By Peggy Chapman
Northwest Asian Weekly
It was standing room only at Monday afternoon’s Seattle City Council meeting, moderated by Councilmember Tim Burgess. The majority present was there to protest Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s initiative to ban hookah lounges/bars throughout Seattle.
The chamber was filled with loyal customers, lounge owners, community activists, and even health officials, many bearing signs that read “Stop Blaming Hookah Lounges” and there was applause of snapping of fingers to emphasize statements from speakers.
The backlash and community presence was in response to Mayor Murray’s statement last week that he would “clamp down on operations that foster an environment that threatens public safety in our neighborhoods.”
The City can revoke the license of any business that is conducting unlawful operations, including violating the ban on smoking in places of employment. The new ordinance would go into effect on Aug. 16.
The resolution was triggered in response to the recent homicide of Donnie Chin, a prominent community leader in Seattle’s Asian American community. Chin was shot in the vicinity of Kings Hookah Lounge, a popular hookah bar located on the 800 block of S. Lane Street in the International District.
However, many of the speakers at the City Council meeting believed that the hookah lounges were being unfairly targeted. One speaker announced it was “racism at its best.”
“What we have in this situation is what I would describe as a criminalization of black business,” attorney James Bible said “…they followed every single rule that they needed to follow to open the business.”
Here is a synopsis, quotes, bullet points, and breakdown from the overwhelming line of commentary from the public speakers:
— There are no current statistics from the Police Chief about the correlation of hookah bars and violence.
— Hookah bars offer a safe alternative to other bars. “We drive home completely sober,” explained one patron.
— The hookah bar has been established culturally. It is part of community.
— There are issues of rushed judgment. “Demonization” announced one speaker.
— Alcohol is more responsible for violence, not smoking at a hookah bar.
— Hookah bars do not cause violence, people cause violence; there should be a second tier of discovering how there is access to firearms when accessing information
— “You will find a racially diverse group of all interacting with one another, exposing each other to different cultures and perspectives.”
— “For much of East African and Mid Eastern Communities, hookah lounges serve as a place to talk about politics, society, sports and share laughter with one another.”
— There has been “blatant racism suffered since Aug. 3.”
— A hookah bar’s fair comparison is a coffee shop. “My safe place.”
— Youth violence has been there before there were hookah bars.
— Hookah bars are being held to improbable standards, “way outside the law.”
— The issue is the “definition of prejudice.”
The repeated point emphasized was that hookah bars are unfairly being blamed.
The opposite argument is that Chin’s death was in proximity to a smoking lounge. Frank Irigon, International District activist, stated, “Closing down the hookah bar is not about race but about being a responsible business owner … taking responsibility for the bad behavior of his patrons outside his business … And I can assure you that closing down the hookah bar is not a clashing of cultures, but about the criminal behaviors of some of the business’s clientele. We can’t support a business that is not a good neighbor.”
Within the ID neighborhood there were several incidents of concern around a hookah lounge. During the past two years, there were numerous cases reported around hookah lounges, including two homicides and multiple reports of disturbances and fights. According to the City of Seattle statement, there has been an excess of 100 incidents reported, including six shots fired.
“Far too many smoking lounges attract and sustain illegal, violent activity that has no place in our neighborhoods,” said Mayor Murray last week. “These establishments are unlawful businesses that continue to thumb their noses at the law.”
The City is filing criminal charges against the owners of Kings Hookah Lounge for failure to pay business taxes. If convicted, the penalties range up to a $5,000 fine and/or 364 days in jail. Kings has hired an attorney to defend against closing of the business.
The Mayor and City Attorney will also work with the City Council to draft a future City ordinance that will explicitly prohibit any business that sells tobacco for use on their business premises.
Councilmember Nick Licata is requesting the Mayor to consider doing a 60-day monitoring of hookah bars rather than proceed with the proposed ordinance. (end)
Peggy Chapman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.