"Someone Wants Us Out" | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

"Someone Wants Us Out" 

It may look like harassment, but the police say their constant presence at a low-key coffeehouse is just plain old law enforcement.

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By Ben Joravsky

Kelly Richardson and Bobbie Johnson run a good, clean coffeehouse. The two friends don't serve alcohol, so they don't draw a rowdy crowd. There's never been a drug bust. The main entertainment is poetry readings. Occasionally they rent the place out for a private party, where the music is moderately amplified jazz.

The Some Like It Black Coffee Club and Gallery--a restaurant, juice bar, art gallery, and performance space--has plenty of fans and plenty of newspaper write-ups praising it. "You'd think we'd get along with the city," says Richardson. "We get along with everyone else."

Instead, the city seems determined to close them down. Richardson says the police have raided the club at least a dozen times in the last year. "They come in looking for our business license," she says. "I tell them, 'You saw it last week. Why do you want to see it again?' And it's not just one or two police, but ten or twelve with paddy wagons. I can't figure it out. You'd think they'd have better things to do with their time."

Last month the crackdown resulted in two arrests. "They took in my 18-year-old son, Coby, and they arrested Bobbie," says Richardson. "This is almost comical. I'd be laughing if it wasn't threatening to run us out of business."

The irony is that a dozen years ago the city would probably have hailed them as pioneers or saviors. That's because they're located at 1904 S. Michigan Ave., in an area that used to be scarred by abandoned buildings and vacant lots. By the time they opened their coffeehouse on April 1, 1999, the area was already on the upswing because of new upscale housing developments to the north, south, and west. "We figured to fit right in," says Richardson, a renowned jazz and nightclub singer. "We have art. It's a place with homelike feel. You can talk. We get people from all over the area, white and black people--it's very multi-cultural. No one's going to hassle you."

To help make ends meet, they began offering memberships. "You could get in without a membership, but being a member got you certain benefits, like using the space for your benefits," says Richardson. "It was a way to subsidize the place. Our rent is pretty high--$2,600 a month. To offset our costs, we also wanted to charge admission at the door."

Charging admission requires a special-use permit from the city, something called a public place of amusement license, or a PPA. And Richardson says that from the start, the city treated their request for such a license with cold bureaucratic indifference. "The city said it costs $500 for that license, so I paid that money. Then I got called downtown for a hearing, and they said, 'You can't get this license because you need a parking lot if you're going to charge admission.' I said, 'I don't have a parking lot.' They said, 'You need to find one that's within 500 feet of your business, and you have to have a five-year lease.'"

It was a catch-22. She couldn't get a license without a five-year lease, but she couldn't find anyone willing to rent her a parking lot for more than a year. So she called her alderman, Madeline Haithcock, looking for advice. "I asked if they could just waive the parking requirement or get me a variance," says Richardson. "I spoke to an aide who said they can't do that. So I called the city's Department of Revenue. And they said, talk to your alderman--she can help you, she can get that done. It went back and forth like that. So I just gave up and asked for my $500. The Revenue Department said, 'You didn't pay.' I said, 'What do you mean I didn't pay? I have the receipt.' They said, 'It's not in our computer.' They told me that if I wanted to get my money back I'd have to talk to my alderman. I said, 'Oh my god, give me a break.' It's such a headache to have a club. It couldn't get any worse."

She was wrong. In June of last year, a few weeks after the back-and-forth over the license, the police came calling. "They came in and said, 'Can we see your license?'" says Richardson. "I showed them our restaurant license and our limited-business license." A few days later the police returned. "It was different policemen. I told them, 'I've already been through this.' They said, 'We're rechecking.'"

And they kept on rechecking. Richardson says they came so many times she lost count. "Sometimes it was the same cops, sometimes it was different cops--they were coming in once a week," she says. "I would ask, 'Why do you have to keep checking my license?' And they would say, 'We can check your license anytime we want.' That's no answer. I know they can claim the right to check. I want to know why they would want to claim it. I mean, nothing has changed since the last time they came. It's not like my license suddenly expired."

By her count, she's been issued at least five tickets for a variety of offenses, including making too much noise and not having the right license. "One officer wrote me up for having a band play," she says. "That's not even an offense. I went to court--which is really just an administrative hearing--and the hearing officer threw it out. They threw most of the tickets out. But each time I had to drop what I was doing and go downtown. It's just another way of harassing me." She adds, "Most of the police were white. One or two were black or Hispanic. I noticed that when it came to writing tickets they always had the minority officer write them. I guess that's because they wanted a minority officer showing up in court when I made an appearance. That way they could act like it's not about race."

On March 7, Mary Mitchell wrote a Sun-Times column about the matter, and for almost two months the police stopped coming. Then on April 29 they returned. One of Richardson's friends was doing a poetry reading and had sold tickets to members of her family. Richardson didn't sell the tickets, and she wasn't going to get any of the money. "There wasn't anyone here that she didn't know," says Richardson. "The police came in and said, 'We have a complaint about noise.' I said, 'What noise? There isn't any noise. Walk outside--you won't hear any noise.' They said, 'No, you have neighbors complaining.' Then they took the ticket box off the table. I said, 'Why are you taking that?' They said, 'It's evidence that you're selling tickets.' I'm thinking, what's going on here? They didn't come about that--they came about the noise. And there wasn't any noise. I swear, they just make this stuff up."

She had to go back to court, but this time she decided to get a lawyer. "I told the judge that we wanted a continuance," she says. "The fines go as high as $1,500--this is serious stuff."

On May 12 things got even more serious. "I should have known something was going to happen that night, because they had these two undercover people from the Revenue Department come in," says Richardson. "One was this black girl with some sort of head wrapper on her head and an African symbol tattooed on her hand. I guess they thought that made her Afrocentric. She was with this Hispanic guy. They asked to buy two memberships. They gave us $30--$15 each." She says that by this point she knew it was illegal to ask people to pay for a membership but thought it was legal to sell one to someone who asked for it. "Like I said, I should have known something was fishy. We have a lot of biracial couples here, but they just didn't look like a couple. About ten minutes later the police came. And I'm talking major police. There were at least 20 cops. There were more police than customers, because there were only about ten people in the place and half of them were musicians. It was absurd. They said we were operating without a license, and they said that the money those undercover agents gave us was marked so they had proof. I'm thinking, this is crazy. They're making a big deal about this, like it's some sort of major drug bust or sting, and it's only $30."

That's when the police arrested Coby Richardson and Bobbie Johnson. "It was plain silly, them arresting me," says Johnson. "I'm what you might call a full-figure sister. I don't move very quickly. My knees hurt. And they're carting me off to jail? I didn't say anything that would offend them. I'm a child of the civil rights movement, so I know enough to know that you have to learn to do like Dr. King. You have to be passive. But it was horrific. They took me to the paddy wagon. I held out my hands for handcuffs, but the policeman said, 'No, just get into the wagon.'"

They took Johnson and Coby Richardson to the lockup at 17th and State. "They fingerprinted me, took my mug shot, and put me in a cell," Johnson says. "It had a hard cement bunk without any cushion. I was all alone in that cell. I sat on the bunk until I got sleepy. Then I lay down and went to sleep. The next day they let me sign an I-bond, and I was released.

"It was an awful feeling. It made me feel like I was nothing. I've worked hard. I'm a registered nurse by profession. I'm trying to redevelop the community and create a club that the whole city can be proud of. I don't know why they're hassling us. Maybe the police are upset because they can't get no payoffs. We don't have alcohol or illegal gambling. They come in and see an African drum on a stage and some folks eating vegetarian chili."

It's not clear what Johnson was charged with; according to a police spokesman, there's no arrest report for her. Coby Richardson was charged with operating a business without a proper license--even though it's not his club. Charles Edwards, a spokesman for the Revenue Department, says they were both charged with disorderly conduct. "According to the police report, a gentleman made a threat to the police officers," says Edwards. "And that made tensions rise. It was the police's way to serve notice that you have to cease and desist."

But why would the police or the city bother to keep sending officers to the club for such a trivial matter?

"They're violating the law," says Edwards. "They are continuing to operate like they have a PPA, and they don't. They can't sell memberships. It's that simple.

"Listen, trust me, our department's not picking on this place. There's no conspiracy to keep them from opening. I've been there myself. It's a nice establishment on the inside. But they cannot throw functions without a PPA. That goes for any business. We're not treating them any differently than anyone else. Whether we get a tip or we do routine license checks, we are going to enforce the law."

Richardson says, "We haven't been charging at the door. Those undercover agents asked us for a membership. They probably had people in here spying, and they knew how to trick us. In fact, I don't think the license thing has anything to do with what's really going on. If the word 'membership' was never uttered, they would still be harassing us."

Edwards says there's a relatively easy solution to the problem: "They need to get the city to waive the parking-lot requirement. For that they need to talk to the alderman. I've already suggested that. I've already directed them to her."

But Richardson says they haven't been able to meet with Haithcock (who didn't return calls for comment). "We've called her office several times. Each time we talk to one of her aides. We asked to meet with Haithcock, but it's always the aides who call us back." So she hasn't been able to ask for a waiver, and she hasn't got her $500 back.

It's hard to understand why anyone would make such a fuss about the club. On a recent weekday night a few people sat at the juice bar listening to a tape of Ella Fitzgerald singing songs by Cole Porter, three preteen girls watched wrestling on TV, and about 12 young men and women listened to a poetry reading. Many of the poetry listeners were young black men with dreadlocks.

"I can't say for certain why the city and the police are doing this," says Richardson. "Maybe they don't like the fact that we bring different cultures together. Maybe they don't like the look of our customers. Maybe they just want to clear us out so they can bring in something else. One thing's clear--someone wants us out."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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