Blood is pumping out of the brachial artery in my arm, pooling at my feet and soaking through my shredded North Face coat, jeans and Nike Air Zoom Tallac Lite boots. My entire left arm is numb, but oddly enough I can still feel the warmth of my blood steadily flowing down my leg.
"Am I going to die?"
"Yes. I'm going to die here over a pair of sneakers."
Bystanders camped out at House of Hoops on 125th Street rush to dial 911, but everything moves in slow motion for me as I call the only person I can think of.
"Chloe, I've been stabbed. Come now to the Harlem House of Hoops," I say to my sister, who I now fear will be the only surviving member of my immediate family after this incident. Losing our parents at a young age made grief a very familiar foe to us.
Because of an argument over two pairs of sneakers while camping out for kicks, my life is going to end. Grief and heartache will descend upon my family for the third time in less than a decade.
Fast-forward six years, seven different surgical procedures, one blood transfusion and more physical therapy appointments than I can count later, and I'm still standing. I have limited use of my left hand and constant nerve pain that prevents me from sleeping comfortably through the night.
You'd think after all that I'd stop collecting kicks, right?
Nah—the game keeps calling me. Nowadays I make sure to cop in different and safer ways yet, unfortunately, still see the violence happening to others. It's unnerving to know my tale is just one of many and hasn't stemmed the violence that occurs around sneakers, especially in my hometown of New York, the epicenter for the culture.
"Train hop next stop you get ya chain popped, run ya sneakers and ya jewels and ya dame’s watch." This hook on the song "Train Hop" by Camp Lo is reminiscent of the NYC that I grew up in and the mentality around kicks that almost cost me my life. This song was released in 2017 but serves as an ode to what it was like anywhere in New York at any given time during the ‘80s and ‘90s. The streets were always watching. No one could be trusted. Each time I walked out of the house wearing Reebok Pumps, my mother feared I'd return home maimed or, even worse, not at all.
I know what you're thinking: "That's old New York. Things aren't like that anymore."
Boy, do I wish you were right.
On November 11, 2017, an Adidas Pharrell NMD release at Concepts NYC resulted in a fight over a limited pair of sneakers. In February last year, a 17-year-old boy robbed a man at gunpoint for his Jordan VIII Retros. That man proceeded to run over the teen with his SUV, causing the teen to lose his arm.
As much as sneaker culture has grown, it appears we are still close to the same place as that jarring Sports Illustrated cover from May 14, 1990—the one depicting a black hand pointing a gun to the back of another black youth while holding a pair of white/red Air Jordan V's in the other hand with the heading "Your Sneakers or Your Life." The cover article tells of 16-year-old Johnny Bates, shot to death in April 1989 in Houston by 17-year-old Demetrick Walker after Bates refused to hand over his Air Jordans.
So how do you quell this violence that bubbles up around hyped releases? How can shoe companies market their product, create hype for the release but make the acquisition safe and give anyone a reasonably fair shot to get said product?
Like all things in this millennium, the answer seems to be technology. With e-commerce becoming the preferred way of shopping and reaching multibillion dollar sales, this shift has the entire sneaker industry looking to find new ways to increase revenue targets and sell more pairs of sneakers. Smartphone apps are now supposed to help customers purchase the most desired pairs through a supposedly fair, organized and safe system.
Foot Locker rolled out the Launch reservation app nationwide for Foot Locker, Footaction and Champs customers to reserve the shoes and pick them up in-store at a later date. The app replaces the company's former sweepstakes procedure (an in-store raffle), focusing on buyer safety and instilling a sense of fairness and trust in the process.
Adidas' answer was launching its "Confirmed" app. Simon Atkins, Adidas' vice president of brand activation, told Sole Collector the app was the byproduct of "large amounts of consumer frustration" from past botched releases.
"The products that we will want to release that have this type of interest could sell out instantly," Atkins said. "I'm sure you've been in lines or spoken to people in lines and seen frustration where people haven't collected. And then people are having to line up again for restocks, or a lottery system that they feel is rigged, or online where bots seem to somehow instantly get there first. And then a resale industry that immediately pops up straight after. That takes away from what is the essence of the really exciting part of our business. That's what the app is there to do from start to finish: to deliver a better experience."
Nike also has an app designed for direct-to-consumer sales. The SNKRS app's purpose is to deliver an interactive experience that allows customers to purchase hyped pairs right from their phone or desktop computer.
Sounds great, but unfortunately, there are still downsides to the technologically improved way of copping kicks, including several barriers to entry. Would-be shoppers first need a smartphone, internet access and a credit card. While these things are seen as basic necessities in many (or most) parts of America, where I'm from in NYC, they may not be as readily available to a lot of people, let alone a kid who just wants to participate in sneaker culture. If he or she doesn’t have a credit card, or if internet access is something they have occasionally instead of constantly, it's extremely difficult for the very people who created and nurtured this culture to participate.
If images of blacktops, chain nets, bodegas and street corners are used to market this footwear around the world, why should the people who routinely live out their lives in these places be shut out from acquiring the kicks?
I grew up on those corners but, through the grace of God and street knowledge, have done better for myself by gaining an education and creating a career path. I can get past all the aforementioned barriers of entry, as I have a credit card, smartphone and internet access. But considering the apps are based on random luck instead of hustle, I'm still left without sneakers. I have been buying kicks for over 25 years, and no system has proved as difficult.
I'm not alone in my frustration, either. For those in my position, all you need to do is scroll through Twitter on any given hyped released date and you'll find a flood of messages questioning if the way shoes are sold on these apps is actually reasonable. The present-day experience of buying a highly anticipated shoe has soured some on the entire process, as it would any consumer of any product. It's baffling why this retail system is so unlike any other luxury or hyped product's.
"When [brands] can manufacture as many sneakers as they want—I think it's dope to create the demand, and that's just a small part, but I don't really think that's smart," rapper Cam'ron told Complex. "Everybody has their own strategy, but people are gonna get hurt like that. You got people outside fighting for sneakers when you know it's only going to be 500 [pairs]. You may have a skimpy, nerdy kid, no disrespect to anybody, but somebody is just going to snatch his sneakers. Somebody died like that in the past year or so, I think that system is wack."
If you walk into an Apple Store, they would never say you can't get an iPhone X. It would just be a matter of when, because the item is popular and backordered. Same with most luxury items. If you want a Tesla right now, you may have to wait, but you would eventually get one. Why is it not the same with certain brands of kicks?
I would rather spend my hard-earned money on a pair of Balenciagas or Y-3 Adidas. Yes, the shoes are more expensive, but they are available, and when I go to buy a pair, I don't have to wait outside in the cold, beg like a dog to get them or keep pressing refresh on my browser like some type of lab rat.
So where does that leave us? I guess somewhere in the middle. Camping out for kicks results in most folks not getting a pair, and worst-case scenario, it breeds a mob mentality that can lead to the type of violence I experienced. On the other hand, while apps from Adidas, Nike and Foot Locker have helped hinder the prevalence of sneaker violence, they've also shut out a portion of consumers and created frustration along the way.
Like my man Sway, I ain't got the answers, but I know something has to change. No one should ever worry about being a target because of the shoes they’re wearing. No one should ever have to make a choice between safety and footwear. And if those in control aren’t going to show appreciation for the culture by empowering those who created it, at the very least they should give folks the chance again to participate.
Chad Jones, aka Sneaker Galactus, is a sneaker collector from Brooklyn, New York, who has been featured in the Bata Shoe Museum and Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture. Follow him on Instagram at @sneaker_galactus.