LOS ANGELES, April 5, 2012—On March 28th, 2012, Rep. Bobby Rush wore a hooded sweatshirt (a “hoodie”) on the House floor. He did it during a speech regarding the Trayvon Martin tragedy. This act of solidarity raised a storm of controversy, which was Rush’s intent. He wanted to draw attention to the problems of gun proliferation and gun violence.
Rep. Gregg Harper, the Mississippi Republican presiding over the chamber, told the Chicago Democrat that wearing the hoodie was in violation of House rules. As Harper repeatedly banged his gavel to tell Rush that he had gone too far, Rush continued to speak. It looked like just one more wild publicity stunt by a House Democrat, along with insubordination to the House rules.
That interpretation demands that we forget that Rush lost a son to gun violence. He appeared later on CNN with Don Lemon, again wearing a hoodie. “This family lost a son, but they have gained a whole generation of children who are protesting in the streets, walking out of schools. They are doing what they need to do to make their voices heard” said Rush. “They do not want to be the next Trayvon Martin. I just wanted to express [that] a hoodie is nothing but a piece of clothing… It has nothing to do with character. Yet still Trayvon Martin lies dead partially because he was a black man wearing a hoodie in a white neighborhood.”
An increasingly animated Rush moved on to talk about the appearance of racial bias and injustice in the Martin case. He recalled how his son was shot and killed in 1999. He explained how that tragedy moved him to be an activist, then a congressman dedicated to opposition to widespread gun ownership and a watchdog on police brutality. Rush’s hoodie moment allowed him to display his solidarity with the dead 17-year old and his family. The issue for him was not just politics. It was and remains an issue of slain teen-agers and a necessary reexamination of Florida’s gun laws.
Rush is not alone in donning the hoodie in protest. Other prominent people have donned hoodies to show solidarity with Martin’s family in their desire for justice, including the Miami Heat basketball team. The congressman’s actions, including the fact that he violated the rules of the House, drew the desired attention to his platform. Sometimes, one must bend the rules to make a point. We can understand the importance of symbolism in peaceful protest, whether we agree with the protestor or not.
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