Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) was forced off the House floor on Wednesday for wearing a hoodie and sunglasses in solidarity with Martin. Rush removed his suit jacket and donned the hood of the grey hoodie he wore underneath with the powerful words, “Racial profiling has to stop. Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum.”
Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) banged his gavel and interrupted Rush several times before Harper said, “The member is no longer recognized,” and had Rush forcibly escorted off the floor. Harper reminded the House of Clause five of Rule seventeen, which “prohibits the wearing of hats in the chamber when the House is in session.”
Harper was ultimately fulfilling his duty as presiding officer and defending the rules of the House. But rules are meant to be broken, and there is no better cause to set formalities aside than Martin’s case. Preventing Rush from speaking in defense of Martin simply because of the way he was dressed is standing by conventional norms at a moment that demands change and new ways of addressing the age-old problem of racism.
Rush’s gesture took these protests straight to the center of power, the United States Congress, and challenged its entrenched rules, creating an opportunity for society to challenge stereotypes based on race and dress. Rules about what representatives can and cannot wear in the House set a precedent for what ordinary citizens think that they should or should not wear. Rush is defying these notions of appropriateness that reinforce hierarchies of power. He is disputing the prejudice that civilized people wear suit jackets and criminals wear hoodies.
Rush’s decision to wear a hoodie in the House takes place within the context of a nationwide movement to support Martin. Hoodies have become symbols of solidarity for Martin because some (such as Geraldo Rivera) have argued that wearing a hoodie was responsible for Martin’s death. Demonstrators wearing hoodies have taken to the streets from New York to Los Angeles to draw attention to the injustice of racial profiling. On Monday, six New York state lawmakers wore hoodies under their suit jackets on the floor of the Senate, receiving no comment from the Republican majority. They drew attention to the every day violence of stopping, questioning and frisking that African American men in New York city who are subject to.
Martin’s murder has raised pertinent and sensitive questions about racism in the U.S., including how clothes play into stereotypes about race. Rush chose to embody Martin as he confronted racism and supported Martin’s parents in their demand for a fair investigation. Unfortunately, Harper did not rise to the occasion and allowed the insignificant detail of Rush’s clothes to stand in the way of the larger, more significant fight for justice.