Don’t do chemicals? Don’t smoke? No promiscuous sex? Police just might call you a gang member. Local ‘straight edgers’ hope to get past the media hysteria to promote their positive lifestyle
It’s a breezy summer evening in Reno, and a handful of kids has gathered on the sidewalk in front of a small, independent record store. A skinny teenager rolls by on his skateboard, munching from a box of french fries; two girls stroll past, chatting; a small group discusses the details of their next potluck. Nearby, others load musical instruments and equipment into a van for an upcoming show. Kids wander in and out of the store, greeting each other with warm hugs and playful punches. To the casual observer, there’s nothing at all sinister about this scene. But in the eyes of the Reno Police Department, these kids belong to a new gang called Straight Edge, and some of its members have been involved in violent assaults. The kids say this is an unfair generalization, and those attacks have nothing to do with what “straight edge” really means. And, reacting to the RPD’s official gang designation in March, these kids would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.
Living on the edge
So what exactly is straight edge?
“Straight edge is a philosophy and a lifestyle that emerged from the punk-rock scene in the early ‘80s, pioneered by bands like the Teen Idles and Minor Threat, that calls for the abstinence from various drugs, alcohol, tobacco and promiscuous sex,” explains Mac Schopen, co-owner of Sound and Fury Records. At 26, he’s been straight edge for more than six years and says he’s straight edge for life.
Straight edge takes its name from a Minor Threat song of the same name, which contains lyrics such as, “I’m a person just like you/But I’ve got better things to do/Than sit around and smoke dope/'Cause I know I can cope.” The term itself supposedly originated when a band member, using a ruler to draw a poster for a show, pointed out that its straight edge was an appropriate metaphor for their lifestyle.
Adopting the “X” as their symbol—originally a mark used at clubs to signify to bartenders that they were underage—straight-edge kids embraced a drug-free lifestyle and a shared subculture centered on hardcore punk music.
Although straight edge is popular in Utah (and has also been declared a gang there), it’s not affiliated with the Mormon Church; in fact, straight edge takes no position on religion. Some individuals eschew caffeine or prescription medications, and some are vegan, although these aren’t specifically straight-edge beliefs.
In recent years, straight edge has also become linked with growing involvement in environmental and political spheres. But, Schopen emphasizes, straight edge is a personal philosophy, not a group mentality.
“It’s not an organization, and despite what some people say, it’s not a movement,” he explains. “It’s an individual lifestyle choice.”
Schopen says straight edge has had a strongly positive effect on his life. Among other things, the more healthful lifestyle inspired him to open his business with co-owner Joe Ferguson, 25, who’s been straight edge since the age of 16. Schopen and Ferguson are also in a band called xCrucial Attackx (see “Straight to the edge,” RN&R, June 16), currently touring the East Coast.
"[Straight edge is] nonviolent; it doesn’t have anything to do with violence, actually,” says Ferguson, a tall, clean-shaven blond. “It’s a personal choice to abstain from alcohol and drugs, and it doesn’t have anything to do with violence.”
Straight edge is particularly important in a city like Reno, adds Schopen, because of all the negative influences associated with the 21-and-over tourism industry.
“We live in a city where there’s nothing for young kids to do except sit around and stew in their own boredom and frustration, and I think that definitely plays a role,” he says. “If the city’s not going to provide them any outlet, they’re going to find their own outlet, and it’s not going to be a positive one.” By contrast, he says, straight edge can provide a more constructive alternative for young people, and Sound and Fury hopes to be part of that. Indeed, the customers seem more interested in socializing than shopping.
“I’d like to have a place where kids who share common musical and ethical interests can come and learn from each other and learn about new things and create a do-it-yourself community,” Schopen says of his store. “It is good to have a place to serve as an epicenter for that.”
“It would be nice to [have] more kids see that you can open a record store,” adds Jeff Baer, slender and dark-haired, who’s hanging out in the background. He’ll be hosting July’s straight-edge potluck. “Perhaps that will give them motivation to try and do something themselves, whether that’s start a band, open a store, write a zine, whatever they choose to do.”
Schopen thinks it’s unfair that the police have recognized that not all straight-edge kids are involved in violent acts but declared straight edge a gang nonetheless. “If you acknowledge that division,” he asks, “then how can [we] be a gang in the first place?”
Gangs of unruly sober, chaste kids
Officer Paul Adamson of the Regional Gang Unit wants to make sure straight-edge kids realize that RPD does see the difference between violent and nonviolent youth. “What we’re doing is focusing on the criminal and delinquent behaviors that are being done under the name of straight edge,” said Adamson, who was involved in the six-month investigation that led to the gang classification.
Detective Mike Magee, who also participated in the investigation, agrees that not all straight-edge kids are violent.
“We have some kids who claim straight edge that aren’t part of this violent part,” he explains. “They just believe in no drugs, no alcohol, no tobacco, no sex. … We found that a certain group—not all of them—were into enforcing their beliefs with violence.” Their investigation included an incident at the Reno Hilton several months ago, in which a group of high-school-age straight-edge kids carrying brass knuckles and Mace engaged in a fight against another group of youths wielding golf clubs, he says.
Unfortunately, Magee adds, that “certain group” has dragged down the entire scene. “They were going out and fighting kids and intimidating them, and saying, ‘We’re straight edge,'” he says. “So it’s kind of like the group that had those beliefs had it ruined by the hardcore ones.”
Still, Magee doesn’t believe that the gang classification will have much effect, if any, on the nonviolent straight-edge kids.
“I don’t see how it would,” he says. “If they’re not out there committing crimes, I don’t see how it’s going to affect them.”
Postcards from the edge
In a group interview at Sound and Fury, several straight-edge kids in their teens and early 20s gathered recently to talk about their reactions to being classified as a gang. Posing for photos presents a challenge and tends to make them erupt in snorts of laughter; during the interview, they fidget, tease each other and play with their cell phones. But when it comes to discussing their new and unwanted gang status, they quickly become serious. Although the kids crack jokes about what terrible gangsters they’d make and how they always thought being in a gang would be cooler, it’s obvious that the stereotype bothers them and makes them nervous about the future.
“What did I think about it?” asks Aaron Chapin, 24. His camouflage cap, decorated with pins, is the only hint of color in his otherwise black outfit. “Where do I start? What a terrible, terrible piece of journalism.” He’s referring to the Reno Gazette-Journal article from May 30, by Jaclyn O’Malley. “Granted, they said that there were a number of straight-edge kids who didn’t want to associate themselves with the negative aspects of straight edge … but the article itself was atrocious.”
The kids are also incensed about a recent Geraldo Rivera At Large segment on Fox News about Reno police declaring straight edge a gang. Aired on June 5, the brief segment included straight-edge rocker Karl Buechner, a Reno police officer, and the father of a Utah teen murdered by two straight edge men. The kids believe that Rivera “bashed” straight edge unfairly, and that the segment will only worsen the mainstream’s negative opinion of straight edge.
“They’re calling us a gang,” says Chriss Schmidt, 22, crossing his tattooed arms. “Kids are going to think this is a gang. Parents aren’t going to let their kids who are high school, middle school, elementary school … be into it. They’re going to view it as something that’s not right, and they’re going to keep their kids from doing it, when in fact it’s one of the most positive changes you can make. It saves people’s lives.” Schmidt isn’t the only one who feels this way; many of the kids, some of whom have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, believe that straight edge literally saved them from a premature death.
“I’ve never seen a fight break out because somebody’s drinking or smoking [in front of a straight edge kid],” adds Sean Bosch, 19. “Never.” In a pink polo shirt and khaki shorts, the stocky blond looks like an all-American teenager, except for the large, colorful tattoo on his leg. The other kids—who, in this group, tend to be on the short and slender side—wear mostly dark, tight-fitting clothes, assorted tattoos and piercings, and caps studded with pins. It’s a distinctive look, and sometimes it gets them into trouble.
“If a fight happens, they’re going to go after the kid who’s not normal [looking],” Schmidt says, pointing at the half-dollar-sized black plugs in his earlobes. “I have big holes in my ears, so I’m the one who everyone’s going to focus their attention on and say, ‘You know what? That kid did something.'”
“I’ve been harassed for absolutely no reason other than that I’m straight edge,” says Kyle Oels, 21. “And people wonder why fights happen? That’s why. Because people target us, because we’re straight edge.”
“We’re going to be harassed far sooner than we’re going to harass somebody else,” adds Jeff Rogers, 20. Like others, he was originally reluctant to claim straight edge because of its negative associations, but now he takes pride in it.
When asked if they’d be interested in having their gang status reversed, they enthusiastically say yes. But the kids are pessimistic that discussions with police will change anything, and they’re fearful of repercussions.
“Any one of us, I think, would be fine sitting down with [the gang unit],” says Chapin. “But we would not be able to get a word in edgewise about what’s really happening.”
"[We would talk to them] if there’s any sort of hope of them going back and saying, ‘We were wrong the first time,’ which they probably won’t do,” adds Schmidt. “I’d be more than happy to sit down and discuss what’s going on in the city, because it’s our city, too. We live here just as much as they live here. It’s going to affect us, no matter what.”
“We read these stories, and it just frustrates us so much,” says Oels. “Most of us are very outspoken about our beliefs, and if anybody, at any time, wants to sit down and talk to me about straight edge, I’d be more than willing to, and I’m not going to beat them up over it.” He offers to include his phone number in this article, in case people really do want to discuss it, but the others quickly dissuade him, warning him that he might suffer from retaliation.
“I can see [the gang classification] causing a lot more fights,” Oels adds. “I can see a lot more fights coming as a result of this, which is ironic, because originally they were cautioning against that … but I can see there being kids who are going after all the straight-edge kids because they’re a gang, you know? And then that’s just going to cause more drama and more fights.”
Several days later, Chapin called to say that he and Rogers had been harassed at Meadowood Mall for being straight edge, just hours after this interview. “There were about five or six kids hanging out in one of the foyer areas, and we had passed them a couple of times and shrugged off some of their comments,” he said. “Upon leaving, we left through the food court, and the same group of kids were hanging out there, and they had basically at that point escalated into insulting us … so we said, ‘Whatever,’ and walked away.” As Chapin and Rogers drove out of the parking lot, the other kids threw something at Chapin’s truck. Chapin says ruefully that this isn’t the first time such an incident has occurred.
“You just have to let it roll off your back, you know what I’m saying?” he concludes. “When a person lowers themselves to insulting us, there’s no sense in debating at that point.”
Good kids cast in a bad light?
Although they’re on opposite sides, the straight-edge kids and the gang unit tend to agree on the big picture. Yes, some straight-edge kids have been involved in violent activity, but most are law-abiding citizens. Is it possible for the two sides to work together to improve straight edge’s image?
According to Sergeant Walt Frazier, also of the Regional Gang Unit, there are a couple of ways for individuals to be removed from the gang file. If they go for three years without having contact with the gang unit (e.g., someone complaining about them loitering in a public area), they’re off the list. Alternatively, juveniles can schedule a meeting with their parents and gang unit supervisors to declare that they’ve severed ties with the gang and show documentation to prove they’re making a fresh start, like a work history or letters of recommendation from the clergy or other authorities.
Getting straight edge’s collective name cleared, however, is a different matter.
“Once we’ve identified [a group] as a gang, they pretty much stay as a gang,” Frazier says. “We will purge individual people, but the gang usually stays.” If there is no gang activity for an extended period of time—seven to eight years, or more—or if the gang unit receives convincing evidence that the gang has officially disbanded, the group’s gang status could be reversed. But it’s a rare occurrence, he adds.
Like every other police officer contacted for this story, Frazier readily admits that it’s only a fraction of straight-edge kids who are committing the attacks. “The percentage is very small,” he explains. “We have a total of five [individuals] in our system, and we’ve been told there’s anywhere from 500 to 900 kids claiming straight edge [in the region], so that’s less than one percent.” He estimates that PRD has only three documented straight edge cases at this time, and says they’ve already seen repeat offenders.
With just five individuals currently on file as gang members, straight edge is much smaller than other local gangs. “Most of our gangs average between 15 and 45 people,” says Frazier. Unlike other gangs, which tend to attract minorities and the economically disadvantaged, straight edge seems to attract relatively affluent white males. “The demographic is a white male, [about] 17, and mostly they’re from at least middle-class families,” he explains.
Frazier is sympathetic to the fact that it’s the nonviolent kids whose reputation suffers. “It’s unfortunate that this group that’s involved in criminal activity shares the same name,” he comments, “because it casts a shadow on the kids who are doing well.”
Nevertheless, the fact that straight edge is now a gang means there will inevitably be consequences for everyone who claims that name. For example, a gang member who is convicted of a gang-related offense could face an enhanced sentence up to twice as severe as the normal one.
"[Will they be] treated differently? No. Monitored, yes, as we would any other gang,” comments Frazier. “It’s not like we go out and target them. But if we get information that there’s a straight-edge band playing at a local bar, we’re going to go by and check that everything’s OK.” However, he explains, that doesn’t mean there are repercussions for establishments that tend to attract straight-edge kids. “We’re not going to sit at a coffee house because straight-edge kids hang out there,” Frazier says.
Nor does it mean that the police are going after kids who dress a certain way or listen to certain music. “You don’t want to cross that line into the kids who are doing good,” he adds.
In any case, many of the kids aren’t interested in any solution that means distancing themselves from straight edge.
“I’m never going to stop,” says Oels flatly. “Never. There could be a thousand [negative] news reports, and that’s only going to make me want to stand firm in my resolve. That’s only going to make me want to stand up stronger and say, ‘That isn’t what it’s about. Let me tell you what it’s about.'”