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The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo by Casey Winkleman.

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Activists Are Targeted For Their Beliefs — And How They Dress

“There is no contradiction with fabulous shoes and serious social justice work,” Melissa Harris Perry wrote in Elle

Patrisse Cullors and Tanya Bernard stand before a tense crowd at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Both artists are leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement — Cullors is co-founder and Bernard is art and culture director.


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They’re at MOCA on a somber evening to give a lecture on art and activism. For two days straight, the public has watched the macabre but familiar footage of black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, shot dead by police.

The killings prompt Cullors and Bernard to abandon the program planned for July 7th, the same night a Dallas sniper will kill five police officers. Instead of discussing art and activism, the women ask each other to envision a future in which blacks have true freedom.

Bernard (L) and Cullors. Photo: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo by Casey Winkleman.

"I think about how much we’ve allowed for our imagination to only believe in black death and how much we need to actually imagine black life... thriving black life," Cullors says. "Like black folks running in fields, dressing how they want to dress, in all types of ways."

Wearing Birkenstocks, fabric hoop earrings and a sleeveless sweatshirt proclaiming, "Black Girl Magic," Cullors looks as if she’s already dressing how she wants. The same goes for the Black Lives Matter members who halted the Pride Toronto parade July 2nd wearing matching face jewels and capes. Their ensembles brought to mind Beyonce’s "Formation" dancers channeling the Black Panthers at the Super Bowl in February. But the boldness of their outfits belied the fact that critics of activists — be they in Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, or the radical and counterculture groups of the 1960s and ‘70s — have long been targeted for what they wear.

Dress too extravagantly and a protester risks being characterized as a hypocrite. Dress in striking colors and a protester risks being singled out by law enforcement. Wear a T-shirt with the name of a cause on it and risk confrontations with school officials, employers, or strangers. Even the people protesters rally for have come under fire for their clothing choices.

Activists and scholars describe this trend as a witches’ brew of bigotry, victim-blaming, and respectability politics.

Expensive Goods Make Activists Targets

When Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson visited "The Daily Show" in January, he explained the goals of the movement and discussed misconceptions about police violence. But as the interview wrapped, host Trevor Noah landed a surprise jab.

"You’re wearing an Apple watch and talking about oppression."

"You’re wearing an Apple watch and talking about oppression," he quipped to McKesson.

Although Noah’s smile suggested he was joking, it was hardly the first time an activist’s credibility had been called into question for a fashion choice. In October 2011, at the height of Occupy Wall Street’s popularity, British newspaper the Daily Mail published an article pointing out that not all protesters were as aggrieved as they appeared to be.

"The flash of a designer belt, a watch or even, in one case, a huge wad of cash reveals many activists are not quite so hard done by," stated the article.

The Washington Post reported that actual Wall Street bankers dropped by the Occupy protest in Manhattan’s Zucotti Park to scold demonstrators for protesting income inequality while wearing designer clothes, using iPads, and daring to have enough money for food.

"There is no contradiction with fabulous shoes and serious social justice work."

Protesters at a recent Black Lives Matter rally outside the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters could be attacked on similar grounds. Some wore the kind of flowing sundress protester Ieshia Evans dons in the iconic July 5th photo of her face off with riot police. Many wore Dashikis, bold prints, and T-shirts inscribed with political messages, like "No Justice! No Peace!" Others clutched Louis Vuitton purses and Marc Jacobs backpacks.

Wake Forest University Professor Melissa Harris-Perry has challenged the idea that protesters must be impoverished to fight oppression.

"There is no contradiction with fabulous shoes and serious social justice work," she remarked last month in Elle, where she’s editor-at-large.

And others agree with her — to an extent.

Joshua Miller, a professor in the government and law department of Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, authored the research paper "Dressed for Revolution: Fashion as Political Protest." He says he found the criticism of the Occupy Wall Street protesters condescending and "an easy way to dismiss activism."

A protestor at a BLM rally in LA. Photo: Nadra Nittle

He balks at the suggestion that the privileged should sit out protests.

"Why should well-off people not take part in movements that go against their own material interests?" he asks.

People of privilege supported Occupy Wall Street and currently support Black Lives Matter — and they often pay a price. A lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio, was sentenced to five days in jail for wearing a Black Lives Matter button, and three teams in the Women’s National Basketball Association were fined $5,000 apiece because players wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts during warmups (the fines have since been rescinded).

While Miller supports people of all class backgrounds protesting inequality, he says, "There is something strange about protesting inequality in a society while wearing high fashion."

Cullors is more concerned about the production of clothing than she is with its cost.

She says protesters should be aware of where their clothes come from and how they’re made and processed.

"I think it’s nuanced," she says. "I think that it’s okay for us to decide what we want to wear and how we wear it and that we have a particular responsibility, especially in leadership, that comes with being mindful of what we’re buying and where we’re buying it from."

Policing the Other

Cherno Biko, a Brooklyn-based activist who created Black Trans Lives Matter, shows up to protests in black cocktail dresses, head wraps, and heels. She often wears all black to mourn her ancestors and to lessen the chance police will notice her. She says that head wraps prevent the authorities from grabbing her by the hair.

"I’ve been arrested in my head wrap, and I was able to take the head wrap down and use it as a blanket, so I didn’t have to sit on the nasty floor of the jail cell."

"Many of the activists are so intentional about how we express our fashion," Biko explains. "There are so many reasons that inform what we wear. I’ve been arrested in my head wrap, and I was able to take the head wrap down and use it as a blanket, so I didn’t have to sit on the nasty floor of the jail cell."

Unlike DeRay McKesson, she can’t afford an Apple watch. But when Baton Rouge police arrested McKesson on July 9th for obstructing a highway while protesting Alton Sterling’s killing, Biko suggested the activist, who’s gay, was targeted partly because of his sexual orientation.

McKesson has adopted a uniform of sorts at protests, a blue Patagonia vest and bright red gym shoes. In Baton Rouge, he ditched the vest, but his trademark footwear caught the eye of a police officer.

"You with them loud shoes, I see you on the road," the officer told McKesson, who live-streamed his encounter with law enforcement. "If I get close to you, you're going to jail. You better keep walking."

"When will they stop policing what #FolksLikeUs wear?"

Dismayed police singled out McKesson this way, Biko took to Twitter.

"Even without the blue vest they still noticed him bc of the ‘loud shoes,’" she wrote. "When will they stop policing what #FolksLikeUs wear?"

Members of the LGBTQ community, especially those of color, are vulnerable to being stopped by police because of their clothing. The book Queer (In) Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States discusses the history of sumptuary laws, which until the 1980s allowed police to arrest people for not wearing a minimum of three clothing items associated with their biological sex.

While arrests for gender impersonation are no longer commonplace, transgender women of color continue to be police targets. The term "walking while trans," a play on the term "driving while black," describes the discrimination trans women encounter from law enforcement.

A protestor at a BLM rally in LA. Photo: Nadra Nittle

"Transgender women often cannot walk down the street without being stopped, harassed, verbally, sexually and physically abused, and arrested, regardless of what they are doing at the time," states Queer (In) Justice. "Gender nonconformity is perceived to be enough to signal ‘intent to prostitute,’ regardless of whether any evidence exists to support such an inference."

What LGBTQ people wear has been policed so steadily over the years that Biko can’t tolerate anyone being faulted for a clothing choice. She says activists can wear what they like and still be engaged protesters.

"I am so over people coming after folks for choosing to express themselves," she says. "If you’ve got it, flaunt it."

The attacks on what activists and politicians wear often target women, making them misogynistic, according to Caroline Heldman, an associate professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

"It’s another way to dismiss women’s work," she says. Heldman calls the focus on fashion a distraction from the real enemies, which she characterized as state sanctioned violence, killer cops, and multinational corporations exploiting workers. She says the enemy is not the soup kitchen volunteer in an Armani suit.

"We use dress to delegitimize women and their expertise, be they women activists, female leaders, or even rape survivors," Heldman says. "It’s just tired, old patriarchy, and it’s especially true for women of color."

Victim-Blaming and Respectability Politics

The clothing Trayvon Martin wore when a neighborhood watchman killed him in Florida four years ago played a central role in the public’s perception of him. Martin’s killer, who said the teen looked suspicious in a gated community, described the youth as wearing a hoodie to a police dispatcher. The mundane form of outerwear has been linked to Martin ever since.

Activists staged a Million Hoodie March in solidarity, but others criticized the teen for his apparel, arguing he’d caused his own demise by wearing it.

Protestors at a BLM rally in LA. Photo: Nadra Nittle

"He wore an outfit that allowed someone to respond in this irrational, overzealous way and if he had been dressed more appropriately, I think unless it's raining out, or you're at a track meet, leave the hoodie home," Geraldo Rivera said on "Fox & Friends," sparking outrage.

In fact, it was raining when Martin was killed, but including that detail would have made Rivera’s argument even less compelling. His finger-pointing at the dead teenager resembled how rape victims are shamed and blamed for their dress after attacks.

It’s because of how people perceive we wear our blackness that makes our hoodie look like gang attire. It’s not just about clothes.

Cullors says the clothes black people wear don’t make them targets; blackness makes them targets.

"Black people are hyper criticized and we are criminalized," she says. "That happens when we wear a hoodie or if we wear suit. It’s because of how people perceive we wear our blackness that makes our hoodie look like gang attire. It’s not just about clothes."

Biko says that respectability politics — the effort to look respectable and behave as such at all times to avoid oppression — won’t save the marginalized. Three black congressman acknowledged as much when they appeared on CNN to discuss race relations after the Dallas police killings.

The problem, they said, is that they don’t look like politicians all the time.

"You take off the suit and put on a T-shirt, and we could be going through what Alton or Philando were going through," said Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison.

Texas Rep. Marc Veasey said he feels anxious about being pulled over any time he’s not in a suit, whether he’s in the South or the nation’s capital. And Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond revealed that when he’s dressed down, he’s treated much differently from how he’s treated while wearing his suit and congressional pin.

Protestors at a BLM rally in LA. Photo: Nadra Nittle

But a suit is no remedy for racial profiling and anti-black violence. The Rev. Martin Luther Jr. wore a suit while fighting for civil rights yet still died at the hands of a vigilante, Biko points out.

"We have to push a counter narrative," she says. "However we show up, whatever we wear, whether we’re in a mini skirt or gray sweatpants or a hoodie or nothing at all, our lives still matter."

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