These days the selling and use of illegal substances has been bumped from the limelight by a different addiction. It’s not a dried-out plant loved by hippies, nor does it march in from Colombia. Most of the product is sourced from China and sold openly at your local mall. It’s usually made from plastic, rubber and leather and most of us use this item in daily routines. As devotees buy and sell primo examples for profit, stories of armed robbery and murder are once more synonymous with feeding this addiction. For many, it is now officially out of control. Welcome to the new crack.

Though the USA is in the midst of an extended recession, it doesn’t seem to stop some kids from spending insane amounts of money on sneakers. Reading blogs and hearing stories about how ‘I dropped $1000 on this and that shoe, but I still haven’t paid my rent or electric bill’ are scary. Why? Because it’s actually happening. Sneakers really are addictive like crack, albeit in a different way. A small minority will do whatever it takes to maintain their habit, putting themselves repeatedly in a financially unstable situation. As long as they have the Hot New Shit, it seems the end justifies the means, even if it means resorting to bag snatching and violent crime.

I experienced a glimpse of this craziness firsthand a while back when I did my first camp-out for the New Balance x Staple White Pigeon release. I showed up at around 6pm on the day prior to release, with a small crowd of about 15 campers already present. The guy that was first-in-line was putting names down so we could keep track of everyone arriving. As the hours went past, more people showed up and as daybreak hit, more than 40 campers were waiting patiently. Minutes before release over 100 people showed up suddenly. This is when it started to get rowdy because the person handling the list had some ‘friends’ cut in front and behind him. Arguments went back and forth and that’s when the line started to curve and get noisy. As it turned out I did get my shoes and no one came close to being killed or maimed, but the intense feeling of that morning is something I will never forget.

Going back a few years, the launch of the Pigeon Dunk SBs several years ago at Reed Space caused a ruckus that had New York’s finest escorting kids out of the Lower East Side and into cabs for their safety. Nike also pulled the Air Stab from UK shelves in July 2008. Derived from the name stability, the Air Stab was unfortunately re-released into stores at a time when knifings in London streets were tragically all too common. When security guards at the Nike store in Regent Street were attacked with knives and suffered leg and back wounds during a shoplifting incident, Nike had no choice but to remove the shoe. The Runnin’n'Gunnin logo on the Stab clearly didn’t pacify campaigners. Less widely known is the fact that around the same time, the Bonnie & Clyde edition of Puma’s Clyde model was also withdrawn from UK shelves. Campaigners had objected to a small gun embroidery on the heel, a decision which seems patently absurd when stacked against the bloodthirsty standards of TV, film and video games.

This situation isn’t new to the readers of Sneaker Freaker of course, but recent events at shoe releases in the USA have caused many, including myself, to sit back and ponder what exactly is the cause and what can be done about it.

As a long term sneakerhead, I can appreciate the fact that some shoes are so awesome, they can cause temporary insanity and inspire normally sensible people to go to outlandish lengths to get a pair. Needless to say, there’s a big difference between an ego- driven bidding war on eBay and stabbing someone to death over a pair of Foamposites, but sadly in many recent cases, this is exactly what has happened.

But wait, this isn’t anything new right? I remember in the late-80s and 90s when kids were getting robbed and killed over hats, jerseys, sneakers, boots and jackets like the leather 8-ball joints. Hearing these stories always made me shake my head in disbelief that someone would actually take a life over something so trivial as a Georgetown jacket. But this is not just about the robbery of an object with a defined value. It’s a form of someone making a status statement and making others envious of what they have in that moment, then someone taking that object by dominant force. That’s the kicker right there. It’s just for the moment. People will eventually forget about Galaxy Foamposites because a new version of the New Hot Shit will come out next month, then a new one the month after that. Presumably, all concerned are aware of this repetitive cycle, yet awareness doesn’t seem to deflate the emotional intensity.

Older readers of Sports Illustrated will remember the edition from May 1990 with the caption ‘Your Sneakers or your Life’ on the cover. The story detailed a series of events that are a chilling reminder of recent occurences.

The murderous theft of sports jackets and even hats also features prominently in the article, as do brands such as British Knights (known by Crip gang members as Blood Killer), Fila, Avia and even Starter. Rightly or wrongly, it is Jordan that seems to be historically burdened by much of the blame. In 1989, Michael Thomas, a ninth grader at Meade Senior High School, was murdered by 17-year- old James David Martin for a two-week-old pair of Air Jordans. That same year, 16-year-old Johnny Bates was shot to death in Houston because he refused to give up his Jordans. There are many other examples and the article quotes Atlanta and Chicago police confirming they both had reports of more than 50 recent robberies involving sportswear.

Since these incidents happened well over 20 years ago, their story is forgotten by all but their respective families. Nearly 25 years later, we seem to be smack in the middle of an identical retro sneaker nightmare. Perhaps the shattered US economy is inflaming tensions and feelings of inequality, but there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight to the use of violence in connection to sneaker releases. As long as popular retro Air Jordans are released by Nike, you can expect another highly charged incident with dramatic iPhone videos all over the internet minutes later. Thanks to the social networks, the love of sneakers and what thugs will do to get them, we have once again reached the limits of human comprehension.

December 23rd 2011 will forever be marked in my memory. Two days before Christmas, Nike planned to release the Jordan Xl known as the Concord. Due to the speculation based on leaked images, the announcement of the shoe’s long awaited comeback was to say the least, hotly anticipated. Days before, images of fans lining up all over the nation went viral. Urban kids could be seen in the photos with tents and sleeping bags. These are mostly educated sneakerheads that understand the odds of a successful online order but would prefer to sleep in the wintery cold, rather than take the risk. At midnight, the Nike online store crashed when the Concords hit the net. Giant retailers such as Foot Locker, Footaction and Eastbay followed suit. That alone should have been a warning to companies with bricks-and-mortar stores that something big was about to go down.

The morning of the Concord release, thousands of fans lined- up countrywide. One of them was Kenny Casares. Chatting about his experience at the Livingston Mall in New Jersey was illuminating. ‘A disgusting experience’ was the first thing that came out of his mouth as I asked him to recall the time. ‘It didn’t bother me so much that I didn’t get the sneaker, it was the fact that they were so disorganized. Multi-billion dollar corporations and mall security that’s in charge of the well-being and safety of others should know what is going on.’

An hour before midnight, Kenny tried to get information from the mall security team about their safety procedures and which doors would open first. He was able to speak to a security person who responded by saying ‘What sneaker release?’ Some time later, security were forced to confront the hyped-up crowd and state that they would not be opening the mall and that everyone would have to leave the premises. At the time there were about 70 people present.

Hours after the initial group had been removed, numbers began to swell. That’s when the crowd that was waiting curbside after being kicked off the premises decided to come back and jump on the line. ‘Towards 6:30am in the morning, the line of hundreds started to bend. It was sparked by a group of kids who definitely looked like they were trying to get to the front at all costs. I saw some of them making gun gestures at the crowd and overheard one kid say to another that he will stab someone if they try to get in front of him.’ After this madness was done, Kenny approached Foot Locker and has also left multiple phone messages for the head of security in regards to future releases and how they should handle them. To this day Kenny claims he has yet to receive a call from either party, a situation we take Kenny’s word on.

As the minutes wound down to the release, stories of gunfire, stabbings and even a murder swept the internet. It was so senseless, it was hard to grasp. The murder later turned out to be a hoax, fueled by a phoney Facebook RIP page in honour of a victim named as Tyreek Amir Jacob. Who started the page and why is still a mystery but it seemed to amplify the drama of it all. Shots were also fired in Richmond, California cancelling the release of the shoe at that location. Reports of trampling, objects being thrown in Seattle and police subduing crowds with pepper spray also spread. The Baltimore Sun reported that four arrests were made in an Atlanta mall. One was a woman who left her two toddlers unattended in a car while she went to buy the shoes. Police bashed the windows in to retrieve the children, waited for her arrival and arrested her. A 20-year-old in Jersey City was stabbed seven times. It seems no one was prepared for the massive nationwide chaos.

The insanity over the recent Nike Foamposite releases has added a fresh chapter to this delinquent story. Multiple stabbings at the PG Plaza in Maryland ended in the death of Leonard Smith Matthews, apparently the result of a dispute over his electric blue Foamposites. Whilst there was no violence at the Galaxy Foamposite release in Florida, arrests were made for trespassing after police were backchatted by kids who didn’t like losing their spot in the line.

Most will lay the blame squarely on Nike and the retailers, but also mention saturation advertising, consumerist hype, athlete endorsements and capitalism gone haywire, not to mention the ‘kids of today’. I’m not so sure anyone knows where to point the finger, as the contributing factors seem too complex to even tabulate.

Watching the Concord release videos on YouTube reminded me of English youths wearing adidas while they stole shoes from JD Sports during the UK riots last year. What struck me most was that the participants didn’t seem to know exactly why they were there. It was simply happening so they joined in. Carried away by adrenaline, provoked by the presence of police in a volatile situation, aggrieved at imagined injustices, fuelled by disadvantage – whatever it was – the mob mentality ruled the streets.

My own feeling is that the shoes, whether Concords or Foamposites, are possibly the least important component. It’s not about the shoes. This is a phenomenon, the sheer frenzy of a hyped-up crowd that loses its grip on civility. Like schools of bloodthirsty piranhas in the Amazon, they seem energised by the sheer spectacle of a situation being out of control.

However, it does seem there is ample scope for brands to release products without the potential for violence. If Apple can handle thousands of consumers waiting for iPhones outside their store in a smooth and diligent manner, why can’t any other sneaker store do the same? What is it about sneakers specifically that has agitated waiting crowds and caused the pointless deaths of American teenagers? Maybe releases like the Concord need to be conducted online so no one gets hurt. That would be a somewhat defeatist solution, but in the present climate, it may yet become a reality.

For now, I want you to think about the names of the people that lost their lives over a stupid shoe. Remember, that body in the morgue could be you or your brother, your best friend or even the stranger next to you in the queue. Question yourself and the blogs. Question the hypebeast hipsters and resellers the world over who don’t care about anything other than getting your attention and money. In the end, we can all argue about the ‘why’, but what happens tomorrow will depend on your reaction and your responsibility to act accordingly.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take photos of seven pairs of Nikes I just bought.

Story by Angel Gonzalez. First printed in Sneaker Freaker Issue 24 – buy it here.