Suckers For Pain: Economic Disparity + The Rise of "Suicide Squads" / by Aquillia Mikel

Song: Sucker For Pain

To Read:

[Vice]: How New York City’s Gang Culture Is Changing

[Vice] How The Gangs of 1970’s New York Came Together To End Their Wars

[The American Prospect] Gangs In The Post-Industrial Ghetto

The Kenny Report also gives insight on politics and economic violence in the UK if you are interested.

Ok, so I’m just going to admit this to you right now- I found out about the movie Suicide Squad through Snapchat. That’s a hard pill to swallow because 1) I have to admit that those annoying newly-implemented ads actually have some acceptable conversion rates and 2) because I couldn’t remember what Suicide Squad was before I put that terrifying filter on my face. I had to dig deep into my childhood to remember the origins of Harley Quinn and the Joker and from there- I was all in. So nerds and Blerds- please don’t bombard me with your fandom antics. I get it- I’m not as cool as ya’ll. But, it wasn’t the scary clown faces that moved me to Fandango on that Saturday night- it was the theme song.  “I’ll torture you” is the first three words that I heard and then, subsequently, couldn’t get out of my head- which can be fairly problematic to people sitting beside you on the bus. (Fair warning). Then, out of nowhere, I have this beautiful blend of sounds coming from not only Imagine Dragons, but Lil’ Wayne, Logic, Wiz Khalifa, Ty Dolla $ign, and X Ambassadors and I’m sitting there trying to figure out what they all want to say. What’s the story here?

Suicide Squad is a band of people who have been alienated or forgotten by their society for whatever reason- and now they are living to make a name for themselves, the ones that they love, or they are living just to spite the people that want them dead- which is a suicidal mission in itself. One of the greatest things about cartoons in the 80’s and 90’s is that they served as a critique of the larger society around us (much more than now) and “suicide squads” don’t just exist in the Marvel Universe. What happens when Black people, riddled by economic disparity and government abandon, squad up to provide opportunities for themselves in the midst of generational poverty? “Sucker For Pain” serves as pretty adequate guide for the relationship between economics, alienation, and gang culture- so let’s break it down into a few ideological pillars that I believe resonate within the gang framework.

Gang Culture Is A Direct Response To Societal Indifference

I'm a sucker for pain/ I got the squad tatted on me from my neck to my ankles/ Pressure from the man got us all in rebellion/ We gon' go to war, yeah, without failure/ Do it for the fam, dog, ten toes down, dog/ Love and the loyalty that's what we stand for/ Alienated by society, all this pressure give me anxiety

This is the declaration. Mention of the squad, rebellion, and alienation all let you know about the formation of this group is a reaction to inaction. Bearing the characteristics of the squads (tats and the like) shows ownership and belonging in a group created out of necessity. The “pressure from the man” is not a call from “the man” to get better- it is “the man” asking the question: “why do you poor, sad humans exist at all? Away with you.”So, as many of us in the inner city know, many of our fellow residents do go to war with each other, the government, and themselves because that at least brings immediate change to incredibly messed up life situations. Economic inequality is oppressive and when you feel alienated by a government that is supposed to provide opportunities for you, then it is easy to see how rebellion can be the next logical step. And even though the word “rebellion” carries a negative connotation, these groups originally formed out of the throes of political activism and the need for protection. Frederic Milton Thrasher (which isn’t that name so apropos? It’s just too good...) created many theories about gang culture through the study of urban geography and economics. He basically described gangs as a “symptom of the economic, moral, and cultural frontier” that young men had to navigate in large cities, but, specifically, Chicago. They were formed to respond to a "a broad twilight zone of railroads, factories, deteriorating neighborhoods, and shifting populations.”

Basically, people didn’t want to live in trash and they were like: “This is wack- let’s create our own ways to get money.” That’s not the mind of an indifferent, unintelligent person - that’s the soul of a change maker.


The Government Is Interpreted As An Enemy, Not A Help Mate

I know I been bustin', no discussion for my family/No hesitation, through my scope I see my enemy

Basically, people are just out here trying to function. No matter how you want to slice it, a lack of businesses and economic opportunity is going to have some people going against the grain. I don’t know a single soul that won’t do what they can to look out for their families.

Gangs arose out of a slew of broken economic promises. Basically, the government was like “hey….yeah…..we have jobs, but we would rather give them to skilled professionals. The reason why Black people are not skilled professionals is because we fought you every step of the way to provide opportunities for education and upward mobility, so we can’t hire you for THESE jobs, per se.” (I definitely imagined that this was said like that dude from Office Space- have you seen it?)  Most people without a formal education could not ride the wave from the industrial economy to the post-industrial world, so we got a rise in economic inequality and way more poor people. So, yeah, people made their own rules and governments as a way to survive and police themselves and began to see the government as an entity that aimed to watch them fail. Which….


The Predatory Activity Comes From A Need To Feel

I'm devoted to destruction/ A full dosage of detrimental dysfunction/ I'm dying slow but the devil tryna rush me/ See I'm a fool for pain, I'm a dummy/ So I don't fear shit but tomorrow

I love how Thrasher frames predatory activity as ‘commonplace’- “no more moral opprobrium for the ordinary gang boy than smoking a cigarette.” But why is that- why would one be devoted to destruction if they didn’t continuously feel a loss of power. People can be conditioned to like pain or receive it as an appropriate response to an action because it allows them to just...feel. When I look around at some of our neighborhoods in Chicago that are essentially wastelands, food deserts, and abandoned- I think: why fear suicide when your economic situation is rushing you to die? You begin to beg the question: what am I really in control of or have influence over? If I can’t reverse my immediate circumstances- how can I make everyone feel the pain I feel? This is when I think of Deadshot and EL Diablo- products of their environment, born with gifts that they use to make themselves feel powerful. Until life goes really wrong- but I digress. Watch the movie. Or read the comics. Whatever floats your boat or finds your lost remote- shout out to Dustin.


Suicide Squads Employs The Intelligent “Unemployable”

Used to doing bad, now we feel like we just now getting it/ Ain't got no other way so we started and finished it/ No emotion, that's what business is/ Lord have mercy on the witnesses

For some reason, many people seem to underestimate the intelligence, skill, and insight of those entrenched in gang culture. They have systems that keep their infrastructures running, but are never seen as businessmen. So, out of necessity, they create their own. BUT, because they thrive off of necessity, many of them become selfish and only seek to protect themselves and take out people who they don’t believe to be down for them. This is where I’m like: “See, I understood where ya’ll were coming from in the beginning, but now we gotta dial it back.” By the way, I would be the worst Suicide Squad member. I fancy myself to be a Harley Quinn because she’s cool or whatever,, but I probably would have dipped when I got the chance. I don’t know- anything’s possible. Continuing on- this is where we find ourselves in a sort of catch 22- you create the gangs out of economic and social need, but NOW, they continuously eliminate many avenues of economic and social growth because of the violence that comes with it. So yeah, according to Vice, poverty is a huge reason why these gangs exist, but the neighborhoods began to become increasingly more poor because violence becomes the norm: schools become more violent and reflect prison culture and the community becomes divided. Gangs put hella strain on local economies and make it hard for people to set up shop there, because, violence. This is what suicide looks like in an economical sense.

But I will always bring you back to THIS- Black entrepreneurship in our Black neighborhoods and beyond can shift the culture of many infrastructures- including suicide squads. If gang culture was originally created as a response to economic need, we have more means than ever to proactively fight against that now. We are increasing in our buying power and we are on trend to become the largest group of entrepreneurs in America (shout out to all my Black and Brown women). Same needs- different means. What would happen if we started to rebuild our neighborhoods with the tools it needed to survive WITH and FOR the people who were supposed to systematically die off a long time ago? The most powerful way to say F you to a system that wanted (wants?) you to fail is to succeed in spite of it. That’s what my girl Harley Quinn and her squad did- me and mine can do that, too.