The release of Nike and Michael Jordan's limited edition Air Jordan Concord XI, a few weeks ago resulted in a string of violence at malls and shopping centers nationwide. Sadly, the consumerist cultural reinforcements that support such volatile engagement are widespread and even celebrated -- no wonder the sound of crickets coming from the shoe's endorsers are so well tolerated.
Let's be clear -- I am in no way suggesting that the significance placed on particular brands in hip-hop culture can be attributed solely to blind consumerism. There have been books, academic papers, even documentaries made on the co-opting of mainstream consumerism by urban youth, clothing as a form of self expression, and the adaptation and creation of style by hip-hop artists illustrating that such an examination is far too simplistic.
But just as the frenzy over these sneakers is deserving of further analysis, so too is the violence associated with it. People -- children -- have been killed over these things; sneakers. And we're not just talking one or two. In the 1990s, apparel-related violence in certain Chicago police districts resulted in an average of around sixty-two incidents per month.
And though the violence seems to have calmed since its peak in the 90s, it's still happening. On the day that Jordan's latest retro shoe was released, police were called to stores in New Jersey, Washington, Indiana, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia, among others.
In Jersey City, NJ, a twenty-year-old was stabbed seven times as he waited online to buy the shoes. And at another mall, three shoppers had the sneakers stolen from them, and several people were injured in a stampede.
In Louisville, Kentucky, police were called with reports of 75-100 people engaged in a fight at the mall. Pepper spray was used in an incident in Seattle. And a sale was cancelled in Richmond, CA after shots were fired. And, in Austin, TX police shut down a store after two police officers were injured.
We can all agree that resorting to murder over a pair of sneakers is beyond cold blooded, but we must accept that, once again, the analysis is not so simple. There are other factors at play.
Most important is the profound absence of alternative outlets for building self-respect in inner cities, which are wrought with abject poverty, broken families, rampant incarceration and drug abuse -- and a youth that finds a semblance of self-worth in the status afforded the by these particular brands.
In response to the recent violence, a correspondent for the Nike Jordan brand said, "We are extremely concerned to hear of the reported crowd incidents around the Air Jordan XI at some select retailers. Consumer safety and security is of paramount importance. We encourage anyone wishing to purchase our product to do so in a respectful and safe manner."
"Crowd incidents?" "Some select retailers?" Cleverly downplayed, Nike. This has been ongoing for decades. "This," meaning stranglings, shootings, stabbings, and beatings. Has Michael Jordan himself released a statement, condemning the violence and singling out those who participate in it? Has he considered lowering the astronomical price tag or increasing the shoe's availability?
I understand that certain sacrifices must be made for the luxuries afforded by free market capitalism, but we are talking about children in the majority of cases -- impressionable, growing adolescents. Sadly, these children are "other people's children" -- terminology coined by Lisa Delpit in her seminal work on children of color facing stereotyping, prejudice, and cultural assumptions in the classroom. They don't belong to us, they're not our responsibility.
I think it's a problem when a 17-year-old child faces life in prison for killing a peer for their sneakers, while no one is policing Nike and Michael Jordan for being the fuel in the fire, marketing their product so heavily despite being fully aware of the very real potential for the loss of life.
We live in a world that is literally fueled by greed. We value and encourage it without considering the costs, or the responsibility of those profiting from it. Our consumerist culture does nothing to reinforce that self-worth should not be predicated on the clothes you wear, car you drive or phone you text on.
In Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous sermon on the "drum major instinct," where he discusses the global human desire for attention and adoration, he says that the hunger for recognition is a basic instinct that we all posses. This instinct, he called the "drum major instinct," entices people to live above their means, "feed(ing) a repressed ego."
How indicative of the scope of the problem, then, that an abridged quote from the sermon was recently twisted to insinuate the opposite of what Dr. King was trying to teach, and then chiseled into the new United States Monument built in his honor.
"I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness," it wrongly says -- this ascribed to a man who was morally against tooting his own horn.
The purpose of his speech was not that he considered himself a drum major, at all. The point was to bring awareness to the basic desire to be the best, to feel important, to stand out, which turns people into 'joiners,' and makes us easy prey to the appetite of advertising companies.
Wherever we choose to place blame, I hope that we as individuals can learn from Dr. King and reflect on where our materialistic cultural practices arise from, and whether those practices left unchecked might be self-destructive.
Nike and Michael Jordan are concerned with the bottom line, period. Change starts with ourselves, the people. We tell the corporations what we want through our purchasing power, and they give it to us. At this point, we are getting what we ask for.
Are we willing to be courageous enough to stand for something, even if it means standing alone?