It’s a familiar scenario, one that we’ve all seen before. A state county or parish’s local council somewhere in the country decides that the issue more important than all others on its rather lengthy agenda is, of all things, *gasp*… teens with saggy pants! Apparently for Terrebonne Parish in North Louisiana, pants AND skirts being worn “below the waist” are threatening to undue all peace and order within the community, as the Parish council has voted by an 8-1 margin for an ordinance which states that “appearing in public view while exposing one’s skin or undergarments below the waist is contrary to safety, health, peace and good order of the parish and the general welfare.” You heard right. Council members representing a parish in a state with air largely polluted by the various plant industries, has designated the sight of a person’s undergarments the greatest threat to public health and safety. Left largely unsaid, but known to all, is that there is a racial element to this act. While the ordinance may appear to adhere to today’s concept of ‘colorblindness’, police and lawmakers know that there will be nothing ‘race-neutral’ about the policy when it comes to enforcement, nor do they intend it to be. Were it not for the fact that this style of dressing is largely perceived as being exclusive to Black youth, this ordinance likely never would have come into existence to begin with. And as is usually the case, it will be Black youth who suffer the most from this legislative overreach.
The most telling aspect of the ordinance’s purpose is that it will be left entirely up to police discretion to decide how low is too low. It serves as yet another green-light for police to harass and perform unlawful, unwarranted searches on citizens they deem suspicious (i.e. people of color), and one of the eight council members who voted for its passage seemed to say as such, going so far as to offer hope for the law’s “being used to establish probable cause and allow searches.” The Louisiana ACLU is having none of it, however, going on record to state their firm opposition to the ordinance, which they believe is unconstitutional. In a letter sent to the Terrebonne Parish Council, the ACLU declared that “the government… does [not] have the right to use clothing as a pretext to engage in otherwise unlawful stops of innocent people”, and said that its proposal, if enacted, “makes a criminal of everyone whose pants are not high enough to suit the arbitrary standards of law enforcement.” Furthermore, ACLU lawyer Gabe Rottman, did not mince words when he stated the obvious fact: “These laws target primarily urban youth, and can be used selectively by law enforcement as a means of racial profiling. It’s similar to the outcry over zoots in the 1930’s.”
Supporters of the ordinance have been quick in countering any accusations racial discrimination they must have surely known were coming their way. The main proponent of the ordinance, John Navy, points out that “I am an African American. I know I’m not racial profiling.” It’s important to note that he’s missing the point, that police officers, perhaps especially in North Louisiana Parishes, DO racial profile. In fact Louisiana locks up African American men at a higher rate than any other state in the nation. But Navy isn’t alone on this matter. Jerome Boykin, president of the Terrebonne Parish Chapter of the NAACP, directly echoes the utter ridiculousness of the old man who became a YouTube sensation a few years back with his “Pants on the Ground” song and video. In this particular incidence, the Terrebonne NAACP in a sense provided cover to white council members who may not have otherwise supported the ordinance for fear of appearing supportive of a racially discriminatory policy. In the words of Boykin, “There is nothing positive about people wearing saggy pants. This is not a black issue, this is not a white issue; this is a people issue.” As he goes on to explain the rationale for his opposition to freedom of expression, one might catch an underlying sense of homophobia when he declares, “Young men who were in prison who wanted to have sex with other men would send a signal to another man with his pants below his waist.” I don’t know who he heard this story from, but it’s one that’s been repeated from time to time, never with any credible source cited in support of this claim. In reality, the sagging trend came from men in prison who had their belts confiscated by guards, who guards feared “may commit suicide.” (*) Whatever the truth of the matter, Boykin had the full support of the local NAACP Youth director, Diane Collins, who brought her entire youth group along to the public hearing on the ordinance, in order to send a message: “We are here tonight to try and put a stop to this thing and let these boys and girls look decent.” Apparently lost on her was the fact that they can determine for themselves what is “decent” and what is not, without law enforcement officers making the decision for them. With so many families, especially families of color, suffering under the weight of economic recession as well as being constantly targeted by law enforcement officers, one wonders if the Terrebonne Parish NAACP risks being seen as out of touch by putting so much weight behind policing a particular form of fashion.
The penalties imposed on anyone found to be in violation of this ordinance are rather harsh as well. On the first violation, there is a fine of $50; on the second, $100; and for the 3rd and subsequent violations, a fee of $100 plus 16 hours of mandatory “community service”. This only tells part of the story though. No one as of yet has asked, “What happens when economically struggling families and youth are unable to pay these harsh penalties?” Will it lead to incarceration or time spent in a juvenile detention center? One Louisiana town, Bogalusa, seems to be heading in that direction. They’ve recently imposed a similar ordinance on the town, which violating could result in fees of up to $500 in addition to 3 days in jail! These overreaching laws are not without precedent either. An almost identical ordinance is on the books in Shreveport, and one in Albany, Georgia once rewarded the state treasury with $4,000 in fines in the year 2011 alone. Back in 2007, Terrebonne’s neighboring parish, Lafourche, imposed such a law. The Parish Sherriff, Craig Webre, says that “the law is very broadly written. We try to enforce it in a straight-forward fashion in the spirit of what it is to address.”
Not all Terrebonne citizens are impressed by the ordinance, however. One resident by the name of Ida Moore says she is no fan of sagging pants or the way they look on people. However, she feels that “to make laws of governing social differences is a slippery slope to the level of government that we do not allow.” Similar sentiments are shared by Lucretia McBride, who thinks the ordinance is a case of “overreaching that [is] simply not going to work.” Regardless of how they felt, in the end only one council member voted against the ordinance. Her name was Beryl Amedee, and she opposed it on the grounds of unconstitutionality. The other eight council members overrode her concerns, pointing to the fact that Shreveport had a similar ordinance on their books for six years, although this does not preclude its being unconstitutional as well. One of those members, Russell Hornsby, left no doubt as to his intent on legislating morality. The ordinance, in his words, serves to demonstrate that “deviant behavior will not be tolerated.” By “deviant”, he means that “the problem our young men are emulating prisoners. It sends a sign that you’re available for sex. It’s a bad example to set.” He claims he spent many “sleepless nights” fretting over how he should cast his vote, but ultimately decided that “if we can turn around a couple of young men it would be worth it.” (Turn them around by robbing them of finances and forcing them into unpaid labor?!)
It isn’t anything new or unique for laws to pop up which will, in some cases, have unintended consequences in the way they are selectively enforced. This is not one of those cases. This model has been put into effect time and time again, and by now it should be clear that laws which grant police even more authority to go after people with “baggy” or “saggy” pants almost exclusively result in the targeting of Black and minority youth. In the future, when its detrimental effects come into being, there should be no ‘cop-out’ of “Well I didn’t think it would be enforced this way.” The signs were there from the very beginning.
Selected Sources and Further Reading:
- Terrebonne Council Outlaws Saggy Pants – The Houma Courier
- No Need For Another Ordinance – The Houma Courier
- Call Off the Fashion Police – The Houma Courier
- Too-Saggy Pants Banned in Louisiana, Prompt Fears of Racial Profiling – Yahoo! Shine
- Louisiana Town Bans Saggy Pants – COLORLINES
- For further reading, see Football Player Kicked off Plane for Wearing Sagging Pants.
*My source for this is The Classroom and the Cell: conversations on Black life in America with Mumia Abu Jamal and Marc Lamont Hill.