On a cold weekday morning, many of the students entering Schenectady High School wore hooded sweatshirts — hoodies, as they’re often called.
One of those students, 15-year-old Mikey Boodram, sported a Schenectady lacrosse hoodie. His friend, 17-year-old Kimberly Mohamed, wore a gray hoodie under her coat.
“It keeps me warm,” Mohamed explained. “Everybody wears them.”
Boodram agreed. “It’s just there,” he said. “It’s a hoodie.”
The hoodie has emerged as a symbol of protest over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida teenager who was killed while walking home from a convenience store after buying Skittles and iced tea. The shooter, a neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman, has claimed self-defense, and has not been charged with a crime. Those who believe police failed to fully investigate Zimmerman’s account of what happened have staged hoodie marches, such as the one in Albany last weekend, and taken photographs of themselves wearing hoodies and posted them online.
Last week television personality Geraldo Rivera caused an uproar when he suggested the hoodie might have played a role in Martin’s death.
“I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was,” he said, adding, “Every time you see someone sticking up a 7-Eleven, the kid’s wearing a hoodie. Every time you see a mugging on a surveillance camera or they get the old lady in the alcove, it’s a kid wearing a hoodie. You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a gangsta — you’re going to be a gangsta wannabe? Well, people are going to perceive you as a menace.”
Rivera later apologized for his remarks.
Hoodies are ubiquitous in middle schools and high schools. Famous hoodie wearers include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichik. Those wearing hoodies to express support for Trayvon Martin include the Miami Heat basketball team, a group of New York state legislators — the majority black and Hispanic — and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Boodram, the high school teen, said he was familiar with the controversy over Martin’s death, and that one of the lessons students were drawing from it is that it’s a bad idea to walk around white neighborhoods wearing hoodies. “I’m hoping the school doesn’t ban them,” he said.
It’s unlikely that will happen.
Gregory Fields, interim associate superintendent for Schenectady High School, said the hoodie is a “common article of clothing,” worn by all types of students. “We have students with challenges who wear hoodies, and students who are the best students in school who wear hoodies. My grandchildren wear hoodies. At Schenectady football games, I wear a hoodie. I wear a hoodie when I shovel snow. Kids of all kinds of diverse backgrounds wear hoodies.” He added, “I was very surprised by Geraldo Rivera’s statement.”
The district’s dress code bars students from wearing headgear in school buildings, and students are not allowed to keep their hoods up once they enter a facility, he said, adding that they aren’t allowed to wear caps or scarves on their heads once they’re inside, either.
Frankie Bailey, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany, said that perceptions of clothing are shaped by the people wearing them. “A hoodie in one situation can mean one thing, and in another situation it can mean another.” She said young black males are seen as “the typical assailant,” and that if young black males in urban settings started wearing three-piece suits, the three-piece suit would be viewed suspiciously, too, just as the zoot suit once was, because it was popular with blacks and Mexican-Americans.
Hoodies have been controversial in other countries, Bailey said, noting that many of the teens and young adults involved in the 2011 London riots wore hoodies, prompting UK prime minister David Cameron to say, “We — the people in suits — often see hoodies as aggressive, the uniform of a rebel army of young gangsters. But hoodies are more defensive than offensive. They’re a way to stay invisible in the street. In a dangerous environment the best thing to do is keep your head down, blend in.”
The hoodie’s prevalence explains why so many people are defending it, said Bailey, who is writing a book called “Strip Search: Clothing, the Body and Crime in American Culture.”
“It’s something people can identify with,” she said. “A cross section of people will say, ‘Yeah I wear a hoodie.’ ” She said it’s unlikely people would have responded with the same level of outrage if Zimmerman had described Martin as wearing baggy pants. “You don’t see soccer moms walking around with baggy pants,” she said.
Alice Green, who directs the Center for Law and Justice in Albany, said that the hoodie can carry a stigma when worn by black teenagers. “It’s become identified with black kids who are part of a gang,” she said. “That doesn’t mean everybody who puts on a hooded sweatshirt is in a gang or violent.” She said that the hoodie is popular with all teenagers, and that the real problem is stereotyping.
“Teens say it’s a good garment to wear,” she said. “They phrase it in terms of the weather. It’s versatile. It’s convenient. If it starts to rain, it’s a practical fashion.” She said teens also like the hooded sweatshirt because it helps them hide their insecurities, and also because it’s popular in the world of hip hop and with their peers.
Green said she wears hoodies, too. “I wear one when I go out in the morning.”
Marion Porterfield, who coordinates the Weed and Seed program in Schenectady, participated in a panel discussion at Schenectady High School last week, and said that many students were talking about the Trayvon Martin shooting.
The hoodie “is not just an inner-city thing,” she said. “Kids of all races wear it. … But if Trayvon Martin was a white kid wearing a hoodie, would he have seemed suspicious? Would he have been followed? The message is, don’t judge people based on an article of clothing.”
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, Weed and Seed is a nonprofit organization designed to prevent violent crime, drug abuse and gang activity in high-crime neighborhoods.
Barbara Smith, a member of the Albany Common Council, community activist and scholar known for her writings on black feminism, said hoodies are a red herring in the discussion of Trayvon Martin, and that the real issue is race.
“Is the hoodie now a lethal weapon?” she said. “This is something many, many black youth wear. It’s a stand-in for suspicions around black youth.” She said the hoodie has become a “powerful symbol,” but that “at the end of the day this is about the suspicion and stereotyping of black youth. … There’s no question that if a black person shot someone in cold blood, they would be arrested.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the hoodie,” Smith said. “I have one on right now. It’s warm.”
For black parents, Trayvon Martin’s death is a reminder of the risks their children, particularly boys, face when they go out in public, Green said.
“Parents are always concerned about their kids when they’re out on the street,” she said. “Parents are always asking for guidance in parenting for African-American children. They do have to worry about stereotyping, that people might be racist.”
Parents are sensitive about how their children dress, she said. For instance, they might tell their children not to wear certain colors because of gang associations.
Green said she has never been one for telling kids not to wear certain articles of clothing. But she said that when her son, who is black, was growing up, she asked him not to play a game that involved play fighting with his friends, who were white, out in the street. She said she worried that if a police officer drove by and saw a black child hitting a white child, he would get in trouble. “He was angry at me for saying that he couldn’t play that game,” she said. “I worried about things that would come up in the street. You have to take these measures to protect your child.”
She said that the emergence of the hoodie as a symbol is prompting people to examine their attitudes about black teenagers, which is a good thing. “Maybe people will start to have a dialogue, to see that whoever’s under the hood could be a very good person, that there’s a human being under there,” she said.
The hoodie was not always so identified with black culture.
In the mid-1970s, Sylvester Stallone popularized the hoodie with his iconic movie character Rocky. But in the 1980s and 1990s, the garment became popular among rappers, as well as skateboarders, snowboarders and fans of punk music. Eventually, the fashion world took notice, and designers such as Tommy Hilfiger began making hooded sweatshirts.
The circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s shooting are not entirely clear.
In a call to a 911 dispatcher, Zimmerman said, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something, It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” He described Martin as a black male in his late teens who was wearing a hoodie, jeans and sneakers. He said, “He’s coming to check me out. He’s got something in his hands. I don’t know what his deal is. Can we get an officer over here?” The recording indicates that Martin then began running, and that when the dispatcher asked Zimmerman whether he was following the teenager, Zimmerman said, “Yes.”
The dispatcher said, “OK, we don’t need you to do that.”
Zimmerman claimed Martin punched him, knocked him down and slammed his head into the ground. A police surveillance videotape of Zimmerman obtained by ABC News does not show blood or bruises, though a police officer can be seen pausing to look at the back of Zimmerman’s head.