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‘I’m not trying to be racist’: Restaurant manager suspended after swinging chair at black teen

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 09-01-2019 Michael Brice-Saddler

John “Kyle” Johnson wasn’t initially planning on entering the Poke Poke restaurant in downtown Chicago, but walked inside when someone waved to him through the window.

When the black 18-year-old entered the Wabash Avenue restaurant on Jan. 2 with two of his friends, however, he was met with a much less welcoming surprise.

“I’ll kick your a--,” the restaurant’s manager, Matthew Fezzey, yelled toward him, according to Johnson. “This is my place of business."

Moments later, Fezzey swung a chair at him, Johnson said, hitting his arm with such force that the teen suffered injuries. Johnson then called the police and began filming the encounter.

“I was super shocked, I was scared, thinking: ‘Is this is really happening right now?’ Johnson told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “I looked into his eyes, and they were super furious.”

In the video, Fezzey never denies the allegations that he hit Johnson with a chair. Instead, he repeatedly acknowledges he was “in the wrong” and says the reaction was his “first instinct” after previous encounters with black men at the restaurant.

"Two days ago — and I’m not trying to be racist — two black guys robbed two people right here,” Fezzey explains to Johnson in the video, using numerous expletives in his response.

“But sir, you threw a chair at me,” Johnson responds. “I’m not those guys.”

“Listen, three days ago, before that, I had two more black guys. I actually fought them in here,” Fezzey replied. “They tried threatening one of my employees, and I had to fight them … when you guys came in here, I just got really … defensive, really defensive, because I had to fight them off all the time. These security guards over here don’t do a … thing.”

The video was posted to Facebook last week and has amassed more than 20,000 views.

Fezzey did not respond to an email requesting comment Monday. Poke Poke Chicago did not respond to an email and numerous phone calls requesting comment.

In a statement posted to social

media on Friday, however, the restaurant apologized and said that as a minority-owned establishment, it does not “tolerate discrimination or racism of any kind.”

“How our manager reacted to the situation was absolutely unacceptable and against what we stand for,” the restaurant wrote. They continued, “Racism has no place in today’s society, and no one should ever be judged by the color of their skin. There are no excuses for what happened to Kyle and for that we apologize.”

Fezzey had been suspended pending a police investigation, the statement read. The manager’s claim of previous attacks by black men could not be confirmed.

John "Kyle" Johnson is an 18-year-old senior at Innovations High School in Chicago. (Family photo) © / John "Kyle" Johnson is an 18-year-old senior at Innovations High School in Chicago. (Family photo)

No charges have been filed in the case. Johnson’s attorney, Anish Parikh, told The Post that his client plans to take legal action and that the restaurant’s statement supports the teen’s assertion that he was an innocent victim.

Parikh added that Fezzey should have been terminated, and that his suspension “speaks volumes about their business and the people who run it.”

“This type of behavior, in our opinion, warrants a termination,” he said.

Johnson, a senior at Innovations High School in Chicago, aspires to be a social worker. He said “meditation and prayer” were among the reasons he was able to stay calm throughout the ordeal. The teen received X-rays after the attack, but he said the incident has taken a psychological toll.

He hopes shedding light on the situation will help facilitate change.

“In any situation where someone would throw a chair at you, it makes you feel like you can’t do anything,” Johnson said, adding that Fezzey was larger than him. “My state of mind was literally, ‘God help me,' and I just remained calm.”

The teen said he felt “voiceless” when Fezzey threatened to call the police.

“He was screaming at me, saying he was gonna call the cops . . . I was thinking, ‘Why would you call the cops on me when I didn’t do anything wrong?’" Johnson said. “When the police get here, am I going to be held accountable for something I didn’t do?”

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