Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza has axed the controversial winning design for the 2012-13 city sticker, saying it could be “misconstrued” as including gang signs.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Mendoza said the move was “heartbreaking” because the 15-year-old boy who designed the sticker and who would have seen his work on every windshield in the city seemed to be using his artistic talent to turn his troubled life around.
But, she said, “I cannot ask drivers to put a sticker on their cars that may be misconstrued as containing gang symbols. Communities suffer as a result of gang violence.”
Mendoza’s decision came just a day after allegations surfaced on a blog popular with Chicago cops that Lawrence Hall Youth Services student Herbie Pulgar’s winning sticker design contained elements paying tribute to the Maniac Latin Disciples – the street gang police Supt. Garry McCarthy vowed to “obliterate” last summer.
Pulgar’s mother emotionally denied that “mean and cruel” allegation Wednesday, saying former Supt. Jody Weis and other critics who saw similarities between her son’s design and the MLD symbols were “haters” who had devastated her special-needs son.
And in a tearful interview with WGN-TV, the teen sobbed as he also denied being in a gang and said, “Now other gang members think that I’m a gang member and my life is in jeopardy.”
He said that the picture honored police firefighters and paramedics and had “nothing to do with no gangs.” The artwork was his attempt to show his mom that “I can do good in school and do what I can,” he added.
But speaking at the news conference with Mendoza, Weis – now president of Chicago Crime Commission – stood before an over-sized copy of Pulgar’s design and pointed out similarities to gang symbols of the Maniac Latin Disciples.
“You’re fighting a battle of perception – not so much intent,” Weis said, rejecting calls for an apology from Pulgar’s family. “We’ll never know what was in this young man’s heart. But with the challenges we face, we can’t have a sticker that’s gonna be on police cars that could be interpreted as supporting gangs.”
“When you look at this particular gang, you will see their main emblem is a heart. Another symbol of this particular gang are horns.
“When you add that all together, we cannot have a sticker that one person in this city can interpret as somehow recognizing a gang when over 67 percent of the homicides in this city were somehow, some way attributed to gangs.”
A picture that was on Pulgar’s Facebook until Tuesday night showed youths making what appeared to be the “pitchfork” hand sign of the MLDs, which Pulgar allegedly recreated on the sticker design. One commenter on the Facebook picture wrote “what r u doing throwing up the fork ha what are u a gangbanger.”
But Pulgar’s teachers and a lawyer representing his family, Blake Horwitz, reacted angrily to Mendoza’s decision to replace Pulgar’s design with the second-place entry, a picture of three first-responders wearing superman-style capes drawn by Resurrection High School senior Caitlin Henehan. The decision was based on “ill-informed speculation,” Horwitz said.
Pulgar’s mother, Jessica Loor, had earlier urged Mendoza to stick with her son’s design, saying the idea for the heart was hers, “to show love to our Chicago heroes.”
And Pulgar’s art teacher, Janice Gould, said the hands on Pulgar’s design were copied directly from a handout she had provided to him and had nothing to do with gang signs. She provided a copy of the handout, which showed hands almost identical to the ones Pulgar drew.
Loor said that anyone who claims they can see gang signs in her son’s picture is unfairly mixing images from his Facebook with his sticker design and imagining things, “like looking up at a cloud and seeing a butterfly.”
She said her son is suffering anxiety attacks and that he told her, “ ‘I tried to do something positive to turn my life around and it’s like everybody’s knocking me down.’”
Mendoza said she hasn’t yet decided whether Pulgar will have to return the $1,000 savings bond he won when a majority of online voters selected his design from 10 finalists displayed at suntimes.com.
But she said that “a lot of tears were shed” in her office before the decision was made, in part, because it meant so much to “Herbie.”
The clerk said she has been in touch with Pulgar’s school and hopes to have a “heart-to-heart” with him when he’s ready.
“This is a kid. I feel horrible about how this may greatly impact his life,” she said.
“Many of you heard him the other day talk [and say] that this was the best thing that ever happened to him. I would hate to see this send him in a direction that is not healthy for him.”