We did not really understand what was under way when the story was first aired on our local TV news that a schoolboy had been killed for his shoes. Michael Thomas was 15, and his barefoot and strangled body was found in the woods near his high school, not far from our home.
This being the suburbs of Washington DC, murder capital of the country where we average 10 killings a week, one more death hardly registered… except for that detail about his being barefoot. And in a comment to a local reporter, his family said something about people being jealous of his new shoes.
In the boy’s bedroom, police found an empty shoebox for a pair of Air Jordans, a fashionable kind of shoe endorsed constantly on TV ads by the basketball star Michael Jordan. They cost $115.50 a pair, according to the sales receipt inside the shoebox which the murdered boy kept in a kind of shrine in his room. That is about £70 for a pair of glorified plimsolls.
A schoolmate, a member of the same basketball team, has been charged with the murder, and suddenly a new kind of foot fetishism is pattering through the US crime statistics. In Atlanta, the police have recorded more than 50 muggings this year in which the victims have been relieved of their footwear.
The shoes were probably more valuable than the contents of the average wallet. The new top-line model called the Pump has a tiny basketball at the back. When pumped, this increases the air pressure in a special system of tubes and valves inside the shoe, thus giving added grip and ankle support.
All this high technology which is supposed to justify a price tag of $170, or more than £100, may do wonders for one’s basketball game, but the point about these shoes is that few are bought to be worn on court. They are a status symbol, a fashion statement, and the way to wear them is with the upper laces undone so that the distinctive high tops flap around the ankle.
Sometimes when we switch on the TV, it is hard to tell whether it is a sports report or an ad. Bodies turn and heave and leap and strain against a meaningless mantra of sound. “Do you know, do you know, do you know?” says the voice-over, which I now know to be the Nike company spending some of this year’s $60 million publicity allocation.
“Bo Knows,” is the expected reply. Bo Jackson is an outstanding athlete who makes a fortune promoting shoes. He won the Advertising Age award, which symbolises the heartfelt thanks of Madison Avenue, as sales personality of the year.
They should be grateful. Sports shoes are big business, with Americans handing over more than $5 billion for name-brand sports shoes last year, about the same as they gave in aid to Israel and Egypt combined.
The industry now spends more than $200 millions a year on its TV campaigns, and this kind of money gets results. Our five-year-old now insists on “high-tops” whenever we go near a shoe shop. Other consumers are equally attracted.
Take Demetrick Walker, 17, of Houston Texas, now serving a life sentence after shooting dead 16-year-old Johnny Bates for refusing to give up his Air Jordan high-tops. “It’s bad when we create such an image of luxury about athletic gear that it forces people to kill over it,” prosecuting attorney Mark Vinson told the court.
Even if they don’t kill, there are other dangerous ways of raising the money. I was admiring a brand-new Mercedes convertible parked casually in the street near our office the other day. Two teenage black kids, clanking with gold jewellery, strolled out of the Footlocker, a chain store which specialises in sports shoes. They dumped at least a dozen shoeboxes into the back seat of the Merc, and took off down M Street with a squeal of tyres.
“Guess where that money comes from,” said my companion, a staid American journalist who could not quite keep the envy out of his voice. “You Brits are partly to blame. You know that brand of shoes, British Knights? It has the letters BK on the sides. The word on the street is that it really stands for Black Kings. Some gangs say it means Blood Killer. Desirable stuff, eh?”
The magazine Sports Illustrated has reported that name-brand footwear and associated sports clothing have become a kind of uniform for drug-dealing street gangs. The Intervale gang in Boston wears only Adidas gear, and even uses a special Adidas handshake using three fingers, like the three distinctive stripes on the shoes.
“We used to have brawls in here, a tremendous amount of stealing,” John Hazard of the City Sport chain told the magazine. “We cut back on 90 percent of it by getting rid of certain products. We don’t carry Adidas, Fila, British Knights. They bring in the gangs.
“There’s a store not far away that carried all that stuff. They have after-hours sales to show the new lines to big drug dealers. They even have guys on beepers to let them know the latest shoes have come in. It would be nothing for them to buy 20, 30 pairs to give to all their 12-year-old runners.”
In dismayingly large parts of the black community, the drug dealers are the kings of fashion, trend setters who easily become local role models. It’s a grim coincidence that these local heroes of crime are wearing the same fashion icons which the respectable black role models – the top athletes like Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan – are promoting on TV.