By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
"Here and the mall," he says. "In Sugar Land, that's the only place to go."
But tonight Casey isn't just hanging out, he's keeping an eye out while his friends sell drugs. The theater's massive parking lot -- so big, one wonders if AMC has ever filled it -- provides an easy cover for meeting up with buyers, they say. Until recently, the two or three off-duty police officers AMC employs rarely wandered beyond the main patio and almost never checked out the parking lot.
Casey's friends are pushing ecstasy and Xanax -- or "tabs" and "bars." These are expensive and lucrative drugs, especially for kids who still rely on their bikes to get around. Ecstasy has a street value of about $20 a pill. Xanax sells for between $2 and $5. But since Xanax is usually stolen out of medicine cabinets, the profit there works out to 100 percent.
On the surface, Casey's the sort of kid every parent dreams about. He has a face like Justin Timberlake's and sports the same carefully managed -- though not too thick -- facial hair. He's smart and well spoken, and throughout the night various girls stop by to say hi, playing with his knit skullcap or inquiring about his pierced eyebrow. He could be an Abercrombie model in his neat button-up shirt.
On his arm is a three-inch self-drawn tattoo. "It means strong," he says.
For Casey, looking strong is crucial to hanging out at the theater, which he says is a mecca for kids looking to fight.
"You just come up here and give somebody a wrong look and you'll fight," he says. "That's why everybody rolls up here with a big group of people -- so they won't get their ass kicked." He says he's been in one fight, between a group of Asian and white kids, but managed to get away before the police broke it up.
"It's all the Willowridge and Mo City kids," he says. "They're coming down and they don't have anything out there and they're all big and trying to prove shit."
While Sugar Land is fairly diverse, it's still a place of former Enron executives, million-dollar homes and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who grabbed 63 percent of the vote in 2002 after barely campaigning. "It's a little white community," Casey says -- one that doesn't react well to black kids. Missouri City, just a few miles down the road and home to Fred's and Roderick's middle schools, is a much more diverse community. But the theater is still the place to go for weekend fun. Fred or Fred's family would be there just about every time a big release came out. Roderick had been hanging out at the theater for almost three years.
Nearly every youngster interviewed at the theater said the police are harder on black kids, tossing them out at the slightest provocation and searching them when they get an excuse. "I could hold up the snack bar while the cops are watching the black kids walk," says Casey.
A large group of black teens from Missouri City walks up to Casey, acting hard and messing with his group. But they're friends, and they're just checking to see what's going down. It's still early, only 9 p.m., but most of these kids will have to be home before midnight.
When asked if the police are tougher on black kids, they all agree vigorously, and each has a story of being singled out. Some were friends with Fred, and backed the rumored account of the night, saying the fight was stupid and "about a ho." Most fights aren't like that, they say; they're between kids from different schools. In a middle-class world, what school you go to is the one major thing you can fight about.
"We've got no gangs in Mo City," says one talkative kid. "It's just people who thinks they hard." School colors replace gang colors. Other kids say that Fred's death has increased tension between Lake Olympia and Quail Valley middle schools, but that most of the school fights are among students from Fort Bend Independent School District's eight high schools.
Things are starting to cool off with Casey's pusher friends. Most people have gotten their Friday-night kicks. Casey says now is when people start coming up to the theater drunk or on drugs. "People come up here drunk as hell."
Right as he says that a blond girl called Cathy (not her real name) stumbles up. "See what I mean?" he says. Cathy is 14 and still sporting a bit of baby fat around the edges. Her red shirt reads, "Cowboys make better lovers."
"You smell like puke and vodka," Casey taunts. Cathy can barely open her eyes and starts searching for a place to vomit in the bushes. It's a minor-in- possession charge waiting to happen, but both cops are inside the air-conditioned theater.
"You can't blame it on parents. They think cops are everywhere. It's the kids' decision" to drink or do drugs, Casey says. "Movies don't appeal to people anymore. You have to give it a little kick. People come up here on 'shrooms or acid to give it that. Every movie's starting to be the same."