Friday, June 21, 2013

St. Louis Proposes Sagging Pants Ban

I live in St. Louis. It is a city that I love and one I have no plans to leave. It is a city with a rich, wonderful culture and tons and tons of family-friendly, budget-friendly, and fun-friendly things to see, hear, and do. (If you're not from St. Louis, I encourage you to come visit sometime and check out all of these things). I want to make it very clear that I love this city because I am about to say some critical things.

If you're not from St. Louis, chances are that your impression of us is either neutral ("flyover state") or negative ("crime-ridden"). That latter designation is not without merit. We've been ranked second most dangerous city and have the third-highest murder rate in the country. There are (as with all of these statistics and cities, I'm sure) complicated issues surrounding these data, but suffice it to say that there are several legitimate problems facing the city of St. Louis.

In fact, we had a particularly violent night just last week where 18 people were shot in the span of just a few hours. It was followed immediately by a high-profile and tragic triple homicide/suicide.

What I'm trying to say is that this might not be the best time to be worrying about whether or not someone's pants are sagging, and yet that's exactly what alderwoman Marlene Davis has decided to spend her time focusing on.

You can see the full text of her proposal here (pdf). Basically, she wants to replace an existing ordinance with one that includes the line "Any person to appear in a public place wearing pants below the waist which exposes the skin or undergarments which is likely to cause affront or alarm" as a definition of an "indecent or lewd act." The fine for a violation would be a fee of somewhere between $100 and $500 and/or up to 90 days in jail. 

I am angry.

I am angry for several reasons, and since I already called my own alderman (who is not Ms. Davis) to express that displeasure and didn't really feel like it did much good, I'm going to take to ranting on the internet about it instead. Here, in no particular order, are the reasons that this is a terrible idea:

First Amendment Violation

Dress is an important part of personal expression. Yes, I will admit that I personally find the saggy pants thing a little silly looking, but people are allowed to wear silly looking things. People are allowed to dress like clowns (I mean that literally, not as a metaphor for sagging).

Kenny the Clown on Market Street 

Hell, when I worked at Wal-Mart a guy used to come in wearing a complete clown costume that was covered in the most brimstoney of Bible verses and included actual felt flames to represent the pits of hell that his attire assured us we were all doomed to visit if we did not repent.

He creeped me out, but he was still allowed his mode of expression.

The Supreme Court has already established that the First Amendment can be applied to clothing, which counts as a valid mode of expression.

You may not like baggy pants, but they are a personal clothing choice, and policing personal clothing choices outside of the bounds of public nudity laws (which I'm going to get to in a minute) is a violation of First Amendment rights. Indeed, similar bans have already been found unconstitutional in some state courts, and the ACLU has put out a statement on why the issue is important to them.

Just because you do not personally like someone's means of expression does not mean you get to make it illegal.

This Law is Racially-Motivated

In this case, Davis denies that there is any racial motivation for her proposal. One of her fellow aldermen, however, sees it differently. 

According to the St. Louis Public Radio article
Alderman Antonio French says the bill inordinately targets young black men.
“It's another way the city is sending the wrong message to the young black men of the city," French said. "We need to be embracing this population, offering more opportunities and let them know that they have a partner and a friend, and not this adversarial relationship.”
And, yes, St. Louis has a race problem. We are one of the most segregated cities in the entire country. There is a long history of racial housing discrimination, and a recent report shows that black people are arrested at 18 times the rate of white people for marijuana use in the city (despite nearly equal total population numbers).

I'm not going to question Ms. Davis' personal motivations for putting forth this proposal, but I am going to say that I am absolutely convinced that it would be enforced in a racially-motivated way, creating even further divides in a city that needs to do more to fill in the gaps we already have, not create more racial tensions.

Speaking of Davis' motivations . . .

Sagging Pants are NOT Symbols of Gay Sexual Availability (and It Shouldn't Matter if They Were!)

"If you don’t know it, it comes from the prison system," Davis said. "When a man walks around with his pants down, it says 'I'm available for you to use me.' Is that how they want to represent themselves in the community? I don't think so," Davis said.
This is not true, so please, please, please stop saying it. (As a side note, it worries me that someone who apparently can't even do basic internet research is in charge of proposing laws for our city.)

That said, if it were true that wearing sagging pants were a symbol of homosexual availability as Ms. Davis claims, it would be even more evidence for the fact that denying that mode of expression would be a First Amendment violation, since then there would clearly be a specific message suppressed in the ban.

There's nothing wrong with being gay, Ms. Davis! And this city has a very active and supportive gay community, so I would hope that Ms. Davis is not actively denigrating such an important part of her constituency with blatantly homophobic remarks.

Hey, speaking of close-minded remarks:

Policing Other People's Clothing Choices As a Morality Issue is NOT Okay

As movements like Slutwalk have made clear, using clothing to police people's morality or worthiness is simply not okay. Claiming that someone's short skirt makes them culpable in their own sexual assault or saying that someone's sagging pants make them a menace to their community both depend on huge, stereotypical assumptions that let a clothing choice stand in for someone's humanity. 

Ms. Davis proposes that anyone who wears pants below the "waist" (which, again, does Ms. Davis have Google? Does she know where a waist is? Perhaps she means "hips"?) that show "underwear" are offensive and thus need to be banned. 

Underwear is material. What difference does it really make if the material covering those "buttocks" the bill deems unacceptable is denim or Daffy Duck covered boxers? There is no affront to the public's delicate sensibilities if the area is covered. To suggest that we can police how many layers must cover it and what kind of coverage one can get is absolutely absurd to me.

A Personal Motivation

I have to be honest, the reason that I am most angered by this proposed bill is my personal connection to the city of St. Louis and a segment of the population that I feel this ban would impact most heavily. I teach at a community college, and many of my students are in the criminal justice system. Some simply have petty penalties and fines that keep them in court and out of my classroom. Some are on house arrest and cannot use the computer lab after hours because they have to make curfew. Some are fresh out of prison and trying to get their lives back on track. For many of these (mostly male) students, laws like these are simply barriers on an already rocky road to success. Getting fined or imprisoned for sagging pants makes it that much more difficult for them to make it to class, afford textbooks, or stay motivated. I have seen so many promising, intelligent students get bogged down in the system. 

Safety is important to me, but arresting someone for a non-violent offense like sagging pants or marijuana possession just exacerbates the existing problems. 

This is a Petty, Racially-Driven Waste of Time and Resources

So please, if you live in the city of St. Louis, contact your aldermen/women and tell them that this is unacceptable. It would be an embarrassment for our city to do something so petty when we have so many real issues to deal with, and it would be a personal violation of civil liberties as well as an additional wedge with which the racial tensions in the city could be exacerbated. 

This issue is being taken up by the Public Safety (because visible undies are such a safety issue, you know) Committee. You can find their contact info here

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