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Rallying around the hoodie Area protesters are using clothing to speak out against the racial profiling that some say killed Trayvon Martin

Hundreds of people -- black and white, young and old -- wore hooded sweatshirts last Wednesday to march through downtown Buffalo to protest the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida.

"Hoodies up" was the rallying call at the protest.

Two days later, about 200 high school students at Tapestry Charter School on Great Arrow Avenue paid $1 each for the privilege to wear a hoodie to school. The hoodie day was a show of a solidarity against racism and a fundraiser for a local refugee organization.

And Saturday afternoon, several dozen young African-American boys in the mentoring program of 100 Black Men of Greater Buffalo wore hoodies at a protest against racial profiling.

In the month since Trayvon,s

Schools, churches, nightclubs sometimes ban use of hoodies

an unarmed, 17-year-old African-American youth, was killed by a neighborhood watch member while walking to his father's home in a gated community, the hoodie sweatshirt has transformed into a powerful visual symbol.

Countless demonstrations with protesters wearing hoodies, like the ones held in Buffalo, have been staged across the nation. People are taking to Facebook, showing pictures of themselves wearing hoodies. Celebrities are posing wearing hoods up over their heads.

But make no mistake, say those who are speaking out about the shooting.

This is not about the right to wear a hoodie.

"I think the hoodie, basically, is an excuse for the shooting," said James Payne, president of 100 Black Men of Greater Buffalo. "Plenty of people wear hoodies. For some strange reason, the hoodie has become synonymous with the black male. I wear a hoodie. I don't have a criminal record. I'm a very educated man. I think people call it for what it is. It's profiling African-American men."

The Rev. Darius Pridgen, the Common Council representative for the Ellicott District and pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church on East Ferry Street, has helped organize several hoodie protests. He said the hoodie is a unifying symbol.

"People from outside looking in may be trying to make too much of the hoodie movement," he said. "It's a statement concerning injustice. It really has very little to do with the article of clothing."

He explained: "If it were a white kid in a hoodie, it might not have been as suspect to Mr. Zimmerman. The hoodie is just a symbol that justice has not been served."

> 'A real suspicious guy'

According to Florida police, George Zimmerman, 28, who is of white and Hispanic heritage, spotted the African-American teenager on the evening of Feb. 26 in a gated community in Florida.

He called 911 to report the boy, saying there had been some break-ins in the neighborhood recently. A transcript of the call published by CNN shows Zimmerman considered him "a real suspicious guy. This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something."

When the dispatcher asks Zimmerman what race the man is, Zimmerman said: "He looks black."

When asked about what he's wearing, Zimmerman told 911: "A dark hoodie, gray hoodie."

Zimmerman then tells the dispatcher that Trayvon is coming towards him with "his hands in his waistband" and then says he runs away.

The dispatcher asks Zimmerman if he is following the teen, and Zimmerman responds that he is.

"We don't need you to do that," the dispatcher tells Zimmerman. But Zimmerman does anyway.

Moments later, Zimmerman shoots Trayvon. Zimmerman told police it was in self-defense. He has not been charged with any crime.

Trayvon's family has demanded that Zimmerman be arrested.

> It's not about clothing

People outraged over the shooting death of the unarmed teenager and the lack of charges against Zimmerman say the fact that Trayvon was wearing a hoodie probably had little do with why he was shot.

But they believe Zimmerman saw the garment as evidence of criminal or, at least, suspicious behavior.

"Everybody wears them," said the Rev. Brian Robinson, pastor of the Fillmore Community Church SBC on Fillmore Avenue. "African-American, Hispanic, white, Asian, Native American and not just young. Old. Male and female."

But, he points out, it made Zimmerman think Trayvon was "suspicious."

"And why?" he asks.

Robinson believes it has everything to do with race.

"I don't believe the hoodie was an issue," he said. "It was an excuse."

Cambridge Boyd, 33, a minister at True Bethel who helped organize Wednesday's downtown rally, said he has had many conversations with young African-American people about how they feel they're perceived when they wear something as mundane as a hooded sweatshirt.

"They kept telling me, 'Because I wear a hoodie, they think I'm a gangster,' " Boyd said. " 'Why do they associate that with me? I'm good. I'm in school. I don't do the gang thing. But because I wear a hoodie, I'm automatically labeled.' That's a gross injustice."

> No hoodies allowed

While the hooded sweatshirt can probably be found in most households in America, there are plenty of places where they're banned.

Many school districts don't allow heads to be covered with hoods or other coverings, except for medical or religious reasons. The Buffalo School District said it considers hoodies "outerwear" and forbids them to be worn inside its buildings.

Pastors strongly discourage congregants from wearing them, and many nightclubs ban them as well.

Local bank officials with First Niagara and M&T Bank say they don't have any specific dress codes for branch customers, nor do they profile possible robbers based on a single piece of clothing.

However, First Niagara said it has trained security personnel who exercise discretion when dealing with customers, including those who wear hoods.

In the aftermath of the Florida shooting, such bans have struck a nerve in at least one local incident.

Some patrons of the Wilson Farms at Pine Avenue and 29th Street in Niagara Falls recently took pictures of a sign posted at the store that stated, "All hoodies off when entering the store. It's for your own safety as well as ours. Thanks, Wilson Farms Management."

The sign had apparently been up for about two months, but a number of patrons didn't notice it until recently.

The policy originated because of several robberies of Wilson Farms and other stores by thieves wearing hoodies in late January and early February, store employees said.

After that policy was instituted, police believe they solved the crimes with the arrest of Falls residents Anthony Corsaro, 22, and Ashley Blackburn, 22, who is accused of being Corsaro's accomplice in three of the robberies.

Corsaro, who is white, was charged Feb. 3 with four counts of robbery, two of which involved Wilson Farms stores at other Niagara Falls locations. Corsaro was described as having worn a hoodie that covered his head during each of his robberies.

Corsaro was eventually captured because an employee at a different Wilson Farms location asked him to remove his hood, allowing the store's surveillance cameras to capture a good image of him, according to Margaret Chabris, a spokeswoman for 7-Eleven, which owns Wilson Farms.

> Root of the stereotype

In the national debate that has raged over Trayvon Martin's death, some have pointed out that descriptions of robbery suspects and other criminals often include the fact that some were wearing hoodies.

But police officials say they in no way directly associate wearing a hoodie with criminal activity.

"Everyone wears hoodies," said Dennis Richards, the Buffalo Police Department's chief of detectives, who wears such attire himself. "That doesn't mean they all have larcenies in their hearts."

Richards and other police investigators acknowledge that some criminals use hooded sweatshirts to conceal their identities. Hooded images of suspects are frequently pulled off surveillance tape or described in releases seeking the public's help for ID.

"A hooded sweatshirt is readily used by some perpetrators to hide their features, which therefore makes identifying them difficult, if not impossible," he said. "Everyone wears hooded sweatshirts. Can they be used for bad purposes? Sure they can."

A person's attire matters little when it comes to police work, said Lt. James Panus, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association.

"In our experience, a person's dress doesn't always reflect personality. We've been insulted by kids in hoodies and grown men in $5,000 business suits," Panus said. "We've also been praised by 18-year-olds in hoodies."

But the PBA leader points out that there are broader influences at work in society.

"The western culture that we are, you like to see a person's eyes and face. When you can't, it tends to make some Americans nervous," Panus said.

African-American leaders agree the hoodie is sometimes used for nefarious purposes.

"I think that most Americans are aware that hoodies are at times worn by the criminal element to hide their identity," Pridgen said. "However, every young person who wears a hoodie, which is the point, should not be considered a criminal. Just as every man who is holding a child should not be considered a pedophile. That's the whole object of the movement."

But they also see the hoodie, because it is such a ubiquitous article of clothing, as a great unifying force.

Hoodie rallies emphasize a point, Boyd said.

"What's up under the hoodie is what counts," he said. "We are all human. What you wear -- clothing -- shouldn't take away from your human element."

That was the message students at Tapestry Charter School were hoping to spread Friday.

> Students take action

Mac Craik, 16, a junior from North Buffalo, came up with the idea of having a "dress-down day" in honor of Trayvon.

"I thought we really needed to take action," he said. "I thought a solidarity movement, to show we're not going to take this, would be a good idea."

The Florida shooting had been widely discussed at school during classes and among students.

Normally hoodies aren't allowed at the charter school. The exception is generally for seniors, and they are only allowed to wear their class hoodies.

Craik, who is white, went to the school administration to get approval and then helped spread the word.

Students who wanted to participate had to pay a $1 -- a standard practice for dress-down days, which are generally used for fundraisers.

Two hundred students participated Friday. The money collected went to Journey's End, a refugee organization.

Several African-American students at Tapestry discussed their experiences with race with a reporter. They all felt they had been profiled at some point.

Tannis Truitt, 17, said she has been asked to leave stores when she walks in with other African-American students.

Several boys said they had been stopped by police just for being in a group.

Cameron Pritchett, 17, recounted being stopped by police officers when he and three friends got off the subway at the University station. The boys were on their way to step practice for a club.

"They pulled us aside and patted us down," Cameron said. "We didn't have anything. They wanted to interrogate us."

Antonio Mills, 18, said he was glad to know a white student initiated the hoodie day at their school.

"When everyone wears a hoodie, the only difference between us is the color of our hoodie, not the color of our skin," he said. "When you have a hoodie on, it doesn't determine who you are. Anybody can wear a hoodie."

News Staff Reporters Lou Michel and T.J. Pignataro contributed to this report.

email: mbecker@buffnews.com

and stan@buffnews.com