Pants issue dropped

The Baltimore Sun

Public hoopla over some young folks' baggy, saggy pants came to a quiet close yesterday - at least in Baltimore's City Hall.

No legislation was passed. In fact, none was ever intended, says City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, who in September introduced a resolution to implore the city's youths to pull up their trousers.

The issue might have gone out with a whimper, but it came in with a bang.

Holton's proposal was a hot topic on talk shows and on the Internet. It also thrust Baltimore into a national story involving several places that have sought to ban youth fashion that some consider indecent. Several towns in Louisiana and Georgia passed ordinances with fines for the wearers, while Atlanta is weighing a proposed ban on exposed bra straps and thongs, and low-slung pants that reveal underwear.

Holton said yesterday that all she really wanted was to get people talking about the popular practice of wearing pants so low-slung that underwear often is exposed.

"This has no binding effect," Holton announced yesterday morning at the start of a hearing in City Council chambers, hoping to fend off those who would say the resolution was an attempt to "criminalize" young people for their fashion choices. "This is not a precursor to legislation."

About a dozen residents who came to testify were critical of the resolution, describing it as an example of government overreach.

"I think it's wrong for anyone to go around showing their underwear, but I'm against this bill," said Larry Keaton, 52, a civil engineer from West Baltimore. "I'm not a drug dealer. I work every day, and I like wearing baggy pants, too, sometimes. I think I should have the right to wear what I want to wear."

The speakers at the hearing ranged in age from their early 20s to late 50s - and all arrived with underwear completely covered. Many expressed distress at Holton's "attempt to legislate fashion."

Aaron Wilkes, 40, of East Baltimore, said the resolution was headed down the "slippery slope of appropriateness."

"Do we really want to go down this road? Legislating what people wear and what they don't wear?" asked Wilkes, the president of the Darley Park Community Association. Then he added - making a pointed remark about Holton's dreadlocks, which are long and graying - "I can remember a time when folks didn't like dreadlocks."

Most of the hearing's speakers, like Wilkes, were "against" the resolution, which confounded Holton, because she insists the proposal was just to talk about baggy pants, not actually do anything about them.

"All this attempted to do was engage people in dialogue," she said, as the hearing came to a close. "And even in all their opposition, guess what? They participated in the dialogue. So for what this resolution intended to do: Mission accomplished."

An Atlanta councilman last summer proposed a similar ordinance banning visible bra straps, thongs and low-slung pants that show underwear. A task force was convened there to examine the issue.

After Holton's resolution, a Trenton, N.J., councilwoman began drafting a bill to outlaw saggy pants, as did the city of Pleasantville, N.J. Bans also have been considered in three other towns in Georgia; in Duncan, Okla., and in Yonkers, N.Y.

But all the talk about underwear glosses over the real issues, many speakers said yesterday. Young people are fighting poverty, homelessness, unemployment, sub-standard schools and family problems. Their clothes, the speakers said, should be the least of adults' worries.

"If you're trying to address deeper issues, why not go and address those deeper issues?" said Ezekiel Jackson, 27, a community organizer from West Baltimore.

One speaker challenged Holton's definition of "appropriate clothing," adding that bared cleavage or pregnant women's exposed bellies could be considered offensive to some.

After the hearing, Holton seemed glad to be wrapping up the conversation that she said was all she ever intended.

"This ends here today," she said. "We're not in the business of trying to legislate fashion. I had no idea it would generate what it generated."

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