May 2, 2014 10:00 AM

When a fashion expression becomes a fine-able offense, we're all in trouble.


When a fashion expression becomes a fine-able offense, we're all in trouble. By Walter Pierce

Friday, May 2, 2014

Well, it finally happened: a Louisiana town with a ban on saggy pants actually handed out fines to three young men not named Conner, Tanner and Hunter. No surprise our fashion offenders go by Gujuan, Shaiheem and Devacques, and the St. Landry Parish town of Eunice will not brook their boxered buttocks.

Test case for bad law? Maybe.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana has repeatedly warned local governments to cease and desist, but saggy pants ordinances keep popping up across the Bayou State. Marjorie Esman, the state chapter's executive director, won't say whether they plan to fight Eunice's version of the saggy pants law now that three people have been ensnared by it, but she hits squarely on the most pernicious aspect of such ordinances: "One of our concerns about saggy pants laws in general is that they are used as a pretext to create an entry point into the criminal justice system for young African-American men," Esman says. "And they are often used ... to take one kind of conduct and use that as a pretext to search for things like marijuana, which then becomes an arrestable offense... That's a huge concern because the racial implications of that are enormous."

Cities and parish governments, in other words, are creating a prohibition against an urban fashion popular among young, black males as a means of providing police with "probable cause" to question and search people who in most cases are not otherwise violating any laws. Complicating matters, many within the black community's older generations support such measures.

Saggy pants are an easy target: They have become one of the most identifiable cultural markers of urban youth, mainly black males, and their association with hip-hop culture, which for many in the mainstream is known only (and unfortunately) for its misogyny and celebration of drugs, amplifies the stigma.

But such "entry points," as Esman calls them, can also be a subtle if not still effective way to target the hip-hop demographic.

Lafayette has an ordinance related to bicycles that reads, "It shall be unlawful to ride a cycle at night without a visible rear reflective device and a properly operating headlamp." Arguably there is a genuine public safety aspect to this ordinance. But ask yourself how many times, if ever, Lafayette's bike headlamp ordinance has been enforced in the Saint Streets or Broadmoor neighborhoods. I'm willing to wager it's been used to stop and question a brother in McComb-Veazey on more than one occasion.

Eunice, however, raises racial profiling to an art form. The town also has a ban on so-called "afro-combs" that have "teeth of a length in excess of three-quarters of an inch." In Eunice such combs are defined as "dangerous weapons." Tanner, Conner and Hunter, therefore, do not use them.

The three young men facing saggy-pants fines in Eunice almost certainly cannot afford to fight the charges - a convenient and probably common scenario wherever such ordinances exist. That's where the ACLU could and hopefully will step in. And here's the thing: Eunice doesn't appear to have a legal leg to stand on, and even an un-caffeinated attorney could catch the town with its proverbial pants down.
Louisiana's obscenity law, which delineates in blush-inducing detail the various ways one may be obscene, has an important caveat: "... municipalities, parishes, and consolidated city-parish governments shall not exceed the scope of the regulatory prohibitions contained in the provisions of this Section."

There is no mention of saggy pants in the state's obscenity law because, let's be honest, the visibility of someone's boxer shorts is no more a threat to decency than a bra strap peeking out from a sleeveless shirt - a common sight in steamy South Louisiana not confined to those of loose morals.

Above all, saggy pants laws are a woefully inadequate Band-Aid for a problem that is much deeper, systemic and worrisome: the alienation and lack of opportunity for young, black men. No law will fix that, and besides, like any style that inflames the modest, saggy pants will go away. Let's just wait them out.


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