WASHINGTON, March 28, 2012 — What’s acceptable garb for a Congressman addressing the House of Representatives? Obviously not what Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush was wearing. And so he was hustled off the floor.
It all began when Rush, an African American, stood at the podium, dressed splendidly in his business suit, and started to speak on the Trayvon Martin case, denouncing the senseless killing. As he spoke, the Congressman slowly removed his suit jacket, revealing a grey sweatshirt underneath. Then he pulled up the hood over his head. Next he donned dark sunglasses, transforming himself into street tough in a hoodie.
And all the while Rush continued addressing the House: “The death of Trayvon Martin is an American tragedy. Too often, this violent act that resulted in the murder of Trayvon Martin is repeated in the streets of our nation. I applaud the young people all across the land who are making a statement about hoodies, about the hoodlums in this nation, particularly those who tread on our laws wearing official or quasi-official clothes.”
At this point, Mississippi Rep. Gregg Harper, a Republican from Mississippi who was serving as the presiding speaker of the chamber, called Rush out of order for violating one of the House’s commandments: Thou shalt not wear a hat while in the House.
But not before Rush added, “Racial profiling has to stop, Mr. Speaker. Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum.”
Actually the transformation made the Congressman look more like the Unabomber than a street hood, but his point had been made. If Bobby Rush was trying to make a statement, he did. Now comes the hue and cry. Was it an insult to the august body of lawmakers? Or was it a legitimate protest of solidarity against profiling that can make the clothing a person wears the target of trigger-happy vigilantes or cops out on patrol?
Does the way we dress influence how people see us? Of course it does.
When the Congressman was attired in a business suit, he was the model of respectability. No one would ever cross the street encountering him. Once he put on the hoodie, he morphed into an object of fear. Is it fair? No. But what is much more unfair is when our clothes make us a target whether it’s a woman in a tight, short skirt (is she asking for it?) or a guy in a red T-shirt mistaken for a Blood by a Crip (is he up to no good?).
Congressman Rush told CNN,”I don’t mind being out of order if it means standing up for truth and justice.” He explained he wasn’t upset being gaveled out of order and removed from the chamber by the floor clerk, saying he understood that they were just doing their jobs.
“A lot of it was theatrical,” he admitted, “but I wanted the message to go forward.”
Congressman Rush definitely got the message out there, and if the conscience of America is awakened from a long slumber, then that’s good even if violated the decorum of Congress for a couple of minutes. Far more important than wearing a hoodie is the problematic Stand Your Ground law that Florida and 20 other states have on their books, thanks to the NRA. It is that law that gives people the right to cross the line between defending themselves if attacked or provoking an attack and then killing in response.
Congressman Rush urged young people “to stand their ground, stand up and don’t stand down.” The only problem with that thinking is that may have been what Trayvon Martin actually did. And if you are unarmed, you will not only lose ground, but your life.
That’s why a national dialogue is important. If Congressman Rush’s stunt helps us do that, then good. Too often Americans act like they are ADD, flitting to the latest tweet instead of focusing on the important issues of the day.
A conversation on race and who we are as American is long overdue. Trayvon Martin may have given us that opportunity, tragic as it is.
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