ALBANY — When it comes to style, there is a long tradition of one generation’s fashion statement or new thing being decried as an obscenity by an preceding one.
In the past, long hair, short skirts and men wearing earrings have been flash points in America’s cultural wars.
In Hollywood treatments, hippies were subjected to being shorn by “scissors-happy” law enforcement officers, as is the case in the movie “Easy Rider.” For girls who showed more leg than had been the case in previous years, there were aspersions of lax morals.
But instances of outright banning of fashion are rare. During World War II, the zoot suit was declared unpatriotic because of the excessive amount of cloth the government claimed was needed to produce them, with a restriction imposed on clothing manufacturers. The suits, worn by jazz musicians and also popular in other minority groups, including Latinos, were banned in Los Angeles during the 1940s.
During the mid-2000s local governments began passing laws against sagging pants after the look became a fashion for mainly young black men and teenagers.
The Albany City Commission, in November 2010, passed an ordinance that prohibited the wearing of pants or skirts three inches below the hips, imposing a $25 fine for an initial offense and up to $250 for subsequent offenses.
This week, Albany City Commissioner Demetrius Young requested that the commission take another look at the ordinance and vote on repealing the prohibition later this month.
Commissioner B.J. Fletcher also suggested in February that it might be time to re-examine the issue.
Like crack cocaine laws that imposed tougher penalties for those who possessed that form of the drug than on those possessing an equal amount of powder cocaine, Young said the prohibition of saggy pants is a measure that targets the black community.
“Saggy pants laws criminalize the clothing wear and choices of young black men,” Young said during a Tuesday telephone interview. “In terms of these things, we see that (they) disproportionately affect black people — in crack cocaine sentencing vs. powder cocaine, saggy pants ordinances here and around the country.
“Those things, black folks look at them and see unfairness. We don’t control a lot of those things at the City Commission level, but this is one of those things we can control.”
Young said in discussions with police he has learned that the ordinance has not been strictly enforced recently, so if that is the case, it makes sense to remove it from the books.
With the awareness raised by high-profile deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement, now is a good time to look at the issue of saggy pants, he said.
The Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, when police reportedly were dispatched over a report of a customer at a store using a counterfeit bill to make a purchase, sparked protests around the country.
Repealing the saggy pants ordinance would reduce the number of interactions between black males and police, reducing the chances of a minor incident turning into a more serious confrontation, Albany State University professor James Pratt Jr. said.
Like stop-and-frisk laws, misdemeanor marijuana laws and “criminalizing people standing around,” saggy pants ordinances result in “overpolicing and surveillance” of a group, said Pratt, who was a candidate for Albany mayor last year.
“They disproportionately impact black males,” he said. “We know it increases interaction with police officers.”
The ordinances also raise First Amendment issues in terms of freedom of expression, he said.
In recent years there has been some precedent in repealing the ordinances. In June 2019, the City Commission in Shreveport, La., overturned its ordinance in a 6-1 vote after a suspect was fatally shot after an encounter with an officer who initially tried to detain him for a suspected saggy pants violation.
Ocala, Fla., repealed its ordinance in September 2015 after it had been in place for only two months.
In 2008 a judge ruled a Riviera Beach, Fla., ordinance was unconstitutional.
“Creating a law that infringes on freedom of expression is unconstitutional,” Pratt said. “The (drawing) of freedom of expression is a blurry line.”
An arrest for the minor offense of saggy pants also can have long-lasting consequences, he said.
“It ends up giving people a record who wouldn’t have a record,” he said. “We’re giving young men a record. Even if it is a slap on the hand, it (feeds) distrust of the judicial system, leads people to be more frustrated with law enforcement.”
Fletcher, who suggested in February that commissioners schedule a future discussion after Pratt spoke on the issue, said it may be time to revisit the ordinance. If, after hearing from those in opposition and in support of the ordinance, a majority decides to repeal it, that would be the proper response, she said.
“There’s two sides to every story,” she said. “I would entertain hearing both sides of it. Is saggy pants a part of culture? I’d like to see if police are making arrests, whether it’s being enforced.
“I believe if Demetrius wants to bring it up for discussion, we have a commissioner who is out there in his ward and some of his constituents feel the African-American community is being targeted — any time people, black, white or brown, feel people are being targeted, we need to discuss it.”