Punk Rock Fight Club

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Shrugs is wearing baggy black shorts and an oversize T-shirt with an F logo that looks like a pistol. His hair is pulled back into a bun, and he speaks in a soft drawl. Shrugs' dad eventually moved the family to Corona, where Shrugs befriended BMX and hardcore kids, including Travis Barker of Blink-182. Now he works for Barker's clothing company, Famous Stars and Straps, the maker of his T-shirt, and hopes to break into hip-hop production.

We drive over to Shrugs' place, a two-story home in a new development. Shrugs pours some prescription cough syrup into a two-liter bottle of Sprite. It turns a rosé color, like pink champagne. He pours himself a tall glass and takes us out to his garage, where he has a mixing board set up beneath an enormous Scarface poster. As Shrugs plays some new tracks, James promises to hook him up with some music-industry friends. "My mom's a crackhead, a supersmoker," Shrugs tells me. "My dad's just out and about, whatever. So my friends are everything to me. The FSU thing – the meaning behind it – that really meant something to me."

"How many of your guy friends tell you they love you?" James asks later. "We do. The Mafia and the Hells Angels are about money. We don't sell guns or drugs, we're not pimps. Any kind of illegal activity and you're kicked out of FSU."

Other than violence, I say.

James laughs and says. "Well, yeah. That's a go."

Al Brown grew up in Manhattan Beach, a coastal town that's an hour (and several tax brackets) from Corona. In 2004, he was at a hardcore festival in Pennsylvania, where, during a set by the band Terror, he witnessed a group of FSU members brutally beat a man. "One of them had a video camera, filming it," he recalls. "You want to be the strong guy. But when something like this is happening, you think, 'I will die if I get involved."1 After witnessing other FSU-related fights. Brown, a twenty-four-year-old grad student at Columbia University, wrote a song called "Neo Neo-Nazis (Stop Fucking S.hit U.p)" that directly criticized the crew.

Not long after Brown's band, Dangers, debuted the song, three FSU members were waiting outside a Hollywood venue. They asked him if he had anything to say or if he just wanted to be a "faggot martyr." He said he had nothing to say. They punched him in the face and stomach and kicked him once while he was on the ground. The following weekend, before a show in Tacoma, Washington, an FSU member pulled Brown aside and said, "If you play, you're going to the hospital. I'm not afraid to stab people." The band was threatened the next evening in Portland, so they didn't perform. Now they try to avoid cities with a heavy FSU presence.

Brown is far from alone in his criticism. Jason, a twenty-nine-year-old hardcore fan from Boston, started going to shows when he was twelve. "You'd leave every show bruised, maybe even a little bit bloody," he says. "But until the crews started showing up at every show, I never felt concerned for my safety. With FSU, everyone's scared to get a glass of water, for fear of bumping into somebody. Or you're making sure you're not talking to the wrong girl." Jason has seen six-on-one fights, guys dragged outside and beaten up. "The violence used to be a lot more indiscriminate," he says. "But with these guys, it's a perverted sense of family, and they're just looking for any excuse to protect their family and gang up on people."

Tracy Moody, owner of Studio Seven, an all-ages venue in Seattle, barred FSU members from his club after a series of violent incidents. Things ended more tragically with the deadly shooting at Skrappy's in Tucson. "The saddest thing is, kids were put in harm's way over bullshit," says Skrappy's manager Kathy Wooldridge, who'll no longer book FSU-affiliated bands, which she labels "thugcore." "Some of these bands are standing onstage going, 'Let's put some blood on this floor!' They promote the violence. That's how they're making money. It's sad. They have a career because kids are dying at their shows."

Then again, there are hardcore fans like Chris Grimes, an eighteen-year-old from Manalapan, New Jersey. Though he's built like a wrestler, Grimes looks very young. When we meet, he's wearing athletic shorts, a black hooded sweatshirt, white socks and Nikes. His older brother started taking him to hardcore shows when he was twelve. "The first time I got in the pit, I feared for my life," he says. "It was awesome." Though he's not a member of any crew, he says, "FSU, I don't think they're bad guys. I've encountered a bunch of them. They believe what they believe. But they don't really give people trouble." Grimes had been planning to attend the Club Deep show, and when he heard about Jim Morrison's death, he says it freaked him out. But, he adds, "It sounds like a fistfight. Every now and then, things go too far. New Jersey, it's not a scene of fakes. An element of hardcore is keeping on your toes."

Grimes has worn a mouth guard to shows and been knocked unconscious in the pit. Tonight, one of his favorite bands, Years Spent Cold, a group popular with FSU, is performing at a 4-H youth center in East Brunswick, New Jersey.

The 4-H center is an unadorned building surrounded by a chain-link fence, with a large dirt parking tot. There doesn't seem to be any professional security, and Grimes is thrilled. "I love this kind of show," he says. "Anything can happen." Inside, it's a VFW-style hall, with a cement floor, fluorescent lighting, an American flag in one corner and an adopt-a-puppy poster on a bulletin board. There is no stage; bands set up and perform at the far end of the room.

The crowd is an odd mixture of underfed emo kids and enormous, intimidating guys who look like soccer hooligans. A surprising number of the latter wear some form of hunter's camouflage. As Years Spent Cold set up, a few of the big dudes stand up and move toward the front of the room, some of them working the kinks out of their necks and doing little arm stretches.

As Kutz, the stocky, bearded singer of Years Spent Cold, launches into a song – for all but the most discerning listeners, much modern-day hardcore sounds indistinguishable from thrash metal, right down to the growling. Cookie Monster vocals – the pit erupts. Some of the dancers look like they're shadowboxing. Others whip their arms in furious windmills. Most of the audience stands back to form a giant U around the pit. with kids occasionally steeling themselves and rushing into the mayhem, their own fists swinging. Occasionally a group of dancers swarms Kutz, forming a kind of pulsating football huddle, and shouts into the microphone along with him. There's no divide between band and audience, and it's thrilling to watch.

Suddenly, a red-haired kid in a Years Spent Cold T-shirt staggers back against the wall. He's covering his nose, which appears to have been broken in the pit. Moaning, he straightens himself and slowly removes his hands from his face. Blood pours from his nose with the flow intensity of an overturned beer bottle. "Oh, God!" he says, and staggers outside.

Grimes and his friends are having a great time, though they've noticed a couple of kids with conspicuously long hair – metal fans – who, in this crowd, could pass for members of Hanson. "If these kids survive the night, I'll be surprised," Grimes says.

"Somebody should walk up to them and just punch them in the face!" says his friend Mike, a high school freshman.

"Why don't you?" asks Grimes' girlfriend, Nicole, a sophomore.

"Somebody should say, 'No one wants you here!'" Mike says.

"You should do it," Nicole says, with so little emotion it's impossible to tell if she wants him to do it or if she's just calling his bluff. In any case. Mike doesn't punch anybody. But the possibility of violence is ever present and, for some, the point.

A 2005 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center describes New Jersey as a "hotbed of skinhead activity" and cites the hate-crime-related arrest the year before of eight members of a skinhead group called the East Coast Hate Crew. None of those arrested were over twenty-one, and at least five of the eight came from Morrison's hometown of Little Egg Harbor or the vicinity. Angela Vetri, Morrison's ex, moved to South Jersey in 2001; she describes Little Egg Harbor as "super-redneck." Continues Vetri, 23, "It's a small town. And because it's South Jersey, people like to think it's Virginia and fly rebel flags from their pickup trucks. Jim was really sweet, and he was friends with people of all races and beliefs. Unfortunately, that included some very ignorant people. Because he could see the good in those people, too. He'd just say, Tra not going to judge them.'"

Morrison's parents are divorced, and, according to his mom, he hadn't seen his father, who was in the Army, since he was very young. He enlisted in the Navy after high school, in 2000. His job on the Bataan involved radio communication; the ship, stationed in the Persian Gulf, was a launching point for Marines and jets. Back home, he followed the Phillies, worked on his '65 Impala, night-fished oft a local bridge and went to shows.

According to Vetri, Morrison also got into his share of tights. "To tell you the truth'!'" she says. "If you'd come up to me and said, "Somebody you know is dead, guess who,' Jim would have been in the top ten. I don't know if he was always looking for trouble or trouble was looking for him. He would just say, 'Oh, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.'"

Alex Franklin, Morrison's accused killer, comes from Trenton and, because of his seniority, is one of the most respected leaders of FSU's Jersey chapter. "When someone has a problem with New Jersey, they always want to go to Alex, because he has a cool head/' says an FSLJ member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Alex has always been the good cop. He's a little square. Super respectful of women, bordering on old-fashioned. Unlike the majority of guys in our world, where girls are just invisible." Nights out in Jersey would often end at a diner, with Franklin ordering two or even three entrees-French toast, a cheeseburger, steak tips – and refusing to let anyone else pay.

Franklin also takes his straight-edge beliefs very seriously, He has an X tattooed below us right eye, and in 2005, he was interviewed by a New Jersey newspaper for a story about straight edge, in which he described a religious faction within the scene, citing his recent conversion and clubs where even cursing was banned.

In an August 2005 thread on the East Coast Hardcore message board, someone posting as "Alex FSU" also takes a hardline stance against racism. He lashes out against Skrewdriver, perhaps the most infamous Nazi punk band, writing, "fence-walking allows you to be a coward motherfucker... to some non-whites it is a big rucking deal... i wont stand for racist bullshit, ever... any pussy motherfucker coming to a show wearing a skrewdriver shirt, its mine, i already got one, id like to add more to the collection, the only way i want to get one of those is by smashing a nazis face inside out. what fun, hahaha."

"In FSU, we have something called 'the Vault,'" confirms James, "a collection of white-power shirts and hats that we've confiscated – some bloody, some not."

And yet, confusingly, Skrewdriver's early records did not feature racist lyrics. Nonracist hardcore fans are divided on whether or not listening to any Skrewdriver is allowable. For many members of FSU, though, there is no room for such nuance. It's a black-and-white worldview shaped by reading great significance into the tiniest of gradations – the color of one's boot faces, for example, which can signify violent white-supremacist beliefs.

Jim Morrison had three Skrewdriver songs on the jukebox of his MySpace page. Two are early, debatably innocuous punk singles. The third, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," is a cover of a faux-Nazi anthem from the musical Cabaret. Morrison's friends insist he was no racist, pointing out that his old band featured a black bassist and that he organized a benefit for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Still, according to multiple sources – including one anonymous witness with no ties to FSU or Morrison's friends – the shirt that sparked the fight depicted a Confederate flag flying over the Capitol, along with the phrase I HAVE A DREAM. FSU supporters are quick to point out that the shirt was being worn on the night before Martin Luther King Day.

Charlie, who was one of Morrison's best friends and his constant companion at shows, is a beefy twenty-year-old with a shaved head, curved barbell earrings and "Oi" – the working-class punk subgenre-tattooed on both wrists, with Iron Crosses dotting the i's. Charlie is vague about the content of the shirt, though he will say that the friend wearing it was not a hardcore kid and had never been to a hardcore show before. "I know the shirt had a Confederate flag, but I don't pay much attention to detail," he says. "But it doesn't matter what was on the shirt. Even if it was a swastika, it doesn't justify someone getting killed."

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