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Boys in the 'Hoodie' Set Off Alarm, Debate in Britain

June 26, 2005|Sarah Price Brown | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — These days, teenagers need only put on a hooded sweatshirt to send shivers through the heart of middle-class Britain.

Young people wearing "hoodies" have become a symbol of "antisocial behavior" -- low-level vandalism and petty crime. Since last month, about half a dozen shopping malls and schools have banned hoods and caps that obscure the wearer's face from security cameras.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, as part of his effort to create a "culture of respect," has endorsed the clothing ban at the Bluewater mall in Kent, a suburban area southeast of the capital.

"People are rightly fed up with street-corner and shopping-center thugs," Blair said at a news conference in May. Unruly behavior, he added, "makes our town centers no-go areas for respectable citizens."

Bluewater's ban and Blair's endorsement of it have ignited a public debate about personal freedom versus the fear of intimidation, and the role of young people in society.

"It's as if the streets and the malls are to be swept clean of anybody who might give you a little bit of difficulty," said Tom Wylie, chief executive of the government's National Youth Agency, who has been critical of targeting hoodies.

Some critics of the ban noted that the garments keep wearers warm and dry -- something not to be dismissed in Britain's climate. And they complained that young people were being stereotyped.

"When we make assumptions about [the young] because of the clothes they wear, we should try to remember the uniforms of rebellion we wore when we were their age," wrote Chris Paling in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

For about a decade, the hooded sweatshirt has been perceived by some as intimidating. Some malls and schools have implemented informal bans on hoodies for years. But only recently have national leaders begun to talk about the garments as a criminal threat, worn by teenagers in a deliberate attempt to conceal their identities from closed circuit cameras.

After Blair was elected to a third term last month and said he wanted to "reclaim the streets for the decent majority," many focused on hoodies. A court barred a Manchester teenager convicted of antisocial behavior from wearing a hoodie for five years. And after the widely publicized Bluewater ban, the Elephant & Castle Shopping Center in south London and several schools followed suit. Other malls announced that they were already enforcing informal bans.

At Elephant & Castle, stores had been complaining that hooded teenagers intimidated customers and discouraged them from shopping, center manager Mike Knell said. Then, hooded teenagers broke four windows in six weeks. Security cameras caught the vandals on tape, but not their faces.

"It was really the last straw," Knell said.

Now that the ban is in place, "you're not on guard all the time," said Pat Mould, 73, sitting on a bench at the mall while his wife shopped for groceries. Before, he said, hooded youths "put you on edge."

Mall security guard Andre Klem, 24, said he enforced the ban every day and was happy to do it. "When they've got their hoods on, they're like robbers," Klem said. Teenage boys run around, playing like they're gangster rappers, he said. But when the teenagers take their hoods off, they go back to being "normal kids," Klem said.

Two 16-year-old shoppers, dressed in baggy sweatsuits with hooded tops and baseball caps turned backward, agreed that the ban was a good idea. They said they wore their hoods in the street for style. But inside, they took their hoods off, "so people don't start looking at you in a way that you don't want them to."

"I haven't worn a hoodie for about eight years because of the stigma that goes with it," said George Maiga, 24, who works in central London at the Gap, which sells hooded sweatshirts.

Civil libertarians, however, have expressed reservations about linking style to behavior.

"You are once again creating this fear of this younger generation who are up to no good right across the board, rather than actually targeting individuals who are engaged in criminal activity," said Doug Jewell, campaign coordinator for Liberty, a civil liberties group.

Even if a minority of those who wear hoodies behave badly, targeting the teenage dress code will not solve the problem, said Yussif Osman, a 15-year-old member of the government-funded U.K. Youth Parliament, an organization that seeks to bring attention to young people's concerns.

"A lot of these people act antisocially because they have absolutely nothing better to do," Osman said. The solution lies in one-on-one mentoring and youth programs, he said.

Wylie, of the National Youth Agency, said that if Blair wished to instill mutual respect among Britons, he might start with his fellow politicians. Members of the House of Commons, shouting and jeering at one another across the aisle during sessions of Parliament, hardly demonstrate the politeness they wish to impart, he said.

"When the political culture is steeped in the idea of not paying careful attention to the other person's point of view, this in the end will result in a disintegration of respect," said Mansur Lalljee, a social psychologist at Oxford University.

Lalljee said he did not know much about hoodies, but in general, "if young people don't feel treated with respect, then it isn't surprising that they don't learn to respect other people."

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