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Shoes, Shanks, And Strangulation: A Brief History Of Sneaker Violence

How far would you go for a pair of sneakers?
by Miguel Escobar | Feb 10, 2017
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There’s crazy, then there’s downright senseless. It’s one thing to love sneakers to the point of obsession; serious enthusiasts are all likely to have done something irrational in pursuit of a covetable pair. Maybe you’ve cut class, skipped work, or broken the bank just to get your hands on those shoes. It isn’t healthy, but all things considered, this behavior isn’t beyond absolution, either.

But then, as with all matters of obsession, there’s a line; and as with all lines, there are people who cross it. For as long as sneaker collecting has been a culture of covetousness, it’s been plagued by incidents of violence: riots, muggings, stampedes, and worst of all: killings. This is the dark side of a passion that is, at its core, a form of consumerism—it devolves into something rabid.

In May 1990, Sports Illustrated published a grim image on its cover: an illustration of a man holding a gun to the back of another, holding a pair of Fire Red Air Jordan 5s. The cover line read: “Your sneakers or your life.”

Inside was an illuminating story that revealed just how rampant sneaker violence had gotten in America by the dawn of the 90s, years into the frenzy that Michael Jordan’s signature shoes started. The article began with the high-profile case of the murder of Michael Eugene Thomas—a ninth-grader who was strangled for his new Jordans—and mentioned other similar occurrences around the same time, involving Filas and Avias. Since then, violence has always been a recurring spectre of American sneaker culture.

But this phenomenon isn’t just a relic of the '90s. Sneaker violence bled into the 2000s, continuing still in the 2010s, as it remains a concern of sneaker culture-at-large. Apart from the riotous sneaker releases, there are still cases of sneaker-related murder.

Jordan Brand, which, despite being the predominant subject of these incidents, has often been criticized for their lack of public protest. In 2016, Howard “H” White, senior vice president of Jordan Brand, finally spoke up about it, albeit succinctly. Michael Jordan himself has been notoriously impartial about the issue as well, even if he has already spoken up against a separate issue: police brutality.

Last year, a film entitled Kicks, which is about a 15-year-old boy whose shoes are taken from him, drew attention to sneaker violence as well. This is the latest (and likely the most sobering) in the line of films about sneaker culture—and nearly all tackle the issue of violence. Documentaries like Just For Kicks and Sneakerheadz did, recounting the most salient real cases of sneaker violence in recent memory.

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The objects of attention in these cases, as well as the methods and circumstances, are varied. Often, the most brutal and tragic cases are of theft, in which people are literally mugged and killed for their shoes. But the most well-documented (and perhaps also the most bizarre) cases are often the release dates of new sneakers—particularly Air Jordans 11s and Nikes. They serve as the first and most clear example of how violent people can become over a pair of shoes.

Take a look at some of the sneaker releases that provoked people to turn against each other:

2005: Nike SB Dunk Low “Pigeon”

The “Pigeon” Dunks were a Nike SB collaboration with Jeff Staple of NYC boutique Reed Space. The Pigeons were a symbol of New York and, and released during the time of a budding mainstream sneaker culture. Many consider that to be the reason people lined up for them on the day of release—a completely unprecedented turnout—before things turned riotous. The NYPD had to shut down the block due to reports of people carrying large knives and baseball bats to the scene.

2009: Air Jordan 11 “Space Jam”

These days, you can expect an Air Jordan 11 to release towards the end of every year, around November or December. The shoe that started all that trend was the 2009 re-release of the Space Jam 11s, which caused people to break into two Foot Locker branches in the States.

2011: Air Jordan 11 “Concords”

Air Jordan 11s are, for some reason, the frequent object of violent outbursts. In 2011, when Jordan Brand re-released the Concord 11s all hell broke loose. Even the local release of the 2011 Concords turned sour (but not nearly as violent), and is by far the most popular of the few documented cases of sneaker-related altercation in the Philippines.

2012: Air Jordan 11 “Playoffs”

In New Jersey, a man had just bought his “Bred” 11s before he was shot 14 times and killed by three teenagers who followed him home. In 2016, one of the perpetrators was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

2013: Air Jordan 11 “Gamma Blue”

When Jordan Brand released the Gamma Blue 11s in 2013, riots broke out all over America. Stampedes of people would knock down mall entrance doors just to get in, and several incidents of violence were reported across America. But among the videos that surfaced, this one is the most disturbing.

Thankfully, this isn’t quite as significant a phenomenon here in the Philippines. But as our sneaker community continues to grow and accommodate more people, hungrier for new and better shoes, it’s important that we take heed of how sneaker violence has played out in America, lest we suffer the same.

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