Protesters hold signs during a march and rally for slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
Julie Fletcher, Associated Press
When white men wear hoodies
- Article by: Robin Washington
- Duluth News Tribune
- April 9, 2012 - 11:32 AM
DULUTH -- The invitations were mostly word of mouth, and there was a small Facebook notice. An organizer recalls sending a message to one of my myriad inboxes, which I may have deleted unopened, and none of the other Duluth News Tribune editors got anything.
So we missed covering Duluth's Trayvon Martin vigil at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial a week ago Saturday and played catch-up to get it into the paper a day late. Not just for the historical record, but because of a significance I learned of a few hours later.
Did you cover it, I was asked at a fundraising dinner that night. No, I replied, and after asking how it went, found out that practically half the people in the dining room had attended. That included Bill Gronseth, Duluth's new superintendent of schools, who wore a hoodie.
"He did?" I said -- and a few minutes later, he confirmed it in person, along with a cell-phone photo.
He wasn't the only unlikely suspect.
"So did Mark Rubin," Gronseth said of the St. Louis County Attorney.
Held concurrently with memorials nationwide for the African-American teen killed by a Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch member, the vigil attracted about 125 people -- black, white, American Indian; women in hoodies along with men; Occupy Duluth and mainstream elected officials.
University of Minnesota Duluth student Ron Harris evoked a visage of Trayvon himself, holding a sign asking, "Am I next?"
But it was Rubin, the county's top prosecutor, attending with his equally hooded wife, Nancy, who sent the deepest message. The injustice the garb symbolized as a wrong demanding to be corrected was not just about the man who pulled the trigger, but the prosecutors who failed to act.
"That was a powerful statement coming from him," Duluth memorial organizer Henry Banks said. "I've always liked Mark, but I look at him totally differently now from the standpoint of wanting to make sure that fairness and justice is a part of what he does."
Rubin shrugged it off.
"We just really needed to be there to show support to fellow members of our community," he told me afterward.
While other elected officials have donned hoodies since Martin's death -- U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago, and at the Duluth gathering, St. Louis County Commissioner Steve O'Neil -- the statement is dicier for a prosecutor, who could be seen as taking sides in another jurisdiction's ongoing investigation.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams tweeted an image of himself wearing one, but I could find few words from him about it, and his spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday afternoon.
Regardless, Rubin said he wasn't there to pass judgment on the case and has received no pushback for wearing it.
"There really hasn't been. There have been a lot of people that have commented 'good for you,' " he said, noting also that the Martin incident, while symbolizing every parent's greatest fear, is largely centered on race.
"I think other people need to become aware of the fear our young black males live with," he said. "It's another violent death. It has an impact not just on the young man's family but on our neighbors in Duluth. We're trying to be there during a tough time and letting them know we support them."
Vigil speaker Carl Crawford of Lake Superior College's Intercultural Center called Rubin's presence "significant."
"He talked with Ricky DeFoe a long time," Crawford said of the Fond du Lac Band member and activist who gave a speech critical of prosecutors. "Mark has been trying to reach out."
And while a hoodie-wearing school superintendent is somewhat less of a man-bites-dog story, so has Gronseth, Banks said.
"I looked at him totally differently, too," Banks said. "He got outside the box. We need to give him a chance to do his job."
On Saturday, Duluth's flirtation with spring broke to a more normal April day; wet and with a definite chill in the air. Perhaps because I'm noticing them more, there seemed to be hoodies everywhere -- six within a half-mile drive along East Superior Street; another half-dozen in five minutes in the Mount Royal parking lot. Probably not much of a statement except to say it's cold.
But a week before on two white male authority figures who didn't have to wear them, they spoke volumes -- maybe about trying to understand life in someone else's skin.
Or at least their hoodie.
Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. His column was distributed by MCT Information Services.
© 2013 Star Tribune