define Straight Edge as something simple, but it’s not. It’s a very diverse subculture,” she said. It must be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s not so much a gang as it is an ideology,” said Arciaga. Over time, however, the kids that subscribe to this ideology have turned gang-like, she said. Because, in essence, it is a philosophy, youth have interpreted the message and run with it differently. Where some groups are passive, others are aggressive. According to Arciaga, the key is to look at the group and sees how it behaves. “If it acts like a gang it should be labeled like a gang, but it doesn’t always turn into a gang,” she said. “We can do equal harm by labeling groups gangs, if they aren’t.” 

Arciaga worked in the Salt Lake City Metro Gang Unit when the first incidents with Straight Edge youth began to erupt. “I feel like we caused the movement to grow because we labeled them as a gang from the beginning,” she said.

The Challenge for Schools

The challenge to school officials is akin to the challenge in Salt Lake City where many people stereotypically think that gangs are an ethnic minority problem. But groups like Straight Edge force officials to look at behavior that exists in some of the most affluent areas of the country with white youth.

“Schools need to do what they can to know who’s hanging with who,” said Williams, who believes if schools are aware of this they will be able to differentiate between a gang and a group of kids. “The administration needs to be aware of the symbols that are out there,” he said.

Dick Tracy, Security Coordinator and Gang Coordinator for Colorado Springs, Colorado School District 11, educates his staff about Straight Edge during his gang-training seminar. In his experience with the Straight Edge Movement in the Colorado Springs area, those involved with the gang have a tendency to move into the Gothic and Vampire Movements as well. The more militant Straight Edge youth that Tracy has encountered are those involved with the animal rights issues. 

Schools need to educate kids that they’re certainly entitled to have their beliefs, but they are not entitled to enforce their beliefs on other people, said Matthew Meyer, Security Threat Groups and Investigating Coordinator for the Ohio Department of Corrections.

Arciaga would advise schools to keep an eye on this group. However, she also believes that there are few alternatives or support for youth who want to be positive, and if youth were received positive support, then Straight Edge wouldn’t exist.

“They are a very passionate group of kids. They want to make a difference. They want to make their lives count for something. They have a lot of good positive energy that just need a lot more adult supervision,” said Arciaga. 

Advice to Adults

Many experts agree that when parents find out their child is involved with this positive message they are content. However, Arciaga believes that it is crucial for parents to make sure they know where their kids are going, what music they are listening to and to continue dialogue with them about their beliefs. 

“It is not enough to know your kid found a group and you know what their beliefs are. We (parents) are too trusting of what are children tell us. We have to be more involved with the decisions our children are making. Kids in their teenage years take every bit as much time to raise as kids in their toddler years. Parents need to really pay attention to kids and listen to what they are telling them. Straight Edge is not all bad, but they certainly aren’t the angelic youth that it is put out there to be,” said Arciaga.

Identifiers To Look For

  • The X symbol
  • Straight Edge written out as sXe 
  • Attention should be paid to the Hardline symbol, which is XXX.
  • Abrupt changes in behavior such as a refusal to take aspirin or Tylenol with an interest in veganism or vegetarianism
  • Heavy into the punk/hardcore music scene following bands such as emo-core or Earth Crisis
  • The dress is stereotypically part of the punk scene with baggy pants, close shaved hair, side burns, body piercing and tattoos
  • Many youth will wear T-shirts that read DARE, Poison-Free, 100% Pure, Drug-Free or Alcohol-Free
Arciaga advises to have conversations with youth about their involvement and their beliefs. If they choose to be vegetarians or vegans, she doesn’t advise forcing them to eat meat, but having a detailed conversation about how they can get the proper nutrition. Conversations about drugs and alcohol should be common dialogues from the time kids are in grammar schools, but when they reach high school, discussions about gangs is a subject to broach. 

Questions such as the following are helpful conversation starters to ask youth about their involvement. Many youth who are Straight Edge are proud of their beliefs and usually are open to discussion.

  • Are you Straight Edge?
  • Do you have Straight Edge in your school?
  • What is Straight Edge?
Michelle Arciaga, Research Associate with the National Youth Gang Center and national expert on Straight Edge
850-385-0600 ext. 270
Dale Welling, Executive Director of the National Major Gangs Task Force
William Riley, Washington Department of Corrections Security Threat Group Coordinator
Lt. David Williams, Dayton, Ohio Police Department
937-227-5711 or
Dick Tracy, Security Coordinator and Gang Coordinator for Colorado Springs, Colorado School District 11
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339