(MENAFN - Arab News) It was the hoodie that did it. Or perhaps it was the boy's skin color combined with his fashion statement that caused his slaying - murder based on stereotype, if you wish.
Everyone in America, perhaps around the world, is now familiar with the case of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, 17-year-old African American kid walking home from a convenience store, shot to death by a 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer of dubious ethnic background, presumably Hispanic and white, called George Zimmerman. Zimmerman dialed 911 to report that he spotted a "suspicious guy wearing a dark hoodie" and was now following him. The police dispatcher told the watch volunteer that "we do not want you to do that." Minutes later he shot and killed the boy, claiming he acted in "self-defense."
The murder galvanized the African-American community, whose members have rallied in the tens of thousands in cities around the country, all wearing hoodies and carrying signs with the legend "We Are All Trayvon." Sympathy among white Americans is also widespread, a sentiment refracted through political commentary in the media. The shared view is that had Trayvon not been a black boy wearing a hoodie, a popular fashion accessory seen as chic among rebellious ghetto blacks, he would not have been targeted with such facile ease.
Now everyone is wearing a hoodie, not only to show support for Trayvon but to protest the streotyping of African-Americans by society in general. The hoodie has transitioned overnight from being a fashion statement to being a political statement as well. Last Wednesday Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush, an African-American, put on a hooded sweatshirt on the floor of the House of Representatives as he discussed racial profiling in popular culture. The Illinois representative donned the hoodie as he spoke about the death of Trayvon on Feb. 26 in the gated community in Sanford, Florida.
It is clear that the killing of Trayvon has hit a nerve among African-Americans, not unlike that that followed the brutal murder of Emmet Till in 1955, at age 14, after he reportedly flirted with a 21-year-old white woman. His death, in like manner, had rallied black support and white sympathy across the country. But it did more than that: it acted as a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
So what is it about the hoodie that scares whites, well, to death?
The hoodie, of course, is as old as the hills and goes back to Medieval Europe when monks donned it as their formal wear. In Morocco it's part of the national dress. But in the US it was introduced in the 1930s and marketed to laborers who endured freezing temperatures while working in upstate New York. But as a fashion statement it entered popular usage in the 1990s, when it was popularized by hip-hop musicians - and seemed unfortunately to appeal to some with criminal intent - though some attribute that popularity to its iconic appearance in the box-office smash, Rocky, in 1976.
But whatever its origins, the hoodie became a fashion statement favored by African-American youth as a form of nonverbal communication reflecting their subversive, or adversarial, posture as a minority that disdained the staid values of the white majority.
Nothing unusual here. We all seek, in forming a synergistic relationship with fashion, to communicate status, occupation, social background, even political affiliation. Note the outlandish clothes of the psychedelic era of the late 1960s, when youth wanted to overthrow the cultural trends and social values that preceded them, creating the New Journalism, the New Left, the New Rock and so on, and took to wearing ripped and flared jeans with patches, along with beads and long hair.
The clothes or accessories you choose to wear, whether consciously or not, are an expression, I say, of free speech, and an eloquent statement about your frame of mind, the politics of your everyday life, your cultural sensibility, even about the place you occupy in your history. Consider the hatta that the Palestinians and their movement popularized in the late 1960s. The distinctive white and black checkered keffiya, as it is sometimes known, went beyond being a mere utilitarian head scarf to being a statement about continuity in and connectedness to Palestinian history (the hatta was initially worn by Palestinian guerrillas in the 1936-1939 Revolt against British rule in Palestine). After Leila Khaled wore it around her neck, during the hijacking of TWA flight 840 in 1969, she was, in a subliminal manner, both flaunting her history and denoting her equality with men.
Thus when the hatta became chic as a political statement and popular as a fashion accessory in the US, especially after the 1987 intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, pro-Israeli groups did not like that one bit. Happily, no one caught wearing it was killed while walking home from a convenience store, but these groups pressured Urban Outfitters, the retail franchise that stocked the item, from distributing it ever again. So vehement a statement did the hatta seem to make!
So it is with the hoodie worn by black Americans and the anxieties it evokes in their white counterparts. It's a pity that these anxieties had to lead to the death of a young, unarmed teenager innocently walking home from a quick stop at a local grocery store.
And, yes, I'm waiting for the day when the Russian fur hat, known as ushanka, will make an appearance in the US as the fashion statement of some dissident group or another. Not likely? Well then, Putin, call your PR man.