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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Monday, July 4, 2011

On Armed Robbery

What do kung fu masters, inner-city armed robbers, and Jose Canseco have in common?  More than you might think...

My new book project, Wounded: The Aftermath of Gun Violence, is an ethnography of gunshot victims.  To say the least, this research has lead me to some pretty interesting areas of the city.  In the past 1.5 years, I've spent time with numerous young men who have been shot in armed robberies.  While many are random victims of gun violence, some victims were themselves offenders in the past.

One of the victim/offenders in my study, Paul, was a former stick-up boy who used to rob drunken patrons stumbling home from bars and nite clubs.  While hanging out near his old haunts, Paul has taken me to different areas of the city in which he used to wait for the unsuspecting passerby.  One such spot is a shaded awning that wraps around the side of a low-income apartment building.  Using the natural cover provide by the awning and the lack of lighting on this street, Paul used to sit quietly with his "Saturday Night Special," a Rossi .38 special snubnose revolver, waiting for the right person to stumble by. 
"Saturday Night Special"--an old Rossi .38 special snubnose
Although Paul estimates that he has pulled off somewhere in the ballpark range of 60-75 street stick-ups over a 3 year period, he admits that he wasn't always a skilled stick-artist.  Like other armed robbers (or anyone developing a new skill set for that matter), Paul was once a novice for whom armed robbery wasn't easy to pull off.  During early stages of his robbing career, Paul approached his would-be victim too excitedly scaring them away before he had a chance to get their money; still getting the hang of things, Paul's nerves often got the best of him, forcing him to abort his mission before committing the deed.

So, how did Paul become a competent armed robber?  Aside from commitment and practice, how did Paul improve his craft?

Enter a unique kind of performance enhancing drug: Xanax.  To help calm his nerves, Paul (and other stick-up boys I've followed over time) use Xanax--a powerful benzodiazepine used to treat anxiety amongst other conditions--to control their "performance anxiety."

In order to work up the steel needed to rob people, Paul and other stick-up boys used medications that help them calm down. 

This got me thinking about other ways in which people use performance enhancing drugs before engaging in some kind of high stakes performance.  As a kid, I was a huge Oakland A's fan.  Jose Canseco--the first guy to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season--was my idol.  I was crushed when I learned that he was juiced up on steroids during his years as an elite baseball player.

I was also reminded of drunken kung fu fighting.  During my years in college, I used to love watching "Legend of Drunken Master" starring Jackie Chan.  In addition to being a really cool martial arts movie, LDM is a story of a kung fu fighter who uses alcohol as a way to work up the nerve needed to take on throngs of other fighters.  Fictional hyperbole aside, drunken kung fu is a real practice, and isn't so different from drunken bar goers who develop "liquid courage" after a long night of drinking themselves into a rage.

Anyways, what do you all think?  Any other examples?


  1. a dude i play hoops with likes to smoke weed before playing. he says it makes him "feel the love" for his teammates. that is, it makes him a less selfish player and more of a distributer. so not just better, but a qualitatively different type of player. this may be more for enjoyment than performance enhancement, i suppose.

  2. @ Mike: interesting example...I wonder if getting high actually changes how he plays, or if it changes his perception of how he is playing? It would be interesting to see how this plays out with a natural experiment: How many times does he pass sober vs. high? How many times does he look to pass? How many assists does he get? =)

  3. could be tough as i've never seen him play sober, haha. also... he's not the greatest player. so maybe being high helps him cope with not getting much love from teammates (rather than positively giving them love). good stuff.