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Remembering Trayvon: devolution of the hoodie

Protests around Trayvon Martin's racist killing centred on his hoodie. What does it mean?

It is like any other hooded sweatshirt; mass produced in a distant factory, cheaply made and sold on high streets all over America. The only difference with this hooded sweatshirt is the bullet hole through the chest; its surrounding area stained rust coloured with blood. It happens to be what Trayvon Martin decided to wear the night he was shot dead by George Zimmerman, and it has since become a symbol for race relations in the US.

Last week, Lonnie Bunch, director of Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture expressed interest in one day exhibiting the hoodie. "It became the symbolic way to talk about the Trayvon Martin case," he told the Washington Post.

Many believe the hoodie personifies the injustice endured as a consequence of George Zimmerman’s acquittal. But why, in modern America is it necessary to reduce complex and divisive issues such as race and equality to a single inanimate object, and what is it that makes us choose these defining symbols?

The hooded sweatshirt became associated with criminal activity in the late 90s; its wearers became ‘hoodies’. John Prescot talked of how he felt threatened by hoodie wearers in service stations; Tony Blair vowed to slash crime rates associated with the same article of clothing.

David Cameron’s farcical hug a hoodie campaign used that very article of clothing as an embodiment of broken Britain – the same section of society feeling the full force of Conservative benefit bashers and their budget cuts. ‘Hoodie in this instance was a proxy for less neutral terms such as ‘chav’ or ‘thug’ and became synonymous with crime and deprivation.

Cameron’s impassioned ‘hug a hoodie’ speech referred to “compassionate social justice”; it later became a ‘”tough but intelligent” stance on law and order. His stance has been unclear, but for one comment he made in 2006, saying: “for young people, hoodies are often more defensive than offensive.”

On the night of Trayvon’s murder, the same evening George Zimmerman made a 911 call to report sightings of a ‘suspicious’ young, black, hoodie clad male walking through his neighbourhood, Martin made his own call to his girlfriend. She told ABC News: “He said this man was watching him, so he put his hoodie on.”

It is easier to blame the non-entity – the symbol that leaves us with the least blame, than address the problem of violence, racism and vigilantism in ‘the land of the free’ - one of the most culturally diverse countries on earth. Through associating Trayvon’s killing with his throwaway hoodie, we trivialise a serious debate.

When Geraldo Rivera told Fox viewers that "gangsta style clothing" was "as much responsible for Trayvon Martin's death as George Zimmerman was", it demonstrated more than gung-ho, right wing victim blaming - it served to remind us of why we grope for symbols and metaphors in times such as this.

Our lives are shaped by stereotypes and misconceptions, and we choose our own symbols.  Weak stereotypes are used as a proxy for our own prejudice, and distract from the real issues at hand.

Should the hoodie be placed on a pedestal in a museum it will remind us not of what it shows us of the Trayvon Martin shooting, but for all it cannot. It will not tell us that nearly 90% of African Americans deemed the shooting unjustified, compared to 33% of whites. It won’t reveal that some 62% of Democrats disapproved of the not guilty verdict, compared to 20% of Republicans. No pedestal either for the Florida lawmakers who passed the stand your ground law, allowing Zimmerman to shoot dead an unarmed teenager and walk free. 

The weapon in question was like any other gun; mass produced in a distant factory, cheaply made and sold on high streets all over America. This one happened to kill Trayvon Martin, but it won’t become emblematic of the crime. It is easier to remember the hoodie – after all, it’s just a hoodie: the gun reminds us someone pulled a trigger and got away with it.