Americans, rich and poor, absolutely love luxury. For the wealthy, it’s no problem: Hit 5th Avenue and walk away with your arms full of real bags, watches, scarves and the rest. We all want to feel special — carry our Louis Vuitton as we strut down an imaginary red carpet and say, “Look at me, Des Moines. I’m really somebody.” After all, that’s what image is all about. Being “fashion forward,” being “it,” being “luxe.” But with middle-class incomes shrinking and the recession lingering, we in the bottom 99 percent can’t drop $500 for a hand-painted cashmere scarf. So we turn to the next best thing: counterfeits. After a quick Google search of “knock off bags in new york” drops a pin on Canal Street, we head to Chinatown. In other areas of the country, we bask in the faux-luxe of Bag Parties and cyber-markets looking for artificial deals in an artificial world worth $600 billion annually. That’s real money. And where there’s real money, there’s real crime.
A recent law enforcement sweep of New York City’s Counterfeit Triangle ended in the seizure of $1 million worth of counterfeit designer goods. While this may seem like a large sum, it’s barely a dent in the market. Chinese organized crime syndicates invest heavily to keep their products flowing to the U.S. In my first month as an NYPD cop in Chinatown I witnessed elaborate systems of fake walls and secret rooms used for moving and storing thousands of counterfeit bags, watches, wallets and belts. Counterfeiters exploit a massive force of illegal immigrants, using them as vendors, drivers and lookouts, many by means of threat and intimidation. “Employees” who fear the police and don’t speak English prove trustworthy in black market operations. And, as is so common in the underground economy, shootings and beatings are commonplace. The use of child labor is standard practice.
Dana Thomas, author of “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster,” describes a police raid she witnessed in Guangzhou, China: “No one utters a word, not a sound. … What we discovered when we walked in: two dozen sad, tired, dirty children, ages 8 to 14, making fake Dunhill, Versace and Hugo Boss handbags.” Over three-quarters of counterfeit goods seized by the Border Patrol come from China. Who knows how many Midwestern housewives drive their kids to school toting a bag made by an 8-year-old Chinese boy.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley has fought the horrors of international counterfeiting for years in federal and local administrations. In 2007 he said, “[People] should be asked to reflect on the question of what we are funding when we support a low-risk, high-profit illegal trade. When we pick up a bootleg copy of “Casino Royale,” a knockoff Gucci handbag, a pack of ultra-cheap cigarettes — what enterprise is being funded?” The black market is tied to terrorism. Counterfeit goods provided funding for the Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people in 2004 and continue to line the pockets of al-Qaida and Hezbollah. Kelley spoke of law enforcement’s commitment to counterfeiting’s exploited victims. And he spoke of the long road ahead. “As long as the flow from China … keeps up, and in fact it is speeding up, the United States and the New York City Police Department will have a very challenging job indeed.” And so, last week, the New York Post called on President Hu Jintao to address intellectual property rights issues in China.
But while the Chinese need to improve enforcement activities, they don’t keep the flow of faux going and growing in America. We do. In our culture of celebrity idolatry, rock-star politics, and constant competition, image is all that matters. We demand the Chinese supply. So perhaps before we lay the blame overseas, we should take off the fake rose-tinted Guccis and take a look at the social costs of our indulgences. Otherwise, distracted by all the shiny glam, we hypocritically stand against crimes our actions fuel and support. The only other option is to arrogantly shuck our responsibility over our shoulder and strut unapologetically on. After all, buying counterfeit goods isn’t illegal. Only selling them is. And, in our very own image, we love the fakes.
Alex Hawke is a sophomore in Berkeley College and an Eli Whitney student.