Music club caught in racist flap


December 16, 2003


Chicago's leading avant-garde rock club found itself at the center of controversy when it was accused of booking a trio of bands that protesters called racist or anti-Semitic.

The Empty Bottle was scheduled to host Death in June, an English art-rock group, along with opening bands Changes and Der Blutharsch on Saturday. But club owner Bruce Finkelman canceled the show on Friday under pressure from the Center for New Community, a local activist group.

Finkelman said he had been receiving death threats and hate mail from people on both sides of the controversy, and he feared a violent confrontation at the Ukrainian Village club if the show went on as scheduled.

"This stopped being about the music a long time ago," Finkelman said on Monday. "There's nothing more that I'm against than racism and hate crimes, but this put us in a very precarious position and kind of backed us into a corner."

The Bottle is known for its multicultural staff and for presenting a wide spectrum of diverse musical acts. Finkelman, who is Jewish, said he was unaware of any controversy surrounding the bands when he agreed to host the concert. He added that he would not have booked the groups if he was certain they advocated racist or anti-Semitic beliefs, and he knew only of Death in June's reputation as musical innovators and gripping live performers.

"You can buy their music at Tower Records," Finkelman said. "How does that equate with something that I have to end up talking to my rabbi about?"

In mass e-mails, the Center for New Community characterized the bands as "three white power music acts" and charged that "promotion of fascism like this is an affront to [the] memory and dignity of the more than 6 million who perished at the hands of the Nazis, as well as an open expression of racism and bigotry."

But it remains unclear whether CNC's charges are accurate, are laced with hyperbole, or fall somewhere in between.

Named for June 30, 1934, "the Night of Long Knives" when Hitler purged Ernst Roehm and his followers from the Nazi party, Death in June has existed for almost two decades. Its leader, Douglas Pearce, is openly gay and a former member of the leftist punk band Crisis. He has used images associated with Nazism, including a symbol similar to the death's head insignia favored by the SS, but the band's Web site and lyrics that are available on the Net espouse no racist or anti-Semitic beliefs.

Similarly, there is little evidence of the Austrian band Der Blutharsch preaching hatred in its music.

Pearce could not be reached for comment on Monday, but in a posting on the Empty Bottle's Web site on Saturday, he neither confirmed nor denied charges of racism. "As I hover above the fear stricken Metropolis of Chicago," he wrote, I "ponder who should be the first to feel the might of my Disappear In Every Way ray; the Community for New Communism [sic] or the hypocritical [expletives] at [the Empty Bottle]."

Changes is a Chicago folk band led by R.N. Taylor, described in CNC e-mails as "a self-proclaimed 'white separatist.' " In a posting to the Empty Bottle's Web site last week, Taylor denied these charges. "There is no bigotry, race hatred or anything of the sort," he wrote. "I defy anyone of these critics to come forth with the proof that it is white power; 90 percent of our songs deal with love, not hate."

Finkelman at first decided to remove Taylor from the bill but defended the other bands' right to perform, noting that, "We have yet to find information that directly links Death in June and/or Der Blutharsch to the Nazi party, nor have we been able (yet) to uncover concrete allegiances to any single fascist ideological group."

Finkelman proposed a compromise, inviting CNC and other groups to set up tables at the club to distribute information, and he offered to give the venue's share of the night's proceeds to the Anti-Defamation League. (Finkelman said he contacted the ADL for information about the bands' alleged white power leanings, but they had no files on the groups.)

CNC rejected the offer and kept up the pressure until the club canceled the show.

"We weren't going to have a table there," CNC spokesman Eric Ward said Monday. "It's clear there were neo-Nazis coming to the event, or at least advertising the event. We're not going to put people in a situation like that."

Early Saturday, the Empty Bottle show was relocated to Deja Vu, a club in Lincoln Park. That club's owners canceled at the last minute because of media attention, but fans of the band and protesters from another activist group, Anti Racist Action, had already gathered outside the venue.

Eyewitnesses reported several violent conflicts between the two camps, but no police reports were filed. Death in June never performed. Witnesses said Pearce was at the club and attempted to talk to protesters but was shouted down.

Death in June's last local performance was at the Congress Theatre last October. That show was initially booked at the Park West, but the club's owner, Jam Productions, backed out because of CNC protests.