Fashion Police | Travel | Chicago Reader

Fashion Police 

Sometimes clothes are gang symbols, and sometimes clothes are just clothes

By Leah Eskin

Police officers, devotees of square-cut polyester blues and those droopy outsize belts, hardly seem qualified for fashion patrol. But 65 miles northwest of Chicago in Harvard, Illinois, where Harmilda the fiberglass Holstein graces the central intersection, cops are licensed to arrest the inappropriately dressed.

Harvard's cutting-edge style statute is one of the first to codify fashion don'ts. The unusual--and as of January, invalid--law makes wearing "known gang colors, emblems or other gang insignia" illegal.

"We want them to get out of gangs or get out of town," says tough-talking mayor William LeFew, who came up with the citywide dress code in 1993. He also wants to protect the good citizens of Harvard from inadvertently making a deadly fashion decision. "I don't know too many people's fashion sense that transcends getting knifed." He's mighty proud of his idea. "It's a proactive approach," he explains.

Proactive, that is, because Harvard has no gang problem. Harvard High School counts fewer than a dozen students who claim to hang with gangs. Collectively they've managed one fistfight. Even police officer Les Lunsmann, whose career is devoted to gangbusting in McHenry County, admits Harvard is pretty much gang-free.

But small-town calm hasn't dampened Harvard's enthusiasm for fighting big-city problems. "Why do you have to have a problem before you pass a law?" asks David Brady, co-owner of Brady Jewelers on Ayer Street. "It's easier to put out a campfire than a forest fire."

Fine logic. Unless, of course, you consider dressing funny your God-given right as an American.

Todd Gaut isn't much of a constitutional scholar. But even two years ago, as a freshman at Harvard High, he knew a thing or two about looking cool. His Duke Blue Devils Starter jacket, a Christmas present from his mom and stepdad, went a long way toward that goal.

In the spring of 1994, while knocking around the mall in Rockford, Gaut took a chance on accessorizing. He spent $3 for a string of beads dangling a six-pointed star. He wore it to school and it scored a rating of "pretty neat." On his way home the cops pinched him.

"He was representing," explains Lunsmann, team leader for the North Central Narcotic Task Force Gang Unit. According to Lunsmann, Gaut admitted he was a member of "the Action Packed Gangster Disciples." Gaut says it ain't so. "There's the Action Packed football cards--I've got those," he offers with a smirk. Indeed, it's hard to imagine Gaut, a soft-spoken kid who then hit neither the five-foot mark nor the 100-pound measure, as a street tough. "If he's a gang member, I'm in the wrong business," says Gaut's equally mild mannered attorney, Charles Weech. "I should be a gang member too." Lunsmann warned Gaut that the black and blue of his Duke jacket suspiciously resembled the black and blue of some street gangs. But he booked Gaut for a different offense: wearing the Star of David.

"I thought this is a stupid reason to get arrested for," says Gaut.

Thinking they could shrug off the incident with a guilty plea and a slap on the wrist, Gaut and his stepdad Joe Gregory showed up for Gaut's court date. "I was like really scared," Gaut says. But associate judge Conrad Floeter wouldn't accept Gaut's plea. He thought it was high time the untested law got "aired out on both sides," so he told the kid to get a lawyer.

Gregory flipped open the yellow pages and found Weech. Though uncomfortable in the crusading role ("I'm no flaming liberal; I'm not a member of the ACLU") and committed to fighting crime ("This law firm is about as much against gangs as anyone"), Weech scrutinized Harvard Ordinance 26.04. It read: "It shall be unllawful [sic] for any person within the City to wear known gang colors, emblems or other gang insignia, or appear to be engaged in communicating gang-related messages through the use of hand signals or other means of communication." The crime was punishable by a $500 fine.

Weech filed a motion to dismiss, claiming the law is unduly vague and unduly broad, violating the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth amendments. Not to mention absurd. Just think:

"Known gang colors" include black and blue, gold and black, red and black, just about the whole color wheel. As Gregory says, "Eventually we're all going to look like the Good Humor Man or risk being arrested."

The Harvard High School colors are gold and black, a bold scheme also favored by the Latin Kings. Does that make every athlete, cheerleader, and fan a scofflaw?

"Gang" covers a lot of territory. "Is not the bar association a gang?" asks Weech. "We have symbols--the scales of justice."

And then there's the sticky issue of the six-pointed star. Apparently the symbol has been usurped by Chicago street gangs in honor of a slain leader named David. It turns up regularly in graffiti around town. But the star has been popular with another gang--Jews--for a few thousand years. Harvard's attempt to criminalize a religious symbol has proved both comic and disturbing.

Some teens in town have reported having to pass a "Jewish test" to get away with wearing the star. Officer Lunsmann, for instance, quizzed Gaut about his religion (he's not Jewish) before arresting him. Police say they suggest that even those who wear the star out of religious conviction desist, for their own safety. "Are we trying to protect someone's rights to get beat up?" asks Lunsmann. "When someone uses a religious symbol to promote organized crime, it should be illegal. It's no longer expression."

The city concurs. "The right to express the gang colors and emblems pales in comparison to the violence that gangs cause in a community," argued city attorney David McArdle. Judge Floeter seemed to buy that line of reasoning. At a bench trial (he denied the motion to dismiss) he found Gaut guilty, placed him under 30 days supervision, and fined him $25 plus court costs. Weech appealed.

"All of these laws are overbroad," says the ACLU's legal director in Chicago, Harvey Grossman. "They are virtually enforceable at the whim of police officers." And in Harvard, with its seasonal flow of migrant workers, the town's 16 full-time and 6 part-time officers seem to apply the law disproportionately to Hispanics. According to statistics compiled by attorney Dan Mengeling, of the 18 individuals charged under Harvard's antigang statute 13 have Hispanic surnames.

Harvard has since retailored its antigang statute, defining gangs and narrowing the offense to wearing gang paraphernalia "for the purpose of promoting any street gang activity."

On January 5 the Illinois appellate court released its decision. Presiding justice Robert McLaren found the original antigang law absurdly broad. "Were a gang (however defined) to adopt red, white, and blue as its colors or the crucifix as a symbol, every school and church would be 'flashing' gang signals," he wrote. In his opinion, McLaren delves into both legal and fashion nuance. "One who wears such clothing may well be attempting to convey an easily understood message. But the message is no more likely to be 'join a gang' than 'Go, Harvard High' or 'Be Like Mike.'" Finding Harvard's innovative ordinance in violation of religious expression and symbolic speech, the court reversed Gaut's conviction and invalidated the law. Weech and others think the amended law will suffer the same fate.

Which, for the moment at least, leaves Harvard at the mercy of anyone who cares to ride into town wearing just about anything.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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