‘There is no justice here’: Racial tensions flare as Blue Island revokes black entrepreneur’s business license

By Ted Slowik Contact Reporter Daily Southtown

Tempers flared and emotions boiled over Tuesday night during a tense exchange over racial and ethnic differences in Blue Island.

Police escorted a man from the city council chamber after an hour-long public comment session that turned raucous at times.

The council, after meeting in executive session for another hour, voted 10-3 to uphold Mayor Domingo Vargas’s revocation of the business license for Island Sports Bar & Grill, 13414 Olde Western Ave.

Chicago civil rights attorney Blake Horwitz said Island Bar owner Adam Shorter would pursue a lawsuit in Cook County to challenge the council’s decision.

On the sidewalk outside City Hall after the decision, 7th Ward Ald. Nancy Thompson sobbed. A supporter consoled Thompson, who is African-American, as cameras from Chicago TV stations recorded her remarks to reporters.

“There is no justice here,” Thompson said. “This is a travesty … I am considering resigning.”

Thompson and Ald. Dexter Johnson, the only other African-American on the panel, and Ald. Nancy Rita voted to reinstate Island Bar’s business license.

Public testimony included supporters of Shorter, who is African-American, saying Island Bar was being singled out for unfair treatment due to the owner’s race. Much like last week, supporters praised the character of Shorter, 39, a Matteson trustee, entrepreneur and assistant director of academic business operations at Loyola University Chicago.

But this week the council heard from neighbors and nearby business owners who said Island Bar patrons created nuisances with late-night noise, littering and illegal parking.

“It’s not like the other places on Olde Western,” said resident Mary Ann Albrecht, 72. “It’s not a quiet business at all. People are tired of garbage being thrown on their lawns. I haven’t had to pick up garbage since the place closed.”

Blue Island provided documents in response to a FOIA request that described the incident. The account was presented as the official record of the incident to city officials reviewing Island Bar’s liquor and business licenses.

“An altercation occurred inside the licensee’s establishment and patrons were removed from the bar by security guards working for licensee’s establishment,” the account states.

Subsequent descriptions in the record identify the two patrons removed as a male and female with the same last name. Police were not immediately called about the altercation. After the pair left the establishment, shots were fired.

“Gunshots were fired by a male patron at approximately 1:28 a.m. who had exited the bar and walked northbound down Olde Western Avenue,” the account states.

The male patron then got into a car that started heading north on Olde Western but turned around and drove south, past the establishment. The female patron was driving, according to the record.

“Armed security guards working at the licensee’s establishment positioned themselves on both sides of Olde Western Avenue awaiting the car as it drove southbound on Olde Western Avenue,” the account states.

Two security guards fired at the vehicle as it passed.

“The rear window of the passing vehicle was shot out and the driver of the car was struck by a bullet,” the account states.

Security guards working at the establishment then picked up shell casings from the street, and no shell casings were turned over to Blue Island police who investigated the shooting, the record states.

A guard who admitted to firing shots at the vehicle lacked required licenses to carry a gun and work as a security guard, the record states.

“Other security guards employed by licensee were not properly licensed under Illinois law to act as security guards or carry handguns,” the record states.

Police were called to the establishment more than 190 times in the past five years, the record states.

“The number of calls for service related to the licensee’s establishment was approximately more than three times the number of calls made for service from any other licensed liquor establishment in Blue Island,” the record states.

The establishment was delinquent in paying its water bills on multiple occasions, according to the record.

A surveillance camera outside the bar and pointed at the entrance recorded footage of the March 31 incident. City Clerk Randy Heuser invited me to watch the video, but said the city could not release a copy until the case was resolved.

I viewed the video Friday. I saw the actions described in the official account. An account of the video was publicly provided Tuesday by Erich Wennberg, 40, owner of the nearby Maple Tree Inn.

Wennberg said he attended five hearings held by Vargas and City Attorney Cay Horvath during April and May on Island Bar’s license to hear firsthand the evidence and testimony provided.

“Shots were fired from both sides of the street,” he said. “It was a planned, strategic, combat scenario.”

Wennberg expressed his opinion that the city was justified in revoking the business license.

“This is a life-safety issue,” he said. “What would have happened if a stray bullet went into a neighboring business?

“By taking the actions they did the security guards took the law into their own hands,” he said. “A business owner is responsible for the actions of employees.”

I counted seven armed police officers Tuesday at City Hall. During public comment, members of the audience interrupted speakers several times. Vargas repeatedly called for order.

An Island Bar supporter challenged something said earlier by a resident. That male resident spoke out from the front row of the audience. Three police officers then escorted him from the room.

Blue Island Police Chief LaSalle King, who is black, took the unusual step of addressing the council during public comment.

“You have made this about race,” he said to Shorter’s supporters. “It’s not about race. Mr. Shorter is a great businessman. This is not about his character.

King described the injuries sustained to the female patron who was struck by a bullet while driving the vehicle.

“A young lady almost lost her life,” he said. “Please remove race from the issue. It’s not about race, it’s about doing what is right.”

Olympia Fields Trustee Cassandra Matz, who is black, said the security guards should be hailed as heroes for preventing the armed patrons from re-entering the establishment. She also challenged the police chief’s appeal to remove race from consideration of the license revocation.

“He does not speak for African-Americans,” Matz said of King. Audience members reacted to her remark with a chorus of boos.

A police report provided in response to a FOIA request identified a security guard from Riverdale as being charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon.

The request sought information about any charges related to the incident. The response seemed to indicate that the male patron who fired the first shot was not charged.

While the council met in executive session, Shorter and his attorney spoke to media outside City Hall.

“I feel like this is a sad day when you get this many people out here fussing and fighting over a simple right to do business,” Shorter said. “The staff was doing nothing but protecting themselves from a patron who wasn’t wanted in the building.”

tslowik@tronc.com

Twitter @tedslowik