In Louisiana town, wearing low-rider pants may cost you

Supporters say the new ordinance aims to curb indecent behavior while opponents say it infringes on freedom of personal expression.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Buying jeans three sizes too big, young men across America, many of them black, are taunting both the laws of gravity and fashion by wearing their pants below their behinds.

But if they won't heed the age-old mother's lament to "pull your pants up," will judges have to step in to enforce a general belt-tightening?

As states, cities, and activists across the country either outlaw or hold belt rallies to draw attention to the trend of "saggin'," Delcambre, La. (pop. 1,700) last week took the boldest step yet. Getting caught with one's pants too far down could now cost $500 in fines – or six months in jail – at least on this side of Bayou Carlin.

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"It's just unbelievable what they do with their pants," says Carol Broussard, the town's mayor. "What's next? Are they going to take their pants off completely?"

To be sure, it's not the first time middle America has kvetched – and even passed laws – about fashions from bell-bottoms to G-strings.

But in its zeal to right what they see as a fashion wrong that touches on immorality and indecency, critics say this gritty Cajun shrimp-and-oil village has waded into a racial and generational morass.

"This isn't so much about comfort or carelessness or letting something fall where it naturally falls, it's a specific look and a statement which some people have to work hard to affect, sometimes seeming to defy gravitational laws," says Robert Thompson, a pop-culture expert at Syracuse University in New York. "It represents a certain attitude and style that people are very nervous about."

Trend's origins

Taking cues from prison culture, where belts are banned, the trend has been around for several years, moving from urban hip-hop centers like Atlanta and New York out into the boonies, and emulated not just by blacks, but Anglos, Mexicans, and Vietnamese. Some kids say it's more for comfort than a statement, even though some take on a peculiar swinging gait to create enough thigh pressure to hold on. Others just hold them up.

"It's just a habit or something," says Tony, a young man in Delcambre with fuzzy corn rows and plenty of boxers showing. His mom, who didn't want to give her name, is blasé. "They see it on TV," she says. "I don't see anything wrong with saggin'."

But many people, especially older ones, see it as a precursor to a dark, urban, hipster culture that brings with it crime and drugs, says Sylvester George, a retired oil field worker in Delcambre who supports the new ordinance. "It's not about fashion," he says. "It's indecent and worst of all it's disrespectful. I don't need to see that."

When a similar law with a $50 fine passed the House of Delegates in Virginia in 2005, editorialists panned it and the Senate declined to put it through to the governor. But its sponsor, Algie Howell, says attitudes have changed as the trend has expanded into middle and rural America. It has also divided the black community.

"One of the things black legislators said here in Virginia is that it's going to put more blacks in jail," says Mr. Howell, who is black. "They tried to crucify me for it, so it's a good feeling now to see others catching on to this. People thought it would go away, but in my view it's getting worse."

Support for local law

An informal poll in the Lafayette Advertiser newspaper last week showed 79 percent of residents support the town's ordinance. Jet Magazine, known for black style, carried an article in May that was critical of sagging.

Moreover, civic organizers in Atlanta, Detroit, Nashville, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., are planning antisagging rallies, says Pastor Dianne Robinson of Jacksonville, Fla., who last week handed out 78 donated belts at a "belt rally." "This sagging of the pants is to me a defiant act, and it has all kinds of implications," says Ms. Robinson, who is black. "If you can't get up in the morning and pull your pants up, that says a lot about you, even if I don't know anything about you."

But some say young men and women are mirroring the realities in society, including the prevalence of African-Americans in prison and underserved urban schools.

"Youth culture has always let us know what's going on in the belly of America," says Michaela Angela Davis, a social critic and editor at large of Honey.com in New York. Blues reflected how people felt about the Jim Crow laws, while R&B music can be traced back to the civil rights movement, she says. "This is the era of fatherlessness, the era of war, and this is what it looks like: children lost in their clothes," she adds.

Some saggers don't take their fashion so seriously. "It's just for comfort," says Jamal Collins, a teenager in New Orleans.

But what about the guys whose seats are at their knees? Maybe they just forgot to put their belt on in the morning," says Jamal. "That's happened to me."

Are low pants indecent exposure?

The chief legal issue, experts say, is whether wearing one's pants too low is indecent, especially if all that's showing is heavily branded underwear. "This is an effort to legislate taste and morality as opposed to any legitimate case that this is indecent exposure," argues Mr. Thompson.

Here in Delcambre, where life revolves around the church and the bayou, sponsors of the antisagging law acknowledge potential legal tangles. "We don't know if we can enforce it, but we're going to try," says Mr. Broussard.

Ultimately, residents say it might be hard to catch them in the act. "When they see the cops coming, they're just going to pull their pants up," says Mr. George.

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