In Chicago, Jesse on the Spot

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When does a nightclub disaster turn into a political controversy? When the city is Chicago and one of the players is Jesse Jackson. The E2 nightclub had long been a scene. Police had been summoned there 80 times in the past two years, and residents of the neighborhood, a few blocks south of downtown, had nothing good to say about the rowdy closing-time crowds. So when 21 young African Americans were killed on Monday in a stampede down the club's narrow front stairwell and the city revealed it had ordered the club closed last summer for safety violations, many Chicagoans expected Jackson to unleash his formidable rhetoric against the club's owners.

But something quite different happened. Standing in front of the club the following day, Jackson cautioned against a "rush to find a culprit" and deflected the focus of attention from the club owner onto the city. "The fact is, safety codes were not enforced, and it's the job of inspectors and officials to do just that," he said. Coming from a civil rights advocate with a long record of giving voice to the voiceless, Jackson's temperate response to the E2 disaster seemed curious, to say the least. The E2 investigation is beginning to show that the fault for the disaster is widespread: overcrowding, obstructed auxiliary exits, a security guard's careless use of choking pepper spray on a packed dance floor to stop a fight. As for the city, it admitted that its enforcement policy had to be fixed. Its inspector visited the nightclub only in the daytime when it was closed, never at night.

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The investigation has also revealed that Jackson is more closely involved with the club than he had disclosed when he spoke in front of E2 last week. In 2002, it turns out, Jackson wrote a letter to the police chief and one to a local alderman on behalf of the club owner, urging that E2 be allowed to remain open despite its transgressions. E2's owner, Dwain Kyles, has been friends with Jackson since Kyles was a child. And Kyles is, like Jackson, a bona fide member of the black political establishment. His father Samuel (Billy) Kyles was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and was with King and Jackson the day King was assassinated. Samuel Kyles later opened a Memphis office of Jackson's Operation PUSH. The younger Kyles served on the successful U.S. House campaign of Jesse Jackson Jr. Kyles' ex-wife worked on Jackson's staff and was once an attorney for musician Stevie Wonder.

Kyles says the city's closing order covered only part of his club; the city says otherwise. Jackson says he was unaware of the order and was simply protecting an important African-American business. Later in the week he arranged for families of the victims to have free funeral services, and he called for an independent investigation into E2.

By week's end, Jackson's role had left bad feelings among some segments of African-American Chicago, precipitating rare open criticism of the civil rights leader. Alderman Madeline Haithcock said Jackson was "with the victims one minute, holding prayer vigils" and "with his friends the next," and Pastor Lance Davis of the J. Claude Allen CME church called Jackson's actions "disingenuous." He wants an investigation too — into Jackson.