Wednesday, December 5, 2012

They would kill for that

by Sandra Parshall

It’s nothing new, kids killing kids over trendy jackets, shoes, and other apparel. Look back through news archives and you’ll find stories about such killings twenty, thirty, forty years ago. Each time it happens, though, it hits many of us with fresh shock and horror because we can’t understand this kind of violence.

Sometimes the thief plans to sell what he steals. We recognize that money causes a type of temporary insanity, and we’re used to humans killing each other for a relatively small amount, but we still have trouble understanding such a waste of life. When the thief simply wants to own the victim’s clothing rather than profit from it, and is willing to commit murder for it, we cross into crazy-in-the-head territory. We can only observe the aftermath and shake our heads.

I always wonder how the victim’s parents feel, knowing their fourteen-year-old child was murdered for a jacket or a pair of athletic shoes. I wonder how the killer’s parents feel, knowing their son has thrown away his own life and freedom in this senseless way. I always imagine a fifty-year-old man waking up in his prison cell decades from now, staring at the cracks in the ceiling, asking himself why he thought that jacket was worth killing for.

The victims and perpetrators of the most serious crimes are almost always male, although girls have their own rivalries over trendy clothes. The thieves/killers are often, but not always, from poor or lower middle-class families, and they
usually get caught. 

The social aspect of these crimes is easy enough to understand. Most teenagers are herd animals. They can’t bear to be left out, to stand ignored on the sidelines while everyone else runs with the herd. Trends and fads spread quickly – more quickly now, through social media, than ever before. Many teens don’t understand or don’t care about family finances. They want what other kids have, so they’ll be part of the cool group. As painful as it may be for parents to admit, peer group approval is often far more important to teens than their parents’ opinions.

When I was a teenager, Madras shirts and Bass Weejuns were all the rage. I don’t recall anybody being killed for them, but I do recall some thefts. And I remember the angst of teens whose parents couldn’t or wouldn’t provide them with the latest hot item of apparel. 

Remember the madness over the first Air Jordans from Nike? That sticks in our minds because the shoes have remained popular (at a less dangerous level). Many other fads have faded, and our memories of the brand names with them. 

Helly Hansen jacket
Right now a lot of adolescents of both sexes are convinced their happiness and social lives depend on having rugged Helly Hansen outdoor jackets that retail for $499 to more than $600. The trend seems to be centered in the Washington, DC, area, where I live, and it seems odd to me, since our winters are short and mild and we don't have a lot of days when such heavy jackets would be comfortable. To prevent theft, retailers (who are mystified by the fad) display the jackets out of reach high on the walls – and in some cases they chain the jackets to the walls. 

Recently an 18-year-old man was stabbed at a Metro station by a thief who took his Helly Hansen jacket, and two other young men have been robbed at gunpoint. The mother of one victim said, “It’s every kid’s dream to have a Helly Hansen. But if I had known there was so much danger that comes with the coat, I never would have gotten him one.”

What does it take to end this incredibly stupid type of violence? In 1996, President Clinton was concerned enough to recommend that all public schools require students to wear uniforms so nobody will strut the halls showing off his status symbol and putting his life in jeopardy. Some public school systems do require uniforms, but many parents as well as students oppose what they see as an infringement on personal liberty.

Would education about the consequences stop potential thieves? Could they be scared straight before they end up killing somebody? Maybe they don’t understand that if they kill somebody they probably won’t go to a juvenile correction facility for a short stay. They will be sent to adult prison, and they’ll be there for many years. Maybe a tour of a state prison would make them think twice about committing a crime. Maybe they need to hear a graphic description of what can happen to a young man when he enters a prison filled with hardened criminals who have been locked up for a long time. Maybe someone needs to ask them how they’ll feel when they’re fifty years old, lying in their cells and staring at the ceiling, wondering why they took a life and threw away their own freedom for a trendy jacket.

I might be naive for thinking it’s even possible to get through to these kids who literally put shoes and jackets ahead of life and liberty.

What’s the alternative?

Do you have any ideas that might work?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, some social issues that you didn't mention are involved. One is drugs and alcohol--both as a financial motive for theft and a reason for the impulsiveness and poor judgment contributing to the violence. The other is economics--unless the school provides the uniforms at no cost to the families, it's a Catch-22 solution. But to me, the most appalling line in your post was, “It’s every kid’s dream to have a Helly Hansen." I hope my grandchildren will have better dreams than that every day of their lives.

Llyn Kaimowitz said...

Very interesting and thoughtful post, Sandy. I didn't realize that this had reached such a serious level.

Sandra Parshall said...

This sort of thing has always happened at every social level. Bullies exist everywhere, including expensive private schools. We're all familiar with stories of bullies (sometimes kids from very "good" homes) taking things -- caps, jackets, toys, bicycles, game players, iPods, cell phones -- away from intimidated kids. Individuals have different triggers, which is one reason this behavior is so hard to control.

The whole topic of school uniforms is guaranteed to raise the hackles of people on both sides. I've read that about a quarter of public elementary schools in the US already require "uniforms" -- which in some cases is simply a mandated style of dress with mandated colors. But elementary school, of course, is not where the clothing fad problem is worst.

Michigan City, Indiana, now requires all students to adhere to a strict dress code that amounts to wearing a uniform. A bank is providing money to help low income families purchase the clothes. But if the dress code simply requires that all clothes be certain colors and modest in style, it shouldn't prove a hardship for most families, because hand-me-downs and cheap clothing will suffice. Parents have to clothe their children in any case.

It seems to me the real problem is in the teen psyche during that time when they are separating emotionally from their parents and care only about the opinions of their peers.

JJM said...

My parents raised me in the fine old tradition of "Well, if all your friends jumped off the roof, would you do it, too, then?" And it would never have entered their minds to buy me clothing on the basis of "trendiness". What between that and another fine old tradition, "Keep your hands off of what isn't yours!", it never occurred to me to care about fashion in the first place, much less steal something for the sake of it, nor was I particularly susceptible to peer pressure as a teen. Can't help but feel that there's something going wrong in the parental department ... --Mario R.

Sandra Parshall said...

Mario, when you were growing up you didn't have the internet, social media, cable TV, etc. to connect you to the rest of the world and fuel a desire to have what other kids have. I think today's parents have far less control over their children than parents used to. We're always hearing that kids are growing up faster now. I think they're becoming more worldly and material, but that's not the same thing as maturity.

JJM said...

And my parents would have made sure I didn't have cable TV (or, at least, that I couldn't watch whatever I liked, whenever I liked), and would have monitored my Internet activity. More to the point, they would have inculcated in me the desire for going my own way, just as they did then. That's the thing: they took their responsibility as parents seriously. Sure, I saw that other kids had what I did not and my parents couldn't afford, and I felt envy, but ... to go as far as theft? I find that hard to believe, unless I (or the kid involved) already had larceny in him/her. There are bad seeds, sure, but you were obviously not talking about those. And what other explanation can there be, other than that the parents weren't, well, parenting? [looks here @ Elizabeth Zelvin, too]

Sandra Parshall said...

You know, some of the worst bullies are spoiled rotten kids who have always been given everything they want. These are the kids who torment others in middle school, take their lunch money (or their lunches), steal their iPods, etc. By high school, they're sometimes the ones who run the school's insular community of students. They're the ones you don't dare cross, the ones who order everybody around. Then they become obnoxious adults. Sometimes they become politicians.

Kaye George said...

I think this has been going on for a long, long time and I don't know of any way to convince a teen intent on a pair of shoes that he doesn't really need them.

I grew up wearing second-hand clothes and so was left out of all the fads until I got old enough to make my own money and buy my own clothes. I understand the angst of not fitting in, but there's more to it than that. A lot of poor kids don't kill to get the clothes they want.

My son had to spend a night in a holding cell once (don't ask), and one thing he was happy about, besides betting bailed out, was that he wasn't wearing good shoes. He knew he would have lost them in the jail if he had been.

Did you know that the barefoot man who was shod by the NY policeman is now barefoot again? He's afraid to wear the shoes because they'll be stolen--and he might lose his life over them.

What a world, eh?