In 1991, a chicken plant fire in North Carolina killed 25. At that time, Rev. Jesse Jackson was harshly critical of the plant owners, citing unsafe conditions such as blocked doors. In the wake of the Chicago nightclub tragedy, Jackson has vigorously defended the club’s owners, despite overwhelming evidence of numerous safety violations. Why the change of tune?
Twenty-one people were asphyxiated, trampled, or crushed to death at Chicago’s E2 club during the early morning hours of February 17. Security guards broke up a brawl by using pepper spray, causing the crowd to surge toward the second floor’s single exit, a steep, narrow staircase. One patron said she had never before seen that many people in the club, and that it was so crowded she could not even dance.
Two months prior, a Jackson critic named Derrick Mosley, who is Founder and President of a community group called Bringing About Reform (BAR), warned of just such a tragedy. He had received calls by women complaining of severe overcrowding at the club, and of management allowing people to enter despite this. “I wrote a letter to owner Dwain Kyles telling them it’s their duty to look after the well-being of their customers, cautioning them about potentially catastrophic results if the problem is unaddressed,” said Mosley. “I never got a response — even after calling and leaving detailed messages.”
Chicago officialdom was also aware of problems with the club. In April 2002, a city complaint listed 11 building-code violations, ranging from failure to provide enough exits, to failure to submit architectural plans and engineering reports. Three months later, a Cook County circuit court barred the owners from occupying the second floor — where the nightclub was located — because of the violations. The owners flouted the order. Fire Commissioner James Joyce said at a news conference, “Management was well aware and has chosen to ignore the court order.”
For seven months, the owners openly defied the law. Why did the city government not close down the club? Pressure from Jesse Jackson may be one explanation. In a letter to city officials, Jackson emphasized the importance of the nightclub to the African-American community. Styled as an appeal to the city to provide more police protection to the club, it also no doubt served to subtly send the message that any attempt to close down the club would not sit well with Jackson.
Jackson was not alone. The Rev. Bamani Obadele, a Chicago community activist, acknowledged that he took part in lobbying to keep the club open. But after the tragedy, he openly expressed doubts about his earlier actions. Not Jesse Jackson. Jackson said he had no regrets, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Outside the club on the morning after the tragedy, Jackson told Mosley and others not to avail themselves to the investigation of the incident. Later that morning at a prayer vigil and press conference at the headquarters of Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Mosley brought copies of his letter, but Jackson told him to put them away. “I thought we were going to discuss the tragedy. But as a matter of fact, it was more of a support to the owners.” Mosley said. “He even pointed out that the owners were victims too. I was shocked at Rev. Jackson.”
It soon became painfully obvious to Mosley why Jackson so vigorously defended the owners. Jackson is a long-time friend of club co-owner Dwain Kyles, as well as his father, Rev. Billy Kyles. Dwain Kyles is also an active supporter of Rainbow/PUSH. “My contention is that Rev. Jackson is indirectly responsible” for the tragedy, Mosley told my researcher in an interview. “And I base that on the fact that the city was pushing to close the club down. Rev. Jackson used his influence and clout to keep the club open.”
Jackson is calling for an independent investigation into the incident, but he’s blaming the city for not enforcing the club’s safety standards. Perhaps he seeks to distract attention from his own culpability. Emmett Roe, owner of the North Carolina chicken plant, got 20 years in jail and served four of them. It will be interesting to see what penalties are proposed for the E2 owners. Whatever they are, expect Jesse Jackson’s inevitable charge of “racism.”
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