Outside the storefront of East Coast Boutique in Rahway, N.J., people pace in black OVO Air Jordan 10s, Pusha T adidas EQTs, and other rare sneakers. Illuminated by votives, the shoes double as mourning attire, with somber colorways matching the occasion. Behind the array of candles lined up against the store are shrink-wrapped sneakers with bouquets tucked inside them.
Around the corner, news vans are parked with their attendant anchors wearing proper shoes (not sneakers) that mark them as outsiders. They’re here because there’s been a murder. The sneaker consignment shop's co-owner, 21-year-old Jamaal “Mally” Gaines, was shot dead inside his own store. Police are still searching for a suspect and a motive in the shooting.
Sneaker violence is nothing new. Unfortunately, it feels more prevalent than ever. Each week the Internet is filled with stories of young men getting robbed, beat, and, sometimes, murdered over shoes.
What’s lost in these sensational headlines of sneaker-related crimes are the after-effects violence has on others. Each of these instances has a ripple that touches family members, friends, and the communities that emerge around shoes.
In Gaines’ instance, he leaves behind a grieving mother, sister, and fellow collectors.
“Although he loved the sneakers, Mally’s life meant more than the sneakers,” his sister Divinity Gaines says. “It’s tragic the way that he had to go.”
What happened to Gaines isn’t as cut and dry as other cases. After all, his store wasn’t robbed of any merchandise or money. However, the family is hopeful that there is something to learn from the tragedy.
“It’s bad that I lost my son, but there’s also something positive,” says Tina Wilson, Gaines’ mother, who helped her son open a store when he was just 18, signing a lease for him when he didn’t have any credit. “I think this is a wakeup call for people in regards to all sorts of things.”
It certainly was a wakeup call for Dazie Williams, whose 22-year-old son Joshua Woods was murdered for a pair of Air Jordan 11s in 2012. She now runs an organization called Life Over Fashion that’s focused on solving the problem of violence for the sake of exclusive products. Her pitch is to have companies dilute the aura of unattainability around certain product by making more pairs, in turn lowering the chances of people taking drastic measures to get them.
“My son's life was worth more than a pair of shoes,” Williams told reporters at the trial for one of her son’s accused killers. “Nike and Michael Jordan didn't pull the trigger that took my son's life, but with great power comes great responsibility.”
Retired NBA greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Stephon Marbury have also called out Jordan by name, questioning his ethics in the sneaker business. “He doesn’t care!” Marbury wrote in a tweet last year alleging that Jordan was untroubled by kids dying over his sneakers.
Situations like Gaines’ and Woods’ are extreme examples, but there are plenty more. Last year, an employee at sneaker boutique chain Undefeated’s Las Vegas location was shot while on the job. He survived, but emerged from the incident with bullet lacerations on his liver and unable to walk for two weeks.
“I’m on the phone and all I hear is ‘Boom!’” victim Devon Norwood remembers. “It sounded like a grenade went off next to me. I knew I was hit.”
Norwood says he was targeted after he stopped two men from stealing sneakers from the store. He was able to catch one of them—the other got away and came back with a gun. Shots rang out in the store while Norwood ducked behind a bench to take cover. His coworkers locked the door and hurried him to the back as he struggled to stay conscious. As an ambulance rushed him directly to surgery, he fought back the urge to pass out.
“I had to stay awake. I was trying to go to sleep though. I think they confirmed I would die if I did. I kept asking, ‘Can I go to sleep?’ They were like, ‘No.’”
Norwood spent nine days in the hospital after the shooting, and still requires weekly physical therapy to recover from his injuries.
He hasn’t returned to Undefeated yet, despite the company instituting new security measures and training sessions to keep employees safe. Norwood isn’t sure if he still wants to work in sneakers after what happened. The pain he endured was a reminder of how the hobby of sneaker collecting can veer into dangerous territory, especially in his home city of Las Vegas.
“There’s a murder out here every 48 hours,” Norwood says. “It’s the killing season right now in the city. It’s nuts, people are getting shot or run over everyday.”
While the problem of violence clearly exists within the sneaker world, it is to some extent a reflection of American society. A study published by the Centers for Disease Control in 2015 found that there are more than 11,000 gun homicides and more than 51,000 gun assaults annually in the U.S. Per the study, this type of violence disproportionately affects males, ethnic minorities, and young people. When one considers how much these demographics overlap with the sneaker community, the frequency of events like Gaines’ becomes less surprising.
How can the sneaker community address the issue? Is this problem endemic to this community or a characteristic of society at large? How do we stop people from dying over sneakers? Who is to blame for incidents like these? Some put the onus on sites like this one to do more to condemn this sort of behavior and take a stance on the issue. Some point the finger at sneaker companies who purposefully produce limited quantities of shoes that create a frenzy.
Sometimes it just comes down to envy. East Coast Boutique's co-owner Jeremy Mendez speculates that Gaines’ death, and many others like it, could have been motivated by jealousy.
“It could be a person that you cash out or someone who sees the money you have in the store,” Mendez says. “Sometimes I feel like people on the outside looking in are seeing how much money people make and seeing everybody with so many sneakers worth so much money.”
As of now, there’s no sign of sneaker brands putting an end to the limited edition runs that are so crucial for building buzz. But, brands have made an attempt to diffuse the chaos around sneaker launches in recent years by ending midnight releases that were prone to fights and putting an emphasis on raffles rather than lines to better ensure safety. Nike’s also upped the production numbers of retro Jordans to meet demand. Still, even with these new measures, releases are not immune to unrest.
“You have 1,000 people in line and 100 pairs. These are just formulas for violence,” says Jay Corbin, former co-host of the YouTube series The Sit Down. “It’s not like this is the reason why. It’s just these factors that are lined up.”
Nike points to moves like its SNKRS app, which bypasses lines by letting users order exclusive products online, as evidence of its efforts to make releases safer. The brand says that it cares deeply about its customers and is working to create safer environments around shoe stores.
"With the launch of all Nike products, consumer safety and security is of paramount importance and we constantly evaluate and update our own policies to ensure a positive consumer experience," Nike spokesman KeJuan Wilkins says. "We also share best practice with our retail partners to better serve the consumer and encourage anyone wishing to purchase our product to do so in a respectful and safe manner."
“People within the culture have to frown upon this like they frown upon fake sneakers”
Adidas, the only other brand besides Nike to have these sort of events tied to its product on a regular basis, says that it’s dedicated to creating a better shopping experience for customers.
“We’re always looking at new and safer ways to bring shoes to market,” says Simon Atkins, brand director at adidas America.
In 2015, the brand introduced its adidas Confirmed app to handle the launch of Kanye West’s Yeezy Boost sneakers. The app eliminates the need to line up for product by giving users a chance to reserve pairs online. Ideally, this approach leaves less room for rowdy in-person launches.
“Security is always a priority at our own stores and we work hand in hand with our mall partners to ensure the safest possible experience for our consumers,” Atkins says.
Sneaker collector Anthony Lekocevic witnessed firsthand how out of control sneaker release days can get. He was part of a crowd of people pepper-sprayed outside Jordan Brand’s Flight 23 store in New York City on March 15, 2014. A line formed for the premium Jordan Futures releasing that day devolved into what he describes as a stampede, agitating one woman at the front who reacted by pepper spraying those pressed up around her.
“It was just insane. You could just see people screaming immediately,” he says, remembering the day. “The employees are banging on the door, so they let three or four people inside the store because they were trying to help the people. They were literally sprayed in their faces.”
Lekocevic says that the possibility of release days like the one he experienced has dissuaded him from ever showing up for high profile launches again.
“After that, I didn’t really care to go to any of the stores for that shit anymore,” he says. “It gets violent. People are carrying [weapons] to go get shoes now, and it’s just a lot of bullshit...I don’t feel safe going to wait for shoes anymore.”
Even if one does manage to obtain one of these coveted sneakers safely, there is sometimes a lingering threat of violence that comes with wearing the shoes.
“You’re wearing something nice and somebody sees that when you’re in the wrong area, you’re done,” Lekocevic says. “They’re going to rob you.”
Again, this phenomenon is nothing new. Sports Illustrated famously tackled footwear robbery in a 1990 cover-story called Your Sneakers or Your Life. What’s different between then and now is today there are many more styles that come with an aura of exclusivity. The sneaker resell market is a $1 billion dollar business with hundreds of styles that can be resold for double or triple their retail price. These are the sort of sneakers that Gaines trafficked in, and the sneakers that are most often at the center of the violence.
But, Corbin says incidents like Gaines’ go beyond just shoes.
“Growing up in the 90s, violence used to happen during concerts. It wasn’t because of the music,” Corbin says. “People wanted to blame it on the music but it was just certain people couldn’t be in the same place together. Excitement erupted into violence.”
Corbin knew Gaines through seeing him at sneaker shows on the East Coast. While Corbin is hesitant to blame his death on shoes, he does think the sneaker community needs to shift its values in order to prevent future violence.
“People within the culture have to frown upon this like they frown upon fake sneakers,” he says. “The culture has to change. We have to say it’s not cool.”
The “we” Corbin uses here refers in part to sneaker websites like this one, which inevitably drive hype around product. Perhaps we’ve been foolish to post an endless stream of updates on a retro Jordan and then react in shock when mayhem surrounds that shoe’s release. Perhaps we’ve not done enough to take a stance on the violence that goes on as we reap the rewards of the ugly headlines. Perhaps this is part of the lesson of Gaines’ death.
Gaines' mother and sister both shared stories of how his passing had already inspired people to overcome obstacles in their lives. They’re sure this will be his legacy.
The family is at work starting the Mally Gaines Foundation, which will help young entrepreneurs start businesses of their own. His mother got the OK from East Coast Boutique’s landlord to have a mural of him painted outside the store and wants to have a street named after her late son.
“Some people in life don’t know their purpose, they don’t know what they’re here for. But Mally affected so many people and helped them with that,” Gaines’ sister Divinity says. “It’s not about the sneakers because it’s fuckin’ sneakers; another one’s gonna come out next week. It doesn’t matter. It’s about inspiring lives and finding a purpose.”
(Additional reporting by Julian Jimenez and Macklin Stern)