On Wednesday morning when I was checking the Occupy Wall Street website, I saw the announcement: “1,000,000 HOODIE MARCH FOR TRAYVON MARTIN,” over a photograph of a black teenage boy wearing a light-colored sweatshirt with a hood. There were instructions to “wear your hoodie on Wednesday 3/21 and upload a pic to Twitter”; to “sign the change.org petition, started by Trayvon’s parents, currently at 530,000”; and to “throw on your hoodies and come gather in Union Square to show your support for justice for Trayvon Martin!” I went to change.org and, as I read the petition, “Prosecute the killer of our son, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin,” I wondered why I hadn’t heard more about this hideous case of “racial profiling” (that ugly bureaucratic euphemism), where a white man shot a black teenager because he thought the “hoodie” the boy was wearing made him look “suspicious.” Electronically signing the petition felt like a very small thing, but then I noticed that there were close to 800,000 names, up from 530,000 quoted on the Occupy site. (Now the number has swelled to almost two million and it has become the fastest-growing petition in the website’s history.) Even though I am skeptical about often extravagant claims made for the democratic potential of the Internet, the quickly growing number of signatures made me wonder at its extraordinary reach. I then went to Twitter and, as I scrolled down the page, discovered picture after picture of teenage boys and girls, parents holding their infants and toddlers and children, men and women of every age, color, description and from all parts of the country and the world, each and everyone of them wearing a “hoodie.” Some were holding handmade placards that read “I am Trayvon Martin.”
Whenever I happen upon any sign of political activism on the Internet that gives me a moment’s hope, I wonder if I have entered a parallel universe of like-minded spirits, the kind of delusionary experience that those who frequent Ku Klux Klan websites no doubt imagine to be real. That evening when I walked to the subway station to get a train to Union Square, I felt a kind of radical self-estrangement and heightened political consciousness that I seem always to feel when I am en route to an Occupy Wall Street action. I notice all the people with fancy shopping bags in hand, sitting in cafes, chattering away on their cellphones, and I, momentarily released from the narrow confines of my personal life, filled with purpose and resolve, wonder how it is possible that we inhabit the same time and place.
When I arrived at Union Square station, I saw that a number of my fellow New Yorkers had on “hoodies.” Were they going to the rally, their clothing a secret sign to like-minded spirits? Or was this a further delusion on my part, just a style that I hadn’t previously noticed? It turned out they were going to the rally. That beautiful, abnormally early spring evening—the daffodils fully sprung from the ground and the saucer magnolias in spectacular bloom—Union Square was crowded with flesh-and-blood people, as various as those whose pictures I had seen on my machine that morning. One of the first things that caught my eye was the familiar, huge, bright yellow-and-black “Occupy Wall Street” banner that is a parody of police yellow-and-black crime scene tape; the occupiers were there in full force. I also saw many signs with Malcolm X’s picture and his words “You Can’t Have Capitalism Without Racism”; the Harlem-based Party for Socialism and Liberation was also there.
I found myself standing next to a group of teen-age girls with pastel-colored hoodies, holding signs that reproduced the “Million Hoodies March” poster with Trayvon Martin’s picture. In front of me was a middle-aged woman with her pretty little girl, both clad in bright red hoodies, the mother holding a handmade sign with a picture of her teenage son wearing a black hoodie, with the question, “Is He Next?” I thought of the outrageous statistic that close to 685,000 boys and men, the vast majority black and Hispanic, had been “stopped and frisked” by the NYC Police Department last year, and that 88 percent of them were entirely innocent. What, I wondered, had they been wearing? When the parents of the murdered boy, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, approached the platform to speak, everyone pulled up their hoods and chanted in one voice, accompanied by the beat of drums:
“We-are Tray-von Mar-tin!”
“We-are Tray-von Mar-tin!”
It was astonishing to witness this ordinary, mass-produced article of clothing momentarily transmuted, by this simple gesture of people acting in concert, into a stirring political symbol.
The family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, echoed, without knowing it, the same theme of speakers who had addressed us before they arrived: If someone kills or even hurts a dog, he goes to jail, but if you shoot an innocent black teenage boy who is simply walking down the street, you don’t even get arrested. Over and over we heard the demand for justice for Trayvon Martin, the demand for the recognition of his human dignity. And then the old rousing chants were given new life, not only by the urgency of this latest unprovoked, cold-blooded murder of a young black man, but also by impassioned youth who were shouting the righteous words, many for the first time in their lives:
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
As I repeated these words with my fellow protesters, the now-iconic image of southern black workers on strike under the leadership of Martin Luther King in the early ’60s came back to me, as did the simple declaration on the signs they carried: “I am a man.” And before I knew it I was thinking of the revolt in Egypt last spring, the interviews I had heard with defiant young men and women at Tahrir Square speaking passionately about their right to human dignity. I thought, a million Egyptians somehow broke out of the narrow confines and deadening routines of private life, somehow managed to see through the propaganda machine of the state. For a few short weeks and against all odds, they peacefully gathered at Tahrir Square and saw themselves and were seen by the world acting in concert and made their dictator step down. That night at Union Square, there were certainly a lot of people. A couple of thousand? I read that 30,000 people rallied for justice for Trayvon Martin the following day in Florida. What, I wondered, would it take to get a million people to occupy our public space? Occupy Wall Street is planning for what they hope will be a huge national day of action on May 1st. Where could a million people assemble? Times Square? The mall in D.C.? When the speechmaking ended and the chanting died down, a minister led the crowd in prayer and a middle-aged woman wearing a turquoise hoodie, who when Trayvon Martin’s mother was speaking had silently cried and I touched her shoulder, now held my hand.
Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for the New Republic, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tentatively titled Of Time and Beauty.