Elgin James

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Elgin James is a filmmaker, musician and a former member of Friends Stand United (FSU), a Boston, Massachusetts area group in the early 1990s. FSU has been classified by several law enforcement agencies as a gang.

Early life[edit]

After a short time in orphanages and foster homes, James (who is of mixed race) was raised by civil rights activists on a rural farm in the Northeast.[1] With a crop of marijuana in the backyard and alcohol and drug abuse in the house, James formed strong anti-drinking and anti-drug beliefs which later led him to be a pivotal figure in the 1990s militant straight edge movement within the punk subculture. He had also become a vegetarian at age 11 after watching the animals he raised on the farm slaughtered.[2]

James had discovered punk rock through an older foster brother and attended concerts by seminal hardcore punk bands Black Flag, Agnostic Front and Millions of Dead Cops. He was arrested for the first time at age 12, and by 14 he ended up in juvenile hall. There he rejected the pacifist beliefs of his parents (who had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Riders movement), and began studying the writings of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Huey P. Newton, fusing them with aggressive punk ideals.[3]

James left juvenile hall, and inspired by civil rights attorneys William Kunstler and Morris Dees, left for Antioch College at age 17 to study pre-law. During a break in his first semester, he was involved in a gang fight and beaten in the back of the head with a baseball bat, which left him with left hemispheric brain damage.[4] He could not speak or move the right side of his body. After intensive physical and speech therapy he eventually recovered his speech and motor skills, but he ended up homeless, living on the streets and in squats across the country. Eventually he settled in Boston, Massachusetts.


Main article: Friends Stand United

In Boston, James began singing for hardcore punk band Wrecking Crew and befriended a multi-racial group of kids from the tough areas of Boston and Brockton, Massachusetts. They formed FSU, which originally stood for 'Fuck Shit Up' however came to be known as 'Friends Stand United' or 'Forever Stand United', for the purpose of purging violent white power skinheads from the Boston hardcore scene.[5] Having successfully eliminated several of the dominating neo-Nazi groups, James turned his attention to drug dealers,[6] going, in his words, “right after the heart of the enemy, money”.[3] He would rob drug dealers and then give half of that money to local charities.[5]

While part of FSU, using a tactic learned from the United States government,[3] James and other FSU members set up an "arms for hostages" scenario in which they traded handguns with inner city gang members for pit bulls used in dog fighting rings. The dogs would then be nursed back to health and fostered until safe homes were found for them.

The founding core of FSU eventually splintered, with a large section moving on to motorcycle gangs including the Outlaws.[7] The split was amicable, but James and other founding members decided to leave a more positive legacy and steer FSU away from the criminal world. They established the Foundation Fund, which set up scholarships at local universities (Berklee College of Music and Suffolk University Law School) in the names of FSU members who had died. The fund also holds yearly benefit concerts to raise money for charities that reflect "hardcore punk culture" (teen homelessness, anti-handgun violence, suicide prevention and local orphanages).[8]

James and FSU were featured on National Geographic TV, the History Channel's Gangland series and in Rolling Stone magazine.[9]

Music and film career[edit]

James began his music career playing in straight edge hardcore bands such as Wrecking Crew, 454 Big Block and Righteous Jams. Later, James would experiment with country-influenced solo work that has been critically acclaimed and described as "hooligan folk" by the Boston Phoenix, and "folk-punk" by Wonkavision magazine.

In 2006, James moved to Los Angeles, California to work as a filmmaker. He wrote and directed the short film Goodnight Moon, starring Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy, which was released by THINKFilm. In December 2008, James was announced as a fellow for the Sundance Screenwriters lab, whose alumni include Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alison Anders and Darren Aronofsky.[10]


James was arrested by the FBI in Los Angeles, California on July 14, 2009, stemming from an incident four years earlier. He was charged with a criminal complaint of federal attempted extortion filed in Chicago.[11][12][13] It is alleged that in 2005 James sanctioned an attack on an individual who had past ties to white power politics.[14] James is then reported as to have said that the man could avoid further trouble if he made a $5,000 “donation” to FSU. After that incident, the FBI became involved, and after another attack, the victim scheduled a meeting with James to give the $5,000 while the FBI had surveillance on the encounter.[15] The individual has been revealed to be a member of the band Mest. Speculation has been raised that lead singer Tony Lovato's previous ties to white power groups[16][17] were the reason why the band was targeted,[14] given FSU's anti-racist stance. However the specific Mest member who was targeted has not been revealed.


James was sentenced to one year and one day of prison by U.S. District Judge Suzanne B. Conlon in Chicago on March 8, 2011.[18][19] Prosecutors had sought up to four years in prison, noting the extreme violence in which James had engaged in against Neo-Nazi skinheads.[20] Over 60 letters of support were submitted on James' behalf including letters from actor Ed Harris as well as Robert Redford,[18][21] who James has credited with helping him turn his life around. James told the New York Times that through working with Redford "I truly realized that I needed to leave the violence of that life behind.” [22] In Robert Redford's letter to the judge he wrote "I believe that Elgin has the potential to make a difference. He has an important message for people of all ages and the possibility of change (and) the power of nonviolence."[18]

The same day James was sentenced he was hired to write a screenplay for Brian Grazer and Universal Pictures.[18][23] After sentencing James said in a statement that "The last few months have been a juxtaposition of the best and worst of my life. Today I faced my day of reckoning. … I have accepted responsibility for my past."[18]

James served his sentence at Metropolitan Detention Center an administrative facility that handles situations such as containment of extremely dangerous, violent, or escape-prone inmates.[24][25] James was released from US federal prison on March 16, 2012.[24]


1992- Wrecking Crew, single, (vocals)
1995- 454 Big Block, "Your Jesus," Century Media (vocals)
1996- 454 Big Block, s/t single, Big Wheel Rec (vocals)
1997- 454 Big Block, "Save Me From Myself," Big Wheel Rec (vocals)
1997- The World is My Fuse, s/t single, Espo records (vocals)
1998- The World Is My Fuse, "Drunk," Single, Espo Records (vocals, guitars)
1999- The World Is My Fuse, "Good Intentions," Espo Records (vocals, guitars)
2002- The Jaded Salingers, "s/t," Espo Records (vocals, guitars)
2003- Elgin James "For Carol.." Lonesome Recordings (vocals, guitars)
2004- Elgin James, "Long Way Home," Lonesome Recordings comp (vocals, guitars)
2004- Righteous Jams "Rage Of Discipline," Broken Sounds (guitars)
2005- Elgin James, "Tinted Soft Green," Emusic Digital Singles Club (vocals, guitars)
2006- Righteous Jams "Business As Usual," Abacus Recordings (guitars)


  • Release (1998)
  • Live Thee Fourth (2000)
  • Boston Beatdown Vol. 2 (2004)
  • Dark Planet: Visions of America (2005)
  • Enemy (2007)
  • Goodnight Moon, THINKFilms, (2007) (writer/director)
  • Little Birds (2011)[26]
  • Low Riders (2016, writer)


  1. ^ Revolution On Canvas, Time/Warner books, 2007
  2. ^ “Sounds from Underground” Lollipop magazine, 1996.
  3. ^ a b c Enemy, J&M productions 2007.
  4. ^ Armed Aggression Fanzine, Issue 1, 1996
  5. ^ a b "Inside Straight Edge". National Geographic. Retrieved April 8, 2010. 
  6. ^ Dark Planet: Visions of America 2005.
  7. ^ Catalano, Debbie, “Elgin James: Truth and Fiction”, Soundcheck magazine (November 2003), pp. 14-16
  8. ^ http://foundationfund.net
  9. ^ Binelli, Mark (August 23, 2007). "Punk Rock Fight Club". Rolling Stone. 
  10. ^ Buchanan, Kyle (June 30, 2009). "Inside the Sundance Labs: Elgin James, Gang Leader Turned Sundance Filmmaker". Movieline. Retrieved 2012-09-14. 
  11. ^ Coen, Jeff (July 14, 2009). "Feds arrest 'punk rock' gang leader". Chicago Breaking News. Retrieved 2012-09-14. 
  12. ^ Vives, Ruben (2009-07-14). "Alleged gang member arrested in extortion". L.A. NOW (Los Angeles Times). Retrieved 2009-07-14. 
  13. ^ "'Punk Rock' Gang Leader Arrested By Feds". The Chicago Tribune. July 14, 2009. Retrieved 2012-09-14. 
  14. ^ a b Cooper, Ryan (August 7, 2009). "Elgin James FSU Update - James in Chicago for a Pre-trial Appearance and More on Mest". About.com. Retrieved 2012-09-14. 
  15. ^ Kreps, Daniel (July 20, 2009). "FSU Gang Founder Arrested For Extortion: Inside Punk Fight Club". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2012-09-14. 
  16. ^ "Mest Profile - A brief biography of Mest". About.com. 2012-04-10. Retrieved 2012-09-14. 
  17. ^ DeRogatis, Jim (April 5, 2002). "Cosmetic changes work wonders". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2012-09-14. 
  18. ^ a b c d e Sweeney, Annie (March 8, 2011). "Ex-gang leader earns accolades at Sundance, then sentenced for extortion". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2012-09-14. 
  19. ^ "Elgin Nathan James, Gang Leader Turned Filmmaker, Sentenced For Extortion In Chicago". Huffington Post. March 9, 2011. Retrieved 2012-09-14. 
  20. ^ Sweeney, Annie (2011-03-08). "Ex-gang leader earns accolades at Sundance, then sentenced for extortion". Chicago Tribune. 
  21. ^ "Elgin James gets sentenced to a year in prison for Mest extortion scheme". Punknews.org. March 10, 2011. Retrieved 2012-09-14. 
  22. ^ Barnes, Brooks (2011-01-18). "Sundance Schedules Six Films From Its Lab". The New York Times. 
  23. ^ Fleming, Mike (March 9, 2011). "Gang Past Rears Up For Sundance 'Little Birds' Director Elgin James, Who'll Spend Year In Jail". Deadline.com. Retrieved 2012-09-14. 
  24. ^ a b "Inmate Locator". Federal Bureau of Prisons. Retrieved 2012-09-14. 
  25. ^ "Prison Types & General Information". Federal Bureau of Prisons. Retrieved 2012-09-14. 
  26. ^ "Little Birds: Featurette - Meet the Artists". traileraddict.com. Retrieved May 15, 2011.