It was pretty much guaranteed that Dwaine Caraway's "Saggin' Pants Forum," held Saturday in City Hall chambers, was going to be weird. This was, after all, almost a full afternoon devoted to the City Council member and former mayor's ongoing crusade against men who don't belt their pants at the waist. What more is there to say? What other weapons does Caraway have in his anti-sagging arsenal? How many times can he show that Dooney Da Priest music video?
But Caraway managed to pack the house, filling almost every chair with young families, church groups and a fair number of high school students. And some interesting conversations took place between Caraway, his anti-sagging panelists and the audience: How should young black men dress in a world that's often hostile to them? How do parents guarantee that their kids grow up to be productive and self-respecting? What do teens owe to their elders, in terms of the way that they dress, speak and express themselves?
In the midst of all that, though, there was a lot of ridiculousness. A teenage girl left in tears after a panelist yelled at her about her sagging boyfriend. And several of the panelists as well as the MC, Heaven 97 host Robert Ashley, displayed an unfortunate amount of casual homophobia.
"Sagging is nasty," one young panelist opined at one point, as the adults around her nodded approvingly. "Because it means you're open to other men."
A pastor kicked things off around 12:30, as the overhead lights dimmed and hip-hop blasted from the speakers. A DJ was set up near the microphone where public speakers usually stand. Ashley took the stage.
"We want you to look presidential," he explained to the younger audience members. "We don't want to step on your creativity. But we want you to be productive men and women, not just useless eaters."
"You are the torch-bearers of tomorrow," Caraway added a moment later. "What you do, the decisions you make today, will affect those coming behind you."
Caraway and his supporters obviously have a "broken windows" theory of sagging. That is, they think it's both a symbol of very bad things and a pathway to more serious criminal activity. For Caraway, too, it contributes to young men being profiled by police and society at large.
"You don't want to be part of something that gives the wrong perception of who you are," he said. But, he added, he really doesn't want to make a city ordinance against sagging, as other cities have done.
"I don't want want any of you to have to come in contact with these guys and ladies in the blue unnecessarily," he said, nodding at the half-dozen police officers and security guards who stood to one side of the horseshoe.
"It's a prison culture," said Dooney Da Priest, the anti-sagging rapper. "You're telling society, either I just come out of prison or I'm heading to prison."
As the speakers wound on, ushers distributed anti-sagging pledges through the audience. Those who took the pledge promised, among other things, to "choose modes of appearance that are acceptable," to "strive to be a person of high moral character," and "care for and respect others; especially Women." An elderly usher stood in the aisle, making furious scribbling motions at some young men near me. They all obediently signed the pledges and handed them back to him.
Meanwhile, Caraway reminisced about his anti-sagging appearance on Dr. Phil . "The Yin Yang Twins were for sagging," he said. Not long after, one of them was stopped and found with marijuana.
"He's got a case now. For drugs," Caraway said, with no small amount of satisfaction.
That was too much for Jeremiah Garcia, a 27-year-old audience member who got up a few minutes later, when Caraway asked for audience members to share their thoughts. He said he's a father, a husband, a college graduate, and the host of a YouTube show called "Mind Control."
"I support sagging," he told the audience. "I personally sag in my daily life. This is not a problem. The Yin Yang Twins and Lil Wayne sag -- as far as I can tell, they're more successful than anyone in this room. Don't listen to anyone here trying to control your mind. This is divisive." He paused as a group of teenagers hooted and applauded. "This is about one man's ego. This is all about putting on a big show for Dwaine Caraway."
"Uh-oh," the crowd seemed to mutter, almost in unison. Caraway watched Garcia with his arms folded.
"I want you to come down to my office," he told the younger man. "Actually, come down to the panel. Sit in my seat." Caraway put Garcia rather forcefully in his own seat at the horseshoe, then turned to the crowd.
"Any time you are trying to empower and educate, always look for somebody somewhere to come along and try to tear that down," he declared, to applause. "Where do you stay?" he asked Garcia.
"The Mockingbird area," Garcia replied.
"Up in the north?" Caraway said sarcastically. "I understand."
That was the start of a long, angry, chaotic back-and-forth between the audience and various panelists. A few minutes later, a representative from the anti-sagging organization Man Up told Garcia angrily, "For you, it's just a matter of fashion. For us, it's a matter of principle. We marched so we could get rights you already had. I'm not getting racial, but it is racial."
Other speakers added that sagging symbolizes a lack of self-respect, a lack of deference for one's elders and women, and even represents "a decline in America spiritually and when it comes to morals," according to one woman, who said she was a mother of three.
It's also, apparently, a gay thing, according to Heaven 97's Robert Ashley. "In particular now, we have a lot of our lesbian sisters sagging like men," he said. A panelist, a young woman from Carter High School, added, "That's because they basically want to be a dude." When another audience member said sagging was "just a style," another young male panelist replied, "Not to be racist or nothin', but being gay is a style too, and I'm not gonna be gay."
A few minutes later, a male audience member volunteered that he'd just gotten done with a long prison bid. Contrary to the popular belief that sagging originated in prison, he says, men there don't sag their pants, for good reason. "Guys in prison will masturbate on these [sagging] dudes, and they won't even know," he declared.
"So in prison, sagging is saying you're a punk?" Ashley asked with interest. "That you're a homosexual? What about AIDS? We hear in prison that there's a lot of male-on-male sex, and that's just an incubator for AIDS."
The guy who'd just gotten out of prison looked at him uncertainly. "That's true?" he said. It was halfway between a question and a statement.
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Things didn't improve much from there.
"It's just a swag," a female Skyline High School student protested at one point, saying that her boyfriend sags his pants but still respects her. "What's the big deal?"
"When somebody takes your man, don't feel bad," replied a panelist named Ana Marie, a woman in her 30s. "Don't feel bad, but he'll respect her more than he respects you." The girl left the room in tears.
"It doesn't make sense to put a target on your back," Caraway summed up, as the event reached the four-hour mark. (I admittedly tapped out at four hours and 15 minutes; for all I know, they're still there now.) "You already got a target when you come out of your mother's womb as an African-American. I'm not trying to tell you what to do. I'm just trying to tell you what's going to hold you back."