A Saggy-Pants Furor in Riviera Beach

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The policing of fashion has long been the province of sharp-clawed style mavens, but local politicians in a Florida town decided to give the job to law enforcement. City authorities in Riviera Beach, Fla., passed an ordinance earlier this year declaring it "unlawful for any person to appear in public or in view of the public wearing pants below the waist which expose the skin or undergarments." The offending style, of course, was the hip-hop-influenced saggy-pants fashion, popular primarily among young black men who let their pants drop and expose a few inches of their boxer shorts. But the city fathers of Riviera Beach could have a hard time convincing the local judiciary that the ordinance is constitutionally valid.

The beach community of 37,000 north of West Palm Beach is hardly alone in trying to crack down on a street style that originated in the prison system, where belts are banned as a security risk. Cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., have considered imposing fines on anyone who lets his drawers show, while Flint, Mich., and some Louisiana parishes have local laws similar to Riviera Beach's. And the city authorities had a strong voter mandate for the curb: 72% of voters in a local referendum called for a ban on saggy pants.

Riviera Beach's population is two-thirds African American, and the campaign to curtail sagging, as the style is called, was led by Bishop Thomas A. Masters, the city's African-American mayor and a Baptist church pastor for more than two decades. "Everywhere I went, there was a groundswell, a cry for something to be done for what the community was seeing as disrespect, indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, as related to the pants situation," Masters explained. The collection of more than 4,700 signatures in a petition drive to place the issue on the ballot only emphasized the city's concern, Masters, 56, said, and voter approval cemented it.

Masters, who before his election last year had been one of the city's most visible community leaders, said parents of children who dropped their pants were among the most avid supporters of the ban. City spokeswoman Rose Anne Brown admits she wasn't among them. Legislating morality doesn't make sense, she said, though she acknowledges the law could work and wishes she "had a dollar for every time we made Torrey [her youngest son, now 25] pull his pants up when he was growing up."

Despite popular support for the ban, it has elicited plenty of popular opposition. Walking through a Riviera Beach neighborhood last week, 23-year-old Bo Brown denounced the law as a pretext for police officers to harass young men idling on street corners. Brown's jeans-shorts were worn dropped, but a large white polo shirt covered any underwear exposure, making his look legal. Pointing out the home of a friend who was cited for sagging, Brown says, "I did it, but I don't anymore. I don't want to be harassed at all."

Twenty miles (32 km) outside city limits at the Boynton Beach Mall, 17-year-old Jay Johnson lets his black shirt drape over dropped shorts. "My dad and my mom don't like it," he says. "You gotta listen to your parents. And I know it's hard to find a job with your pants down low, so you fix them." Some who are against the fashion argue there is no need for a fashion police, despite sagging's association with gangsta rap.

Riviera Beach does not keep official numbers on warnings or arrests made for saggy-pants violations (most often, Brown says, police simply tell violators to pull up their pants). It's believed, though, that since strict enforcement began in late August, about a dozen people have been arrested, ranging from juveniles to a 36-year-old man, all of them African Americans. Under the local law, a first conviction garners a $150 fine or community service, a second one a $300 fine, and anyone who fails to pay up or perform their service could spend up to 60 days in jail.

The crackdown on sagging not only has strained relations between young black men and law enforcement but it could also have a significant economic impact on inner-city residents struggling financially, says Tricia Rose, a professor at Brown University's Department of Africana Studies and the author of the forthcoming book The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop — And Why It Matters. The average median household income in Riviera Beach is about $10,000 lower than that in the rest of the country, and the city's per capita violent-crime rate is higher than the city of Miami's, according to 2007 FBI figures released this month.

Rose sees a class dimension to the crackdown; most cities that have pondered or passed saggy-pants laws are led by black politicians. "A lot of this is [about] class and the anxiety that this young black population ... is going to stigmatize the black middle class," Rose argues. And, she adds, young people will continue to adopt dress codes that get a rise out of adults and that reflect class alienation.

The crackdown on sagging is certainly rallying its defenders. Jeremy Sackler, a student at Boca Raton High School, also in Palm Beach County, started the Facebook group People Who Think the 'Saggy Pants' Law Is Ridiculous in response to Riviera Beach's law — although it has only half the membership of the Girls Against Saggy Pants group, or GASP. "It is a total violation of the First Amendment," Sackler told TIME in a Facebook message. "I have talked about it with friends, and they all agree it is one of the stupidest laws we have ever heard of. And no, I do not wear excessively saggy pants. Most of my friends do not either."

But even if they can't persuade their parents and the town's elders, all is not lost for the saggers of Riviera Beach. At a court hearing last week, 17-year-old Julius Hart stood before a Palm Beach County circuit court judge. Police had spotted Hart showing about four inches of boxer shorts, then discovered that he was on probation for a possession-of-marijuana charge. Hart spent a night in jail. Judge Paul Moyle opined that the saggy-pants law was unconstitutional and released Hart. And the county public defender's office may push to repeal the law. The saggers also have the support of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and attorney James Green, who nearly three decades ago successfully defended a man who was arrested for jogging shirtless on the ritzy island of Palm Beach.

"Whatever happens in the courtroom, if it gets to a discussion of a constitutional issue, we need to balance the rights of the Constitution and the rights of a community," Mayor Masters said. "Does the community have the right to set a standard? I think we do."