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Bag the Baggy Pants Bans

By Clarence Page

Back in the 1970s there was an offbeat theory going around that the high-heeled platform shoes that were all the rage actually were the result of a secret police plot. They made runaway bad guys easier to catch.

Against that backdrop, I was amused to see a recent upsurge in crackdowns by cities, towns and school districts this summer against baggie pants. Local lawmakers across the nation have their own shorts all knotted up over young folks who wear their baggy pants low enough to reveal more than most of us want to see of their undershorts or thongs.

Why, I wonder, do lawmakers and educators want to penalize young people for wearing a fashion that makes it harder for them to run from police?

That's precisely what Atlanta city councilman C.T. Martin proposes with an ordinance to illegalize the wearing of baggy pants that show one's undershorts, the Associated Press reported. Louisiana towns, including Shreveport, Alexandria and Delcambre have passed similar laws. Delcambre's "anti-sag ordinance" calls for up to a $500 fine and up to six months of jail time for low-riders low enough to expose, as Mayor Carol Broussard was quoted as explaining, "some of your privates" or "the crack of your behind." Plumbers and refrigerator installers, take note.

Similar baggy pants bans have been passed in some California school districts. Trenton, N. J., has considered a ban, the Trenton Times reports, but Stratford, Conn., turned thumbs down on a dress code ordinance as possibly unconstitutional.

I have other reasons to offer. For starters, it's ridiculous.

Police have more important crimes to chase, whether the culprit is wearing baggy pants or not. Baggy pants are only an annoying symbol of a larger social headache: the crime and other cultural rot that ultimately degrades society and makes life miserable for everyone.

With that in mind, it is important to note that not all kids who wear baggy pants are trying to be criminals. Many just want to present their youthful, in-your-face version of cool. But throwing them into the criminal justice system is one way to grease the slide of their lives in the wrong direction. It is ironic that lawmakers want to throw the baggy brigades in jail, for jail and juvenile detention facilities are a major incubator of the more serious social problems of which baggy pants are only a symbol.

The most robust enlistment and training of youngsters into the criminal underworld occurs behind bars. Many a hardened criminal began as an at-risk kid with overwhelmed or incompetent parents who was thrown into a "juvy" detention facility for a minor offense, where he or she was welcomed into the ropes of the criminal underworld.

That's another irony, since baggy pants originated as a style of convenience and necessity in prison. Long before they made it to the street, baggies were a badge of honorable dishonor in the criminal underclass, a high fashion drawn from the lowest of low places. If they look to my parental eyes like a clownish minstrel show, so much the better, in the eyes of young folks who want to look bold and audacious on the cheap.

But, since fashion doesn't stand still for long, even with its pants spilling over its ankles, baggy pants ordinances offer too little too late. The saggy baggies already are beginning to fade from the fashion scene, according to youth fashion mavens like my teen-aged son, an inveterate coolness-hunter. The rise of thoughtful and less "gangsta-style" rappers like Kanye West, Common and Talib Kweli may have something to do with that. Or maybe young folks are just getting tired of having to walk around with one hand always holding their pants up.

For those who stick with the prison yard fashion, the last laugh may be against the criminals. Recent news reports reveal police and bounty hunters around the country are delighted at the way baggy pants have slowed down criminal suspects, much as the cops in the '70s enjoyed platform shoes. As one private investigator in Texas described baggy-pants bail jumpers to the Beaumont Enterprise, "It's funny how the pants drop around their ankles and they start rolling."

Who knows? At this rate, the next big police-chase reality TV show could be called simply "Pants."

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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