Some of Chicago's most prominent black leaders today urged city officials not to rush to judgment and unfairly punish the owners of the E2 nightclub, which had been cited for code violations in the weeks before 21 people were killed there in a stampede when club-goers fled a fight early Sunday.
The black leaders include Jesse L. Jackson and two members of Congress. They are supporting club owner Dwain Kyles, himself an activist in Chicago's African American community and a Georgetown University-trained lawyer whose father was prominent in the civil rights movement and a founding member of Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
"He is just devastated," Rep. Danny Davis, whose legislative district includes the nightclub, said today of Kyles. "He never would have wanted to hurt anybody."
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), in a prepared statement, called Kyles a childhood friend who has been "an upstanding example of a professional young person."
City officials are seeking criminal contempt charges against the owners for operating the club despite a court order closing it because of the code violations. This week the city has mourned the deaths of the 21 people, who ranged in age from 19 to 43.
Jackson and other black leaders have also mourned the dead. But their willingness to defend Kyles is representative of the fact that E2, with its sister restaurant, Epitome, was not a run-of-the-mill place.
Many prominent black politicians, including former senator Carol Moseley-Braun, who announced a presidential bid this week, had held fundraisers there. Last April, the elder Jackson wrote to local politician Madeline Haithcock to request more police patrols and asked her to steer business toward the club because it "is one of the fine dining establishments in Chicago owned and operated by African Americans."
And as this week's statements of support have shown, many are unwilling to immediately cast aside a prominent black business -- in a city that is 37 percent black -- before all the facts are in. "To the extent that negligence existed, and all of those things, appropriate punishment, appropriate findings should occur," Davis said. "But I would hope that in the process of sorting this out -- 21 lives have already been destroyed -- we don't destroy many more in the process."
The allegations continued today. Mara Georges, the city's chief attorney, said the city intends to revoke the club's and restaurant's liquor licenses and shut them down permanently. Attorneys for the club agreed that it would remain closed during the investigation. But city officials are also seeking jail time for Kyles and his partner, Calvin Hollins, for disobeying a court order that was supposed to have shuttered the nightclub in July for a series of code infractions.
"What caused the deaths was the reckless conduct by the security guards who sprayed a crowd with mace and caused the panic . . . and the fact that there was disregard of a court order," Georges said.
But Georges has also acknowledged that the city did not ensure that the club was closed down after the initial order. Police Chief Terry G. Hillard said his department had responded to 80 disturbances at the club since 2000 and was not aware until after Sunday's tragedy that it should not have been operating.
Still, many people, including Mayor Richard M. Daley and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), said this week that blame lies with the owners. Georges has singled out Hollins for particular attention as a reason to revoke the business's liquor license. A former Cook County deputy sheriff and entrepreneur, Hollins served time in prison for manslaughter before winning clemency in 1991 from then-Gov. Jim Edgar. Felons are not allowed to own a liquor license.
Over the past few days, there has been a back and forth between attorneys for the owners, and a promoter who sponsored Sunday's party, about who was in charge of the security personnel who sprayed the mace that led to the panic.
Kyles visited the club today for the first time since the incident. And as he did after a court hearing Tuesday, he told reporters, "I cannot express in words the sorrow that I feel for these families." His attorneys continue to insist that based on their reading of the court order, they had a right to use the second floor, just not a separate VIP section.