Hoodies and the Grammar of Repression

On Wednesday, March 28, Rep. Bobby Rush (D) of Illinois was escorted off the floor of the House of Representatives for a breach of the congressional dress code which is far more nuanced and gets far more attention than anyone could imagine. While making a speech about the murder of Trayvon Martin and subsequent controversy, Rep. Rush took off his blazer and donned a hoodie and sunglasses.

Chairman of the House Gregg Harper, in his usual pudgy pink-faced guise, pounded his gavel repeatedly, calling for Rush to desist, citing Clause 5 of Rule 17 of the House rules, which prohibits the wearing of hats when the House is in session.

Yes, yes, rules rules rules, but how and when they are enforced can also be very telling about their nature. When Rep. Don Young (R, Alaska) wore a propeller hat to protest President Obama’s energy plan last year, his gesture was met with bleak and privileged chuckles.

Indeed, there is something loathsome about this video, about yet another white man man pounding his gavel impotently and calling for a hoodied black man to be led away by a law-enforcement official.

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Hoodies have arisen as a symbol, not so much for the actual murder of Trayvon Martin, but for everything surrounding it: the blind prejudice and assumptions which led to his death, the conniving cover-up which is developing every day, and (most of all) the underlying racism and holier-than-thou sentiments espoused by comfortable conservative pundits.

The very fact that they are trying so hard to find an “alternative truth” to the incident surely says something about their preconceptions.

The hoodie is fascinating because it says, without being said, it has come to signify the manifold tensions and class/race struggles coming to light in this country. What Rep. Rush did, by taking off his blazer to show his hoodie underneath, was to step outside of the established grammar of the US political system and to show the political cogs the extent of their own prejudice.

In disrupting Rep. Rush’s speech, the Chair, Rep. Gregg Harper (R) Mississippi played right into his hand: he showed that this sort of subversion does matter, and that the established grammar is often one of the few things on which repressive discourse relies. Had Rep. Rush not been led out, had he finished his speech, the act would not have been as powerful. Instead, he exposed painful truths which have been surfacing ever since George Zimmerman pulled the trigger.

Rush disrupted what can be said but, more than that, how it can be said; he thus brought about an ugly image we have come to expect more and more often: a white man pounding his gavel to have a hoodied black man escorted out of the picture.

Before revealing his hoodie, Rep. Rush uttered words which might one day be studied in history books: “Too often, this violent act that resulted in the murder of Trayvon Martin is repeated in the streets of our nation, I applaud the young people all across the land who are making a statement about hoodies, about the real hoodlums in this nation, particularly those who tread on our laws wearing official or quasi-official clothes.”

Clothes do not instill authority, a badge on your chest or a chevron on your shoulder does not give you the right to administer truth. And yet attire is precisely what does matter : it mattered enough to escort Rep. Rush out of the chamber, and it matters enough to constitute a symbol for veiled prejudice: it is the brutal police officers, the profiling stop-and-friskers, the paranoid white men with concealed weapons permits, who are the real havoc-wreaking hoodlums in our society.