From central Florida to Capitol Hill, the death of Trayvon Martin has reignited the country’s simmering racial tensions, and black House Members have jumped into the fray, demanding justice for the slain Florida teen.
The Congressional Black Caucus has been outspoken on the killing since it hit the national consciousness. Its protests reached a fever pitch Wednesday when Rep. Bobby Rush surprised even CBC members by wearing a hooded sweatshirt, the same garb Martin was wearing when he was killed, on the House floor.
“Racial profiling has to stop,” the Illinois Democrat said, removing his blazer to reveal the gray sweatshirt, pulling up the hood and donning dark sunglasses. “Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum.”
Instead, Rush continued, the hoodlums are those who wear “official” clothing — ostensibly a reference to George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed Martin on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla.
A House security staffer quickly escorted Rush from the chamber while he was making a political statement, but his demonstration will not be the last from the group, which is incensed by a lack of an arrest in the Martin case.
“I think everybody’s trying to find something that they can do to keep the pressure so we can get an arrest and call attention to racial profiling in this country,” Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson (D) said.
Wilson said she knows members of Martin’s family personally and she has taken to the floor every day to speak about the case, though not in a hoodie. Still, she said she was surprised by Rush’s display.
“I think it’s brilliant,” she said. “Only Bobby Rush could do that.”
Rush, before his political career, was a co-founder of the Illinois Black Panther Party and was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Also caught unaware was Rep. Gregg Harper, the Mississippi Republican who was presiding over the floor at the time.
“I could tell that he was the last speaker,” Harper said. “I looked up and noticed that the jacket was coming off, and the hood was going on.”
Harper banged the gavel to maintain decorum, but he insisted it had nothing to do with the substance of Rush’s speech but rather with the removal of his coat and the donning of his hood. The House Rules require “proper attire” in the chamber, including jackets and ties, and ban hats and hoods.
A video of the incident shows Harper consulting with officers of the House. He said he was “listening for some instruction on what my options are to maintain order. ... What’s the language? Where’s the passage in what rule that says there are no hats?”
“This is not a big deal,” Harper said. “All this is about is the speaker pro tem having the responsibility to maintain decorum and make sure the rules of the House are followed.”
Rush also tamped down any suggestion he was singled out for his impassioned protest and said he knew the breach of decorum would not be taken lightly.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be handcuffed or dragged out or led out,” Rush said. “All I knew is that I was going to get a reaction.”
Nevertheless, the former activist from the South Side of Chicago said he was compelled to act because he has a special connection to this issue. His son, Huey, was shot and killed in a Chicago sidewalk robbery in 1999, he told CNN.
The CBC considered dressing in hoodies last week in a floor demonstration, but ended up nixing the idea. Rush, however, was spurred into the move after an encounter with Martin’s parents at a House Judiciary Committee briefing on Tuesday.
“I told them that they lost a son, but they’ve gained a whole generation of children,” Rush said.
Though Rush’s hoodie may be the most overt protest against what many see as an injustice, Members are also promising legislative remedies and have kept heat on the Department of Justice and Florida authorities to act.
Wilson said she will soon offer the “Trayvon Martin Resolution,” stating that Members stand with the family in asking for justice for the boy.
She said she also wants to address racial profiling by creating a “Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys.”
“It’s an issue that has to be addressed. It’s demeaning,” she said. “When a black boy is walking down the street, people cross the street. When they walk up to their car, everybody locks the door. They fear them.”
Fellow Florida Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown said she wants to focus on Zimmerman’s self-appointed neighborhood watch status, a position for which she said he had no training. If he had, she said, this situation could have been avoided.
“It’s disturbing,” she said. “I am definitely looking very closely at what we can do to have some form of training for community watch.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.