By Zach Chassler
The first time the Trayvon Martin story hit me hard was when I heard it on FOX News. Before then, I only knew the basics: another unarmed Black kid had been shot dead by someone who thought he was carrying a weapon when in fact all he was packing was something harmless – in this case a pack of Skittles.
This says something shameful about me. I had become so used to Black kids getting killed for no reason that it had folded itself into my litany of reasons that the world is going to shit. Right up there with Global Warming or something – genuinely horrible, but no surprise.
But then they played the 911 call George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer, made to the local police. He sounded both panicked and cocksure as he reported someone “suspicious” in his neighborhood. It’s easy to decode that kind of talk, and it rang loud and clear – especially on FOX where hosts, pundits, and guests express concern about “still” not knowing where our President “stands on the issues” or his “questionable” associations and background.
Things started to crystallize for me. Suddenly I was a teenager again, watching as many of my friends were looked upon and dealt with, with “suspicion.” Listening to Zimmerman’s call made it impossible to go back to the place I had settled into in the middle of my life. His racism was a genuine poison that hit me with a forcefulness I hadn’t felt in years. I speak no bullshit when I say I could feel the infection.
It only got worse. There was the call Trayvon Martin made to his girlfriend while George Zimmerman followed him. The kid was worried. She told him to run. He said he wouldn’t, but that he would walk faster. And that’s when it really kicked in. Not just the sadness, the tragedy, and the injustice, but the horror. This was a kid who went to the store to get himself some candy and found himself followed home. The situation every kid is taught to be afraid of, and every parent’s nightmare.
The final moments of Trayvon Martin’s life must have been terrifying. Picture yourself as a teenager out getting your sugar fix at the neighborhood store. Walking home. Now picture a grown man following you. And put a gun in his hand. You don’t know why this is happening. You call for help but no one answers. Now the gun is aimed at you.
Only people like Trayvon Martin know what comes next.
I was stuck with the terror that came before. It broke my heart thinking about Trayvon Martin’s last moments. Writing those words isn’t easy. It makes me self-conscious. Who am I to feel this way? Heartbroken? Really? Yes, really.
I needed to do something to deal with my feelings, and it came to me that I would wear a hoodie every day. It’s difficult to say why. Part statement, part reminder, part countdown to George Zimmerman’s arrest, part trying to feel an infinitesimal bit of Trayvon Martin did – if only the sensation of being in his clothes. Not his shoes, I could never be in his shoes. But his clothes: the hoodie taking me back through the years, pulled up against the rain as I walk home down an empty block at night.
I decided to share the idea with people – something highly out of character for me, and “Wear Your Hoodie To Work Day” took shape. The idea was this:
On Monday, March 26th people would be asked to simply wear hoodies to work, no matter their profession. High school principal, movie star, CPA, police officer, soldier, shaman, doctor, hedge fund manager, executive, and on and on. Unemployed people, retired people, and kids as well just to be seen. The idea started as a protest, something to do if George Zimmerman wasn’t arrested by Monday, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s taken on another dimension.
Trayvon Martin was killed because he was Black. George Zimmerman is a racist. And somewhere in the mix of racism, along with ignorance, fear, cowardice, and – fuck it – let’s just say “evil,” is the racist’s inability to see the “other” as a person. It’s a blindness to the fact that others have lives and souls and faults and senses of humor and jobs and doubts and dreams and families and everything else the racist knows to be true about themselves and their loved ones.
The call to wear a hoodie “to work”boils down to, when you’re out and about you see the same people every day. People you know, and who know you for the person you are – even if it’s only at the most basic level. They know you’re a person, and you know the same. When you wear your hoodie “to work,” people around you will know someone’s under there, which is something the George Zimmerman’s of the world don’t get.
You don’t like the hippy dippy stuff? I have nothing to say to that. Here is the truth: Trayvon Martin’s story continues to break my heart. For him in his last moments, for his family and friends, and for us. I see my friends’ faces on Trayvon Martin and, now that we’re adults, I see my friends’ kids’ faces on him. I don’t know what to do with this sadness and frustration and I can’t imagine that others don’t feel the same. One thing I do know is that we have to start seeing each other and become conscious of the fact that under every hoodie there’s a person.
And Zimmerman, person though he may be, should be indicted and punished as soon as possible – just the same as any other person who decides to kill an unarmed 17 year-old kid.
People like Geraldo Rivera are already starting to twist the knife of this tragedy by partially blaming the hoodie for what happened. They push right up to saying that Trayvon Martin made a stupid mistake wearing a hoodie out at night because it made him look like a criminal. There are so many things wrong with this, they’re hardly worth mentioning but we’d do well to remember that, among other things, thirty years ago, sneakers without laces were “felon shoes.” Now designer sneakers are made without laces and sold at Barney’s.
In the end, there are lots of reasons to wear your hoodie to work on Monday, all of them symbolic. But symbols, as Geraldo in his own backhanded way, proved today, have meaning. Let’s flip it.
Wear Your Hoodie To Work. Monday March 26th, 2012.
Former New Yorker, story analyst, and freelance writer, Zach Chassler, currently lives in Topanga Canyon with his wife and twin daughters.