There’s an iconic scene in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic Malcolm X, in which a real-life standoff with the NYPD that occurred on April 26, 1957, is reenacted for the screen. Following the police beating of both a young black man and Nation of Islam member Johnson X Hinton, who’d attempted to intervene, lines of men belonging to the NOI’s Temple No. 7 assembled in military-style lines outside a hospital on 116th Street in Harlem, outfitted in suits, overcoats and fedoras. In the scene, the “Fruit of Islam” stands at the ready between the police and an outraged black crowd chanting “We want justice!” awaiting a command from their leader, at the time known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
Upon learning that their compatriot will live, a simple and silent gesture signals the FOI to turn in unison and march off, effectively dispersing the now-mollified crowd.
It’s one of the most memorable scenes in an already classic film, and arguably one that stands out in film history. And perhaps this is the scene the organizers of 100+ Black Men in Harlem and Atlanta were thinking of when they asked protesters to “Dress to Impress”—men in suits or shirt and tie and women in their “Sunday’s Best”—to march in tribute to George Floyd on the morning of his Minneapolis memorial service. Granted, it’s appropriate attire for a funeral, albeit one none of these protesters would be attending in person. “We are not to be feared, we are to be respected,” the New York invitation declared, while the Atlanta invite urged followers, “Let’s show them another side of us.”
There’s only one problem: George Floyd, who was wearing a black tank top and sweatpants when he was arrested and subsequently murdered by Minneapolis police, shouldn’t have had to sport a suit for his life to be respected. Not that it would’ve mattered; the peaceful marchers who were attacked by Alabama State Troopers in 1965 in what would become known as “Bloody Sunday” were largely dressed in suits, ties and their “Sunday’s Best.” At the time, it had been exactly two weeks since Malcolm X had been assassinated, also while wearing a suit and tie. Three years later, Martin Luther King, the leader of the eventually successful march from Selma to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettus Bridge (which remains named for a Ku Klux Klan leader to this day), would also be assassinated—yet again, while wearing a suit and tie.
Maybe these civil rights pioneers were the ones organizers intended to emulate with their instructions to “dress to impress,” but it was the respectability politics that jumped out. Besides, history has already made it abundantly clear: They won’t care what we’re wearing when they kill us.
“‘Let’s show them another side of us’ as if wearing your Sunday’s best suddenly elevates your status as a Black man/woman. What does that say about people who just wear t-shirts and jeans? That they aren’t refined enough to be respected?” asked one commenter in response to seeing the invite circulated on Twitter, where it was met with understandable disdain.
“Wanting to be in suit and ties during a protest is an indoctrination thing,” said another. “Suit and ties have never saved any of those protestors back then from the horsemen smacking them across the head with batons. And it won’t stop the pepper spray now.”
Others who had been engaged in recent protests, like journalist and author George M. Johnson, were enraged by the implication that respectability should be centered in a national moment of civil unrest. Johnson tweeted that he felt it “disrespectful” to the legions “who have shown up” around the country.
Even the branding itself was suspect, as it relied upon images of unrelated events to promote itself. A communications and branding strategist with the Twitter handle @TheKorTurn recognized himself in one the marketing materials and quickly disavowed the event, tweeting that not only was the image used without his consent to promote what he considered a “problematic protest” but that he didn’t “want this event to distract from real protest and inclusive organizers.”
Because you know who your dress clothes likely won’t distract? The police, should they feel a need to confront, arrest or kill you. If your sartorial style somehow does manage to save you, it’s only because your spit-and-shine polish satisfies the tenet of white supremacy which demands we make others feel safe before being deserving of protection ourselves.
To be fair, The Root’s Editor-in-Chief Danielle Belton watched the New York City marchers pass her window this morning en route to their 96th Street destination, reporting back that the gathering had all the elements of any other protest, save the “suited and booted” crowd. It’s also worth noting that footage of the march shows a less-than-strict adherence to the dress code, particularly by the white people who joined the multiracial march but didn’t bother to respect the request to dress well. As our EIC noted: “It was interesting that the white people were mostly not dressed up, but nearly all the black people were dressed nice-to-decent...I swear white people act like they don’t have nice clothes.”
Perhaps these white allies joined spontaneously, moved by the moment and movement. Or maybe they didn’t bother to make the effort to dress up because not only is it pointless and pandering, but they know they’re already wearing the one thing that will likely grant them implicit respect from the police: white skin.