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Straight Edge


In 1981, in the midst of the self-destructive throes of punk rock culture, a new sobriety movement began in the Washington, DC, punk-rock scene. : The legendary punk band, Minor Threat, led by Ian McKay, started a new mindset, which McKay labeled Straight Edge. The movement, given its name by a song written by McKay, which he titled The Straight Edge, was part of his plan to end the “live fast, die young” mentality of many young punkers. Instead, McKay embodied a lifestyle that was against drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, and also avoided issues like racism, sexism, and fascism.

Text Box: The slogan “Poison Free” and the X on the hand are common identifiers of Straight Edge.  From the beginning, the subculture was mostly made up of adolescents.Youth within the subculture were growing up experimenting with new identities and seeking their place in society. For many, the Straight Edge image and philosophy became part of their identity. However, because Straight Edge primarily existed within youth peer culture, it was destined to go through many changes within the next two decades as subsequent groups of youth became part of the scene, identified with it for a time, and then moved on to other identities and other groups.

The movement quickly spread from the East Coast, gaining attention on a national level.Many young people identified with the movement, and it appeared that, in time, Straight Edge could be something socially acceptable to both parents and teenagers. The Straight Edge subculture maintained the high energy and volatility of the punk scene, without the drunken and drugged brawls that had, up until that time, characterized the punk culture.The message became, “It’s okay to be straight.In fact, it’s the ‘cool’ thing to do.”

To symbolize the movement, many Straight Edgers in the 1980s used the thick black X that had been written on the hands of underage concertgoers at all-ages punk venues in the northeast to notify bartenders that the X’ed person was under 21. Members of the new subculture who had begun to take pride in their stance against drugs and alcohol quickly embraced the X as a symbol.  The Hardline Manifesto In the mid- to late-1980s, the hardcore Straight Edge scene reached a high point, particularly on the East Coast.  Bands on the scene included Gorilla Biscuits, Bold, Wide Awake, and Youth of Today.  These bands, which greatly contributed to the popularity of the Straight Edge movement, also contributed to the intolerance of outsiders that exists within the present-day Straight Edge movement. During this time, the Straight Edge concert scene took on an “us versus them” mentality, with Straight Edge punkers feeling they represented a positive youth crew that existed in opposition to drinkers, smokers, and drug users.

Text Box:  
The Hardline Movement combined Straight Edge’s drug-free stance with militant animal-rights and environmentalist views.  Hardliners frequently use 3 Xs to identify themselves.
As time passed, more and more identity-seeking radicals emerged in the underground scene.  Around 1986, the vegetarian and vegan (abstaining from all animal-derived products) ideology surfaced in the ever-growing Straight Edge movement.  In the summer of 1987, five young men
from Memphis, Tennessee, formed a hardcore band.  Since all five came from Straight Edge backgrounds, they shared common beliefs.  However, front man Sean “Hardline” Penn
had a radically different view of the basic Straight Edge opposition to drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.  The group named their band Vegan Reich because all the members were avid animal-liberation activists.  They used the band to promote their agenda of militant veganism and radical environmentalism.  Coming into a scene dominated by pseudo-pacifists, where vegetarianism was rare and veganism almost unheard of, Vegan Reich caused immediate controversy by their name alone.

However, it wasn’t until 1989 that Vegan Reich became more than just another punk band. Having succeeded in helping build the radical animal-rights movement, the group began to see the limitations and inconsistencies of a single-issue approach and set out to formulate a new movement that would encompass not only animal-liberation and environmental issues, but would also include class-war politics and social ethics. The group continued to support the drug-free lifestyle for the mental clarity and physical endurance necessary to create effective revolutionaries. Thus, the Hardline movement was spawned, a separate but related movement to the Straight Edge movement. In 1997, on the Straight Edge FAQ, Andy Dempz wrote “Hardline is a very specific political eco-defense movement that believes they have the one truth of natural living, including abstinence from drugs, veganism, and pro-life beliefs. They also claim to believe in direct action, but it remains to be seen if they’ll do anything.” [1] His words echoed a large percentage of older Straight Edgers who did not entirely approve of the Hardline influence on the movement.

Influenced in large part by the resurgent Straight Edge philosophy, the band released their album Hardline in 1990.This album detailed the new ideology and declared war against all animal exploiters, earth rapers, and apathetic drug users—all set against rage-filled, hardcore punk.  Just as the band Skrewdriver has utilized hardcore punk to recruit youth to racist skinhead beliefs, Vegan Reich utilized the music as a message to draw punk youth into eco-animal activism.  Almost overnight, Vegan Straight Edgers became more and more common around the U.S.  Under the Hardline label, which distinguished itself with an X created by crossing two machine guns, the bands Vegan Reich, Raid, and Statement produce militant songs promoting the Hardline philosophy, using energetic hardcore punk as the sales pitch.  The music was popular with Straight Edgers, a percentage of whom eagerly embraced the Hardline beliefs.

  Text Box: A common Hardline/Straight Edge tattoo, 3 Xs (XXX) above the slogan “Poison Free,” as seen in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Gabe Morales.)

The Hardline movement began to become more and more a part of the Straight Edge scene within a few years.  As with most youth subcultures, membership in the entire subculture often turns over every four to five years.  Many new members who joined the movement in the early 1990s were far more connected to the more militant Hardline movement than to the original Straight Edge subculture.  Younger adolescents who were exposed to the movement during the 1990s did not understand that the Hardline philosophy was not part of the original Straight Edge movement.  Within a decade, the melding of these two subcultures produced violent results.  Violence and separatism invaded the Straight Edge scene, with Straight Edgers frequently forcing their beliefs on non-Straight Edgers.  Fights, and even stabbings, became more common at Straight Edge concerts around the U.S.  And, in the music, uncontrolled anger became an important aspect of the lyrics.

By 1995, even Ian McKay publicly disavowed the intolerance that had become prevalent within the Straight Edge movement.  In an interview with Thicker, (a hardcore punk fanzine), he stated:  “The whole straight edge thing for me was never about this kind of puritan lifestyle where I was supposed to be leading the masses towards a better tomorrow.”

It was the melding of the Hardline and Straight Edge scenes, however, that created the opportunity for the dramatic growth of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) animal liberationists were able to tap into the youth and energy of the Straight Edge scene.  While the Hardline label no longer exists, the Hardline message is still promoted today by bands like Earth Crisis.


The songs of Earth Crisis, like those of its predecessors, Vegan Reich and other Hardline acts, heavily promote animal liberation and militant veganism.  This philosophy has spread and become popular in the Straight Edge concert scene during the 1990s.  Concert venues increasingly are used to promote militant veganism, and underground animal-rights publications like Dressed in Black and Direct Action are frequently displayed and distributed at Straight Edge concerts.  Earth Crisis has taken a leading role as a “spokesband” for environmental and youth causes.  VictoryRecords, the recording label for Earth Crisis, proudly reported on their Web site: 

In the last four years Earth Crisis have received national media coverage on CNN (Earth Matters), TBS, FOX (America’s Most Wanted), CBS (48 Hours), MTV (Music News) and ABC (World News Tonight).  Earth Crisis’ message of human, animal and environmental liberation has caused shockwaves that resonate beyond the music industryCharismatic vocalist Karl Buechner has spoken in front of the U.S. Congress about teens and substance abuse.  How many singers in hard rock have done that?  “...This is not just a record - it is the soundtrack to the freedom and liberation from the inhibiting elements of the world.”[2]


Straight Edge and the Animal Liberation Front

As founders of the Hardline movement, members of Vegan Reich were active proponents of direct action (terrorism, vandalism, and so forth) targeted against “animal abusers,” businesses that profit from the sales of animal-related products.  One Hardline member writes:  Raid was a spokesband for Hardline in the early days of its formation as a public mouth piece for revolution.  Vegan Reich was as well.  Today, the singer from Vegan Reich (and founder of Hardline) is in the band Jihad.”[3]

During the 1990s, Vegan Reich disintegrated.  However, bands like Earth Crisis, Snapcase, and Hatebreed stepped into these vacant shoes.  Their song lyrics directly advocate similar causes that parallel the Hardline Manifesto.  Within the Straight Edge movement, peer pressure on youth increased.  Kids who were alcohol-, tobacco-, and drug-free Straight Edgers were told by Vegan Straight Edgers that they should begin abstaining from animal products.  After all, the logic went, animals from factory farms were pumped full of steroids, growth hormones, and antibiotics.  No Straight Edger who ate meat could truly call him/herself drug-free.  Additionally, the Militant Vegan, or Hardline Straight Edgers stressed that Vegan Straight Edgers needed to bring awareness to the plight of animals throughout the world.  As long as animals anywhere were suffering torture (or as long as the environment was being trashed by “Capitalist Interests”), members of this movement had a responsibility to become activists.  For that reason, members of the Straight Edge movement became a fertile recruiting ground for Hardliners and other Militant Vegan groups.  In some areas of the U.S., Hardliners became involved with the Animal Liberation Front and anarchist causes.

Straight Edge Terminology and Identifiers

Earth Crisis:  The pre-eminent Straight Edge band during the late 1990s and into 2000.

Emo-Core:  A musical genre associated with the Straight Edge scene and distinguished by its message from hardcore punk (though in the same musical style).

Gauging:  Stretching holes in the earlobes with items such as plastic straws, film containers, and plastic PVC pipes.  This practice is commonplace in the Straight Edge scene.

  Nickname for another musical style, old-fashioned punk, which is sometimes associated with the Straight Edge scene.  Most Straight Edge bands are hardcore, not all hardcore bands are Straight Edge.

  Text Box: A Straight Edge tattoo reads “Comin’ Correct Integrity,” with sXe centered in the interior of the tattoo.  Comin’ Correct and Integrity are considered to be hardcore bands which are heavily influenced by Straight Edge. (Photo by Gabe Morales.)
Hardliner:  An individual who is personally committed to following the Hardline Manifesto, including militant veganism and direct action.  Hardliners typically use 3 Xs to identify themselves.

 Hate Edger:  Very aggressive Straight Edgers, those who frequently provoke confrontations with outsiders.

 Skater:  A skateboarder.  In many communities conflicts between skateboarders and Straight Edgers are common, as skaters are perceived by many Straight Edgers to be drug users.

 Stickers:  Band stickers, featuring bands like Earth Crisis, Snapcase, Integrity, Minor Threat, etc., are commonplace within the Straight Edge scene.

 Straight:  To have some or all of the beliefs of Straight Edge, but not be intensely involved in the movement.

 sXe: Common abbreviation for Straight Edge.

Tribal-style tattoos: These tattoos are frequently worn by Hardliners to show their kinship with the tribal peoples of the world.  It should be noted that many other people who have no connection with this movement wear these types of tattoos, as well.

X:  Represents a symbol of the Straight Edge movement and may be found written or printed on shirts, belts, wallets, pants, tattoos, etc.

X-ing Up:  To write blatant Xs across one’s hands as a sign of Straight Edge beliefs.  This is commonly done in connection with the concert scene or in other public locations (i.e., at school).

XXX:  Symbol of the Hardline Movement.

Warning Signs for Parents and Adults


The young person begins to associate with a new group of friends and cuts ties with old friends.  Exclusively associates with other Straight Edgers.


bulletTattooing/wearing Straight Edge (written out as sXe) or Hardline (XXX) identifiers on clothing, books, backpacks, skateboards, etc.  Straight Edgers often use Old English-style letters to spell out common slogans such as “Drug Free” or “Poison Free.”


bulletGauging (stretching wide holes in the ear lobes).


bulletAbrupt changes in behavior such as a refusal to take medications (such as Tylenol or physician-prescribed medicines) with an interest in veganism or vegetarianism.


bulletAvid fan of bands, such as Earth Crisis or similar bands, advocating illegal direct actions for environmentalist or animal-rights causes.


bulletMany youth will wear t-shirts that read “Poison Free,” “100% Pure,
Drug Free,” or “Alcohol Free.”


bulletThe young person may begin to collect ALF/animal-rights publications, fliers, posters, stickers, and videos of lab releases or other criminal acts on behalf of animal rights.

The key for parents is not to overreact, but to keep lines of communication open with their children.  Straight Edge is not a negative group in every area of the country, though there are some Straight Edge groups that could accurately be classified as gangs due to their aggressive criminal behavior.  The majority of Straight Edgers are unlikely to commit crimes as a result of their involvement, and the majority of Straight Edgers would not qualify as a gang or a criminal threat group.  However, both the Hardline Movement and Animal Liberation Front espouse the idea of committing crimes on behalf of their causes.  There are a number of young people around the country who are serving long prison terms for felony crimes (including bombings) committed on behalf of the animal rights movement.  Parents should seek professional intervention with children who become involved in militant animal-rights activities. 

It seems that many young activists who undertake criminal actions on behalf of animal rights do so because they are frustrated by their inability to bring about change through more legitimate means.  A parent who gets involved in helping their child become politically involved; e.g., writing letters, putting together petitions, and meeting with elected officials on areas of interest, may have better success in both building a close relationship with their child and helping their child avoid turning to criminal means as a method of expressing their passion.  Teenagers often want to find a cause about which they can be passionate; parents should, if possible, take time to help their children become involved in constructive human or animal-rights initiatives.

Parents should have conversations with youth about their involvement in Straight Edge and their beliefs.  If youth choose to be vegetarians or vegans, parents should not force them to eat meat, but instead, work out a detailed plan in regard to how the young person can get proper nutrition with this type of diet.  The parents can also insist that the young person learn how to cook their own meals.

Conversations between parents and children about drugs and alcohol should be common dialogues from the time kids are in grammar school.  Children will be far more resistant to groups like Straight Edge if they are able to find, from an early age, a peer group that supports the family’s core beliefs.  Involvement in sports, church, recreation, arts, and drama programs can provide youths a positive outlet and peer culture to support a choice to live drug-free.  Many youth who are Straight Edge are proud of their beliefs and usually are open to discussion.  Parents should take time to discuss this group with their middle school or high school-aged children.  Some questions for parents to ask include the following: 

bulletAre you Straight Edge?
bulletDo you have Straight Edge in your school?
bulletWhat is Straight Edge?

The Hardline Manifesto

A time has come for an ideology and for a movement that is both physically and morally strong enough to do battle against the forces of evil that are destroying the earth (and all life upon it)…

 That ideology, that movement, is Hardline.  A belief system and a way of life that lives by one ethos—that all innocent life is sacred, and must have the right to live out its natural state of existence in peace, without interference…Any action that does interfere with such rights shall not be considered a “right” in itself, and therefore shall not be tolerated.  Those who hurt or destroy life around them, or create a situation in which that life, or the quality of it, is threatened shall from then on no longer be considered innocent life, and in turn, will no longer have rights. 

 Adherents to the Hardline will abide by these principles in daily life.  They shall live at one with the laws of nature, and shall not forsake them for the desire of pleasure—from deviant sexual acts and/or abortion to drug use of any kind (and all other cases where one harms all life around them under the pretext that they are just harming themselves).  And, in following with the belief that one shall not infringe on an innocent’s life, no animal product shall be consumed (be it flesh, milk or egg).  Along with this purity of everday life, the true Hardliner must strive to liberate the rest of the world from its chains, saving lives in some cases, and in others, dealing out justice to those guilty of destroying it.

 Excerpted from the Hardline Manifesto written by Vegan Reich in 1990 and included on albums published on the Hardline Label.

Dempz, Andy. The Straight Edge FAQ (World Wide Web) June 9, 1997.  

[2], November 2000

[3] Arciaga, Personal Correspondence.

Michelle Arciaga is a Research Associate with the National Youth Gang Center.  She previously worked for several years for the Salt Lake Area Gang Project, a multi-jurisdictional gang task force hosted by the Salt Lake City Police Department.

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Last modified: April 12, 2005