Since dropping out of Bloomington High School South more than a decade ago, Jason Sutherlin has bounced from apartment to apartment across the Bloomington area, leaving unpaid rent bills and liens in his wake.
He has also jumped from one odd job to another: bartender, cook, factory worker, shop clerk. Along the way, he spent two years in prison for burglary.
With his beefy build and neck tattoo, Sutherlin appears to be a rough character. But some of his friends see another side: someone with a soft spot for the working man and passion for fighting racism, fueled in part by growing up in a diverse family.
Those two sides of Sutherlin are now playing out in one of the strangest law-and-order stories in the nation.
Since May, Sutherlin—along with two younger brothers and two friends—has been locked up in Cook County Jail, awaiting trial on charges that they stormed into a family restaurant in the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park with more than a dozen other people and ambushed an unsuspecting group of white nationalists.
Authorities say the Sutherlin group shouted anti-racist slogans and swung hammers and steel batons at the lunch group in a mob-style beating. Food and furniture went flying. Ten people were injured. Some of them were clobbered so hard they needed staples to close head wounds.
Sutherlin and his four co-defendants, all from Indiana, are charged with felony mob action, aggravated battery and criminal damage to property.
But the tale of the “Tinley Park Five”—as they have come to be known by some—is also part of a larger story about a resurging militant anti-racist movement and a little-known group called Anti-Racist Action.
Anti-Racist Action is a loose network of anarchists, anti-fascists and anti-racists that specializes in disrupting neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. ARA has affiliated organizations in various locations, including the Hoosier Anti-Racist Movement (HARM), which counts the Tinley Park Five among its disciples.
On its website, ARA makes its mission clear.
“Whenever fascists are organizing or active in public, we’re there,” says the website, adorned with photos of hooded, masked demonstrators. “We don’t believe in ignoring them or staying away from them. Never let the Nazis have the street!”
Neither the ARA nor HARM has claimed responsibility for the restaurant melee. However, the HARM website contains a plea for money to defend and free the “Tinley Park Five.” Supporters are trying to raise bail money, which was set at nearly $1 million for the group.
Sutherlin was affiliated with HARM, acknowledged his lawyer, Chicago defense attorney Aaron Goldstein.
But some of Jason Sutherlin’s friends and former employers offered recollections and insights. What emerges is a story of a family marked by divorces, single parents, menial work and plenty of moving around. The family was racially diverse: Jason is white but has a half sister whose father is black.
Jason Sutherlin didn’t care for school and dropped out of Bloomington South in his junior year, said George Cummings of Bloomington, a longtime friend who was a year behind in school and later lived with him for three years.
Once out of school, Sutherlin supported himself with a series of low-paying jobs, including cook, bar bouncer and bartender. In his spare time, he enjoyed playing video games and hanging out with his friends.
By this time, his social philosophies already seemed to be taking root. As a teen, Jason enjoyed hanging out at Peoples Park, a popular hangout near the Indiana University campus that has gained local fame as a gathering place for demonstrators and activists. The park’s history is well-known by social activists. In 1968, a black-owned store on the site known as the Black Market was firebombed by local members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The building was torn down, and the locals renamed the lot Peoples Park in honor of a park by the same name in Berkeley, Calif.
In the fall of 2011, Occupy Bloomington took over Peoples Park, pitching dozens of tents and establishing a community kitchen, a library and an assembly area.
Jason Sutherlin gravitated to the park in his free time, Cummings said, and became involved in the Occupy movement.
He would leave in time to go to work as a bouncer at the Upstairs Pub on East Kirkwood Avenue. It was the latest of his many jobs over the years. Along the way, he impressed some bosses with hard work and a good attitude.
“He was a jovial guy, very friendly,” said Mike Cassady, owner of Michael’s Uptown Cafe, where Sutherlin worked as a cook for a few months about a decade ago. “I wouldn’t call him refined, but I’ve seen rougher.”
Another boss apparently didn’t see that upbeat side. Keddy McClain, general manager of Amused Clothing, a skateboard and used clothing store in Bloomington, remembered Sutherlin as “lazy, slovenly and incompetent.” He said Sutherlin rarely showed ambition or customer-service skills during his time as a clerk.
On May 19, police and prosecutors say approximately 18 people dressed in black and wearing scarves drove to the Ashford House restaurant in Tinley Park in three cars and parked in a rear lot.
They burst into the family restaurant at 12:35 p.m., during the height of the lunch hour, waving steel batons and hammers. They attacked a group of people meeting in the restaurant.
An off-duty sergeant saw one of the cars, a red Dodge Neon, heading toward Interstate 80, and pulled it over. Backup police arrived and arrested all five people in the car. All were from Southern Indiana.
Charged along with the Sutherlins were John Tucker, 26, Spencer, and Alex Stuck, 22, Bloomington.
Thirteen other members of the group escaped and still are being sought by police.
No trial date has been set. All of the Tinley Park Five have pleaded not guilty and are using defense lawyers who volunteered to take the cases without pay.
Sara Garber, a lawyer for Stuck, said her client did not have a criminal record and did volunteer work at homeless shelters in Bloomington and “raised money for social justice.”
Goldstein pointed out that Sutherlin has asserted his innocence and has family members in Indiana to take care of, including his wheelchair-bound father and a 20-month-old toddler living with the child’s mother.