The travesty of E2 continues

November 28, 2011

The man on the phone on Friday was livid. “Those people at E2 weren’t the victims of an accident,” he said. “They were murdered!”

Nine days after an Illinois appellate court overturned the only criminal convictions resulting from the 2003 stampede that killed 21 people at the E2 nightclub, and eight days after the attorneys for club owners Dwain Kyles and Calvin Hollins Jr. held a press conference to trumpet that ruling and implausibly shift the blame for those deaths to city emergency workers who they claim didn’t act quickly enough to save lives on that dreadful night, the owner of one of the best-run and most respected live music venues in the city barely could contain his emotions. “They were murdered,” he said again, “and everybody is getting away with it!”

The tragedy of E2, one of the deadliest nightclub incidents in this country’s history, is rooted in a travesty of justice that starts long before that night and continues to this day, with much of the media coverage only contributing to the enduring cloud of confusion.

As the caller noted, the rare exception was an editorial in Friday’s Tribune, buried deep amid the Black Friday advertising, that eloquently pointed out that no one—not the courts, not city government, not any outside advocacy group or independent investigator—ever has conducted an in-depth study of that night and what led up to it, a problem that the Trib summed up thusly:

“It is frustrating that after so many years, so much remains unanswered. Until and unless court proceedings determine those answers, we’ll stand by a point we first advanced back in March 2003: Those who respond to tragedy with spin risk more than having to eat crow. They risk defiling the 21 E2 victims who cannot help reconstruct the truth, but who surely would want it aggressively uncovered—and honestly told.” (Italics in the original.)

As perhaps is inevitable, many facts in the case are disputed, but it’s generally agreed that the trouble started early on the morning of Feb. 17, 2003, when security at the South Loop club unwisely used pepper spray to break up a fight. The fumes caused panic, and a rush toward the one known exit, but the steep stairwell leading to that door quickly clogged with an over-capacity crowd of 1,500 trying to escape.  The resulting crush left 12 women and 9 men between the ages of 21 and 43 dead from what the autopsies called “compressional asphyxiation.”

In November 2009, club owners Kyles and Hollins were acquitted on charges of involuntary manslaughter but convicted of indirect criminal contempt and sentenced to two years in prison for violating an order from the city building court to close the second floor of the club—an order that, if heeded, would have prevented the deaths. That’s the conviction that was overturned almost exactly two years later.

If you listen to the owners’ lawyers—new legal partners Victor Henderson, former president of the Chicago Bar Association, and Sam Adam Jr., the man whose histrionics helped acquit R. Kelly and get a hung jury for Rod Blagojevich (the first time, until the former governor ran out of money)—Calvin and Dwain were innocent scapegoats for a city that desperately needed to blame someone, anyone, in the wake of that awful night. They now intend to file a civil suit against the city for “conspiracy, malicious prosecution, and coercion.”

“We are disappointed with the court’s decision,” the city’s law department shot back. “In our view, respondents violated a clear and mandatory court order, and but for that violation no one would have died or been injured at their club that night. We are continuing to review the court’s opinion to determine whether to seek further review.”

A fine point that much of the media coverage has missed is that none of the judges in this case ever have said that the club should not have been shut down, just that the wording of the order to do so had been unclear. In fact, it was written by a mere law clerk, as a former member of the city’s law department told WBEZ’s 848.

Although Chicago is famous as a city of bars, municipal government under the Daley administration never was kind to live music venues or dance clubs. The man on the phone on Friday could tell you that, and so could two dozen other club owners interviewed by this reporter over the years.

A chance inspection by the building department, a visit from the fire department on a night when the club was a few heads over legal capacity, too many calls to the police in too short a time, too many noise complaints from neighbors to the alderman, or the discovery that a bartender or doorman slipped up and served or admitted a minor—all of these sins and countless others were enough to shutter a venue temporarily, while hefty fines and costly adjustments were demanded, or permanently, if too many of these slip-ups combined in a perfect storm.

In the two years before the deaths at E2, Chicago police were called to the club 80 times, as Time and other news outlets reported. Numerous charges of overcrowding, unsafe conditions, and illegally serving minors were made to city agencies. Countless neighbors complained to city officials and were ignored. Questions were raised about the liquor license, since one of the owners, Hollins, was a convicted felon. And Marco Flores, the independent promoter whose Ladies’ Night party was the entertainment at E2 on that lethal evening, had pinged safety officials’ radar because of violence at other events he ran at other clubs.

Why was E2 still open? Try that despicable, unjust, but never-ending answer: the Chicago way.

The club owners now claiming to have been scapegoated benefited for years from serious clout and political connections. The Tribune described Kyles as the son of a renowned pastor and founder of Operation PUSH who became a “lifelong friend” of Rev. Jesse Jackson and his son, Jesse Jackson Jr., as well as U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush. A former lawyer for the city, the Georgetown-educated Kyles frequently made Epitome, the restaurant located downstairs from the dance club, available for political fundraisers, including an event by then-Senator Barack Obama. In short, E2 was open despite a bevy of reasons for it to have been closed because E2’s primary owner had friends in high places.

Ironically, in the days after E2, a Daley administration eager to save face and obsessed with prospective tourist dollars began a brutal crackdown on all music venues throughout the city, with no regard for the distinctions between a dance club and a live music venue, or a dicey place that had been subject to complaints versus a licensed club with a spotless record.

Teams of building, safety, police, and fire inspectors were dispatched like squads of storm troopers, shows were stopped mid-song as hefty fines were levied for the smallest infractions, new licenses or renewals were denied, and a measure of sanity and equilibrium didn’t return until more than two years later… or longer, if you consider the ill-conceived promoters ordinance an outgrowth of all of this. (Introduced in 2008, that law essentially was defeated a year and a half later, when the city’s diverse and usually competitive music community finally united and rose up as an organized entity whose political and economic power at last registered with elected officials.)

Now, amazingly, not content with their acquittal, the owners of E2 would like to blame the city for those deaths—but not the officials who didn’t act to shut the club. Here’s Friday’s Tribune editorial again:

“U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, who served as a character witness for Kyles, said after his conviction in 2009 that, ‘Rather than calling for rescue personnel, the city called for riot personnel. Something’s wrong with that.’ The suggestion is that because E2 was frequented chiefly by African-Americans, perhaps emergency personnel thought this incident merely involved some black people misbehaving.

“We’ve called that innuendo an insult to those 288 cops, firefighters and paramedics, many of them African-Americans, who converged on E2.”

The editorial continues and examines some of the evidence that “at the very least calls the accusations of rescuer malpractice into question.” Meanwhile, as the man on the phone on Friday said, someone has gotten away with murder. He was livid, and the rest of Chicago should be, too.