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‘I’m not trying to be racist’: Restaurant manager fired after swinging chair at black teen

A manager at Poke Poke restaurant in Chicago has been suspended for allegedly attacking a customer based on race. (Video: Facebook/ Ja’mal D Green)
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John “Kyle” Johnson wasn’t initially planning on entering the Poke Poke restaurant in downtown Chicago, but walked inside when someone waved to him through the window.

When the black 18-year-old entered the Wabash Avenue restaurant on Jan. 2 with two of his friends, however, he was met with a much less welcoming surprise.

“I’ll kick your a--,” the restaurant’s manager, Matthew Fezzey, yelled toward him, according to Johnson. “This is my place of business."

Moments later, Fezzey swung a chair at him, Johnson said, hitting his arm with such force that the teen suffered injuries. Johnson then called the police and began filming the encounter.

“I was super shocked, I was scared, thinking: ‘Is this is really happening right now?’ Johnson told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “I looked into his eyes, and they were super furious.”

In the video, Fezzey never denies the allegations that he hit Johnson with a chair. Instead, he repeatedly acknowledges he was “in the wrong” and says the reaction was his “first instinct” after previous encounters with black men at the restaurant.

"Two days ago — and I’m not trying to be racist — two black guys robbed two people right here,” Fezzey explains to Johnson in the video, using numerous expletives in his response.

“But sir, you threw a chair at me,” Johnson responds. “I’m not those guys.”

“Listen, three days ago, before that, I had two more black guys. I actually fought them in here,” Fezzey replied. “They tried threatening one of my employees, and I had to fight them … when you guys came in here, I just got really … defensive, really defensive, because I had to fight them off all the time. These security guards over here don’t do a … thing.”

The video was posted to Facebook last week and has amassed more than 20,000 views. Chicago Police said in an email Wednesday that the manager claimed Johnson clenched his fists, and behaved in a way that made him “believe he was going to receive battery.” Moreover, police say, Johnson told two other people in the restaurant that “he had something in his backpack that would end them.”

Johnson denies those allegations.

Fezzey did not respond to an email requesting comment Tuesday. On Thursday, the restaurant said in a statement that it fired Fezzey, and again apologized to Johnson.

“No one should be treated the way he was,” the company said.

Poke Poke had suspended Fezzey after the incident, saying in a previous statement that “our manager reacted to the situation was absolutely unacceptable and against what we stand for.”

The manager’s claim of previous attacks by black men could not be confirmed, and a spokesperson for Poke Poke Wednesday said they had not been notified about the alleged attacks and robberies.

The spokesperson said the restaurant feels “really really sorry for what happened” and will train future managers in how to better de-escalate conflicts. The restaurant is still trying to gather details about what took place, they added.

“Racial profiling is wrong and should not be happening to anyone,” the spokesperson said. “People should be treated with compassion and kindness.”

No charges have been filed in the case. Johnson’s attorney, Anish Parikh, told The Post that his client plans to take legal action and that the restaurant’s statement supports the teen’s assertion that he was an innocent victim.

Parikh added that Fezzey should have been terminated, and that his suspension “speaks volumes about their business and the people who run it.”

“This type of behavior, in our opinion, warrants a termination,” he said.

Johnson, a senior at Innovations High School in Chicago, aspires to be a social worker. He said “meditation and prayer” were among the reasons he was able to stay calm throughout the ordeal. The teen received X-rays after the attack. He said the incident has taken a psychological toll as well.

He hopes shedding light on the situation will help facilitate change.

“In any situation where someone would throw a chair at you, it makes you feel like you can’t do anything,” Johnson said, adding that Fezzey was larger than him. “My state of mind was literally, ‘God help me,' and I just remained calm.”

The teen said he felt “voiceless” when Fezzey threatened to call the police.

“He was screaming at me, saying he was gonna call the cops . . . I was thinking, ‘Why would you call the cops on me when I didn’t do anything wrong?’" Johnson said. “When the police get here, am I going to be held accountable for something I didn’t do?”

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