This was originally posted August 10, 2016, on Youth Today.
By Zerline Hughes
According to my Facebook timeline, yet another fashion trend is on its way out. Fashion comes and goes, right? But none of them are outlawed — yes, outlawed — like this one: sagging pants.
Yes, sagging pants are unattractive and unsightly, but we shouldn’t support the criminalization of this trend by literally calling the fashion police.
With law enforcement targeting black men, this will surely become the next low-level offense that increases school suspensions, in-school arrests and further feeds the school-to-prison pipeline. Further, it will increase walking while black offenses for young adults and men, thus increase the potential for involvement with the judicial system, incarceration, and dare I say it: police shootings.
In cities across America, “saggy” or “droopy” pants is now a criminal offense. For example: In the Terrebonne Parish of Louisiana, it’s not an arrestable offense on the books, but after a third violation, a judge could make it so. “Offenders” are fined $50 for the first offense, $100 for the second and $100 and 16 hours of public service for the third offense.
In the beach town of Wildwood, New Jersey, the fine is between $25 and $100 if caught walking on the boardwalk with low pants, swim trunks and even skirts.
In cities like Ocala, Florida, and Dublin, Georgia, the trend is a fineable (up to $500!) and arrestable offense. Further, two Tennessee youths spent a weekend in jail in November after a school resource officer called the local sheriff’s department for violating the school’s dress code.
A Florida city council member who introduced such legislation said the law would help people respect themselves. The Ocala mayor, however, said, “I just don’t think you can create laws that make you respect yourself.”
I’m afraid we are creating a monster.
In the 1980s, black communities wanted drugs off the street. We went to our law enforcement officials, policymakers and complained. In turn, we were given tough on crime laws like zoning — you know, drug-free zones that carry enhanced sentences if caught dealing near a school or library — and mandatory minimum sentencing.
And here we are now eating crow, wishing something different would have happened. Wishing we hadn’t gotten what we asked for — a 500 percent increase in our prison population during the last 40 years, according to the The Sentencing Project’s “U.S. Prison Population Trends 1999-2014” report. It found that changes in laws and policies accounted for the increase in the incarceration of our clients, students and family members — some of whom could have benefited more from mentorship, rehabilitation, a second chance.
Yes, it is, in fact, hard to parent, minister to and mentor our young people to make good decisions, but it’s got to be 100 times easier than scrambling to finance a lawyer, sacrificing to make bail, visiting our kids in jail or worse: seeing them dead on the street, their name listed as the next hashtag in social media advocacy.
Before we say “yay” to this growing trend of “banning” sagging pants (which yes, I think we can all agree that we want to see it disappear), let’s teach respect, taking the lead of President Obama when he told MTV, “Brothers should pull up their pants. That doesn’t mean you have to pass a law … but that doesn’t mean folks can’t have some sense and some respect for other people …”
How about we take a vow to address this directly with our young people? Let’s introduce true fashion sense to our kids by taking them into an apparel store with a real-life tailor. Let them receive some one-on-one attention — the positive kind — from a salesperson who asks them what they like. Make it a field trip and have them get their measurements taken so they can see the opportunities they may take advantage of, if they so desire.
Secondly, let’s commit to taking youths to various job sites. Point out the required uniform or dress code enforced to keep a job and make money.
Third, let’s pass on this message of guidance and mentorship at schools, to teachers, deans and school resource officers. Instead of choosing to suspend or arrest youths, consider offering alternative wardrobe options. With some community activism and donations, a collection of trendy belts, trousers and jeans can be provided to students in schools and after-school programs.
Finally, simple lessons on dress etiquette, presentation and style could make all the difference. With assistance from local businesses and entrepreneurs, including apparel store owners, fashion 101 advice may actually do the trick.
Let’s stop criminalizing our young people yet again. Let’s stop looking for answers to our problems from our policymakers by way of laws, and start looking at high-impact, positive solutions that involve direct intervention.
Zerline Hughes is a Washington, District of Columbia, communications consultant and blogger on social justice issues. Her blog Not These Two focuses on keeping her children out of the school-to-prison pipeline. Follow her on Twitter at @zerlinehughes.