Politics & Policy

Jesse’s Twirl

Jackson's usual MO in Chicago.

Mean-spirited cynics (like, well, me) heard the news that 21 people died in the stampede at a black nightclub in Chicago, and thought, “Jesse Jackson is going to take advantage of this somehow.”

It took about 2.8 seconds for Jesse to make the scene, inviting survivors and the families of victims to show up at Rainbow/PUSH headquarters to grieve. And now he’s conspiring with Johnnie Cochran to sue the city and the nightclub’s owner, Dwain J. Kyles, in connection with the disaster. A real defender of the people, that Jesse.

Well. You find once you spend much time perusing the details of Revvum Jackson’s affairs that the cynical approach is simply realism. The cynic was not surprised, then, to discover that Jesse’s outreach to the families of the dead was nothing more than an exercise in C.Y.A. We now know that in the recent past, Jackson and other black ministers and politicians lobbied the mayor and police officials on behalf of the club, on the grounds that its owner was the victim of a racist “witch hunt.”

According to newspaper accounts, club owner Kyles, who had piled up numerous building code violations, and was at the time of the stampede defying a court order barring entry to the club’s second floor, is a close friend of Jackson’s. Jackson has known the Kyles family for decades. Dwain Kyles’s father, the Rev. Samuel B. Kyles, was a cofounder of Operation PUSH, Jackson’s Chicago-based organization. Last April, Jackson wrote to city officials praising the Kyleses for their involvement in civil rights, and called the club “an example of the best that our business community has to offer.”

The New York Times reported Wednesday that several black Chicago ministers said they were told by Jackson’s people to rally behind the club, to hold functions there and take business there as a way to support the establishment in the face of racist harassment by city inspectors. “There was a move to close ranks around this business,” one pastor told the Times. “There were people who felt, including myself, that maybe the city was on a witch hunt to close black businesses.”

Now that Jesse’s Very Good Friend, on whose behalf he played the race card, is certain to face criminal charges and civil lawsuits in connection with the deaths of 21 black Chicagoans, Jesse is desperately trying to change the subject. This lawsuit he’s trying to gin up with Cochran is an act of chutzpah reminiscent of the legendary man who murders his parents then throws himself on the mercy of the court, claiming he’s an orphan.

Longtime Jesse observers know that this isn’t the first time Reverend’s private lobbying for friends and financial backers has been at odds with his image as the best friend of the black community. Let us consider a small but representative sampling of the ways:

Jackson, whose attempt to boycott Anheuser-Busch failed in 1982, was invoked by black employees of a company beer distributorship in Chicago, who believed they were being discriminated against. In what many observers saw as a blatant (and successful) attempt to buy racial peace from Jackson, Anheuser-Busch awarded the lucrative distributorship (with revenues of between $30 million and $40 million a year) to Jackson’s sons.

With his friend Bill Kennard running the Clinton-era Federal Communications Commission, Jackson publicly opposed a number of high-stakes telecom mergers on moral and racial justice grounds. But when these companies doled out huge sums to Jackson’s organization, and started doing business with corporate insiders tied to the Jackson family, Jackson gave approval to the deals, which were subsequently approved by the FCC.

In 1998, Jackson came out against the proposed Citibank-Travelers merger, again on grounds that it was bad for the black community. Suddenly, Travelers chief Sanford Weill became Jackson’s best friend, opening his pocketbook and making his private jet available to the pastor. Suddenly, Jackson was singing a new tune, coming out in favor of repealing legislation prohibiting banks and insurance companies from merging. Some black community activists felt this damaged the Community Reinvestment Act. As one black businessman told The New Republic, “It took a little while for [people] to realize that Jackson was really working for Weill and not [for] them.”

In the 1980s, Jackson geared up to attack Coca-Cola for doing business in South Africa. Coke responded quickly by awarding distributorships to blacks. The first to receive a Coke franchise was Jesse’s half brother, Noah Robinson. Also in line: Cecil Troy, an Operation PUSH funder. Robinson got on the Jackson family gravy train a year later when Jesse negotiated a similar deal with Kentucky Fried Chicken. As Kenneth Timmerman reported in his 2001 book Shakedown, Robinson once said, “I told Jesse, ‘If you just do the talking for us — and I handle the financial operations — we can rival the Rockefellers in riches.’”

Wall Street securities broker Harold Doley Jr., one of the wealthiest black men in the country, was an early backer of Jackson’s Wall Street Project, but bailed out when he became concerned that Jackson’s initiative was really just a racketeering scheme designed to enrich Jackson’s friends, cronies and contributors. In the fall of 2001, a disgusted Doley told me, “He’s using African Americans to enrich himself.”

Some things never change. It’s hard to see how Jackson can make money off the stampede tragedy, but he is still using African Americans to get the heat off himself. If what has been reported so far stands up to scrutiny, Jackson used his influence to rally Chicago black community leaders, urging them to mau-mau city inspectors into taking it easy on his friend Dwain Kyles, who had been found to be running a dangerous business. Now this same Dwain Kyles’s negligence, and flouting of city orders, appears responsible for the deaths of 21 black men and women. If Jesse Jackson, who is a powerful political figure in Chicago, hadn’t pushed for the city to give Kyles a break, it is possible that those people would be alive today. In an attempt to distract people from that rather inconvenient fact, Jackson is now positioning himself as an advocate for the interests of those crushed or stomped to death in Kyles’s nightclub. What will it take for ordinary African Americans to see what became clear to Harold Doley years ago: that Jesse Jackson is no friend of theirs?


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