Fashion Police: Flint Cracks Down on Sagging

It's 90 degrees in downtown Flint, Mich., and Jayson Miguel is shirtless, in a pair of gray sweatpants. He's hanging out, minding his own business—and breaking the law. It's not that he's loitering (he's on his way to meet a friend). It's his pants: they're hanging off his hips, below his butt to reveal a pair of gray boxer shorts. "I've been sagging since the fourth grade," the 28-year-old says. "I'll be sagging when I'm old and gray."

Young people call this unkempt look a fashion choice. But for David Dicks, Flint's new police chief, it's a national nuisance. Dicks has ordered his officers to start arresting "saggers," as some aficionados of this sartorial style call themselves, on sight, threatening them with jail time and hefty fines for a fad he calls "immoral self expression." He later told a local paper the style could give officers probable cause to search saggers.

It's a move other municipalities have tried before on a style that's been around for decades. But Dicks, who took over the department on an interim basis last month, has employed a particularly harsh approach—one that some critics are calling downright illegal. So far, Dicks has only issued warnings to saggers, but he's made it clear that anyone with pants below the butt—whether or not they've got boxers underneath—is violating the city's disorderly conduct code, punishable by 93 days to a year in jail and fines of up to $500. "Everybody's talking about it," says Tonio Watkins, 18, a local high-school student. "I don't like what they're doing. I've been dressing like this my whole life."

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union doesn't like it, either—and has given Dicks an ultimatum: stop the policy or face a court battle. They say Dicks is taking the law into his own hands, and violating citizens' freedom of expression in the process. Sagging to show boxer shorts doesn't even violate the city's conduct policy, they say—which states a person must have "open exposure" of the "genitals, pubic area [or] buttocks" to be considered disorderly. "Under no stretch of the imagination does wearing saggy pants that reveal the top of one's boxer shorts violate the Flint disorderly conduct ordinance," says attorney Greg Gibbs, the president of the Flint chapter of the ACLU. "This man has basically taken his personal dislike of a style of dress and made it a violation of criminal law." Gibbs says the chapter will act after Monday if Dicks doesn't change the policy. The police chief declined an interview request from NEWSWEEK.

In the meantime, residents like Miguel—who, at 6-foot-3, wears a size 3XL in sweatpants—are just plain confused. Sagging has been around for decades. Why outlaw it now? "I think it's an opportunity to harass, to be honest," says Miguel. The ACLU worries about that, too: it's no secret sagging is a style long popular with men of color. Last week, a Flint police officer called into a local radio station to say that officers were already using the policy as a way to profile minorities. (Chief Dicks is himself African-American.)

Critics also say the Flint police department has bigger issues to worry about. A 2007 report by Congressional Quarterly ranked the city (population 120,000) the third most dangerous in America. It recently laid off 48 officers and closed the city jail because of budget constraints. With a climate like that, why allocate resources to a bunch of kids who have an aversion to belts? "Clearly there are more important things going on in Flint," says Todd Boyd, a cultural critic at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The origins of sagging may be what's motivating Dicks. Long popular with the hip-hop set, sagging is in part a relic of prison culture: inmates sagged because they weren't allowed belts. To some, the style references a gangster lifestyle—a symbol of disrespect for authority. "I don't understand why parents let their kids out of their sight like that," said 81-year-old Minnie Boyd (no relation to Todd Boyd), shaking her head as she exited a Flint hair salon. "Who in the world wants to see a butt in public?"

But sagging's origins came partly out of practicality, too. In the 1980s, long before labels like Sean Jean and Rocawear catered to black men, the jeans of popular designers like Tommy Hilfiger were made too narrow for the black male body, says Professor Boyd of USC. So people started buying jeans two or three sizes too big, and—voila!—a style was born. Even Miguel says his sagging was a product of necessity: his mom couldn't always afford new clothes, so he'd inherit oversize hand-me-downs from his older brother. "Of course they were too big," he says.

Today, Miguel sags because it's "cool, hip"—but insists it's not a commentary on his way of life. "Hip-hop has been around for a long time now, and there are some things about the culture that have just become commonplace," says professor Boyd. "You're not making a big statement by sagging." As Miguel puts it: "It's just a style, man." And hopefully not a criminal offense.