HACKENSACK, N.J. — Sean O’Reilly was 16 when his mother gave him the talk that most black parents give their teenage sons.
“Don’t put your hands in your pocket a lot. People will think you have a gun,” O’Reilly, now 17 and a senior at Teaneck High School in northern New Jersey, remembered his mother telling him. “Don’t walk around with stuff in your pockets. People will think you stole something.”
The subject of hooded sweat shirts — or hoodies — didn’t come up, he said.
But the death of an unarmed Florida teen, Trayvon Martin, who was wearing a hoodie when he was shot by a neighborhood-watch volunteer last month, has elevated the hoodie to a rallying symbol and made it a target of criticism.
Supporters of Martin have taken to staging “hoodie marches,” calling for the arrest of the neighborhood-watch volunteer, George Zimmerman. The television personality Geraldo Rivera triggered a firestorm last week when he said Martin’s hoodie was as much responsible for his death as Zimmerman, 28. Rivera’s subsequent apology, posted Monday on Twitter, has not quelled the controversy.
Hoodie-wearers — a group that transcends race and age — interviewed in Teaneck and Paterson, N.J., this week said they wear the garments because they are warm, comfortable and lighter than bulky winter jackets. They also are relatively cheap — $20 at Target, for example, or $59.50 at Aeropostale.
“It’s cold as hell,” said Kary Rivera, 15, an Eastside High School student who wore a light gray hoodie as she walked with friends on Seeley Street in Paterson.
Hoodies are like uniforms to her peers, she said. “If you go into my closet, all you would see are hoodies — in every color.”
Isaac Rappoport, 17, a Teaneck High School student who wears hoodies “almost every day,” said Rivera’s comments amounted to profiling.
“Somebody’s style is completely unrelated to their character,” Rappoport said. “It’s a very common piece of clothing for young people, and to just stereotype every single young person who wears a hoodie is basically stereotyping every single young person as a hoodlum, and it’s just not true.”
Destiny Hernandez, 15, a student at Eastside High School, said a hoodie says one thing about its wearer.
“It says that they are cold,” she said.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, who teaches courses in constitutional law, and race and the law at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said the entire discussion of what Martin was wearing is irrational and shameful and that the discussion was a way to avoid confronting the country’s chronic problem with race relations.
“This young man is gone, and I think it’s horrible, absolutely horrible, to blame a hoodie — a hoodie put on his head because it’s raining — as the reason why someone could be excused for killing him,” she said. “Have we lost our minds? It’s irrational to me. It’s completely irrational.”
Zimmerman, through his lawyer, has said Martin attacked him and that he shot the teenager in self-defense.
Addressing Martin’s death on “Fox and Friends,” Rivera described Zimmerman as “overzealous” and said he should be prosecuted.
He added: “You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a gangsta, you’re going to be a gangsta-wannabe, well people are going to perceive you as a menace.”
Many hoodie wearers criticized Rivera for stereotyping them, but some acknowledged that a stigma exists.
Keion Jones, 18, who graduated from Eastside last year, said pedestrians grow apprehensive when they are approached by someone wearing a hooded sweatshirt.
“You don’t know what to expect,” Jones said. “You think you’re going to be robbed. It’s not a racial thing. Anybody could wear a hoodie, but as long as it’s dark outside and you are wearing a hoodie, anybody would think that you are a suspect. It’s not fair, but that’s just what happens.”
Jimmy Javier, 22, of Paterson, N.J., said he should not be branded a suspect based on his clothing.
“I don’t think there is a reason for me to get shot at all because of what I am wearing,” said Javier, who was wearing a black hooded sweat shirt with an Adidas logo on the chest. “I wear a hoodie all the time, so am I putting myself in the same position that that kid was in?”
LeAnne Smith, a Teaneck High School student, said the controversy would not stop her from wearing hoodies, a staple of her wardrobe.
Smith, who was wearing a blue hooded sweat shirt in Martin’s memory as she walked to a bus stop on Cedar Lane on Monday, said people should not judge others by what they wear.
“They should be more open-minded and see me beyond the clothing, and the outer appearance,” she said. “Get to know the person before you judge.”