Crowds supporting the owners of hookah lounges overflowed Seattle City Council chambers Aug. 10 and 17 to protest Mayor Ed Murray’s announcement that he would use existing city laws to shut down hookah lounges.
Owners and their supporters said hookah lounges have become the inappropriate target in a public safety campaign. Murray announced Aug. 3 that he would be using city laws governing potential marijuana bars and state laws barring indoor smoking to close the existing hookah lounges.
“Not all hookah lounges attract violence, but the increasing crime that is now associated with many of them, combined with the fact that they are not following public health codes, demand that we take action,” Murray said in a press conference Aug. 3, an announcement that followed the death of Donnie Chin, who was shot near King’s Hookah Lounge in the International District.
Amar Alalimi, who owns King’s Hookah Lounge, said the incident took place two hours after his business closed. He said his establishment is a place where people who do not drink can relax.
“We sit, we talk about life, we talk about politics,” he said.
The owners got a throng of support from activists and customers who say the mayor’s move was racist. At each city council meeting, lounge owners and their supporters held black signs that said “Stop Blaming Hookah Lounges.”
Nebil Mohammed, who owns Medina Hookah, said Murray’s actions are misplaced and argued that the private membership lounges have nothing to do with the crime he is looking to reduce.
“I started this business with my partners for two reasons: to establish the American dream for myself and my family as well as to create a safe place for like-minded people like my community to socialize,” Mohammed said Aug. 10. “Unfortunately my intentions, my mission to establish a safe and social venue, is being questioned — unfairly, I must say.”
Gerald Hankerson, president of the Seattle King County naacp argued that the city is not moving as vigorously to ban other businesses or activities that cause public safety problems.
“We have a whole lot of evidence that alcohol is a common cause of drunk driving, but you’re not moving to get alcohol out of your city,” Hankerson said. “We also know that the No. 1 cause of gun violence is guns itself, but have you banned guns out of the city of Seattle?”
Seattle resident Meron Alexander said that hookah bars are a safer alternative to drinking or smoking marijuana.
“That is a place I go when I don’t want to go out and drink, and I just want to hang out with my friends,” Alexander said. “That’s my safe place.”
Many called on the city to reconsider the move and apply the existing Race and Social Justice Initiative toolkit to consider the impacts on the community.
Lawyer James Bible said that the hookah bars have followed the rules and have established legitimate businesses that add jobs and support the local economy, but said that whenever people of color establish a business stronghold, there’s someone there to stop it.
“Ultimately what we have here is a perception that black people are criminals, violent and dangerous,” Bible said. “And what the mayor did was demonstrate that not only black lives don’t matter to him but black votes don’t seem to either.”
At the Aug. 17 city council meeting, supporters read a love letter about the issue calling for the community to not be divided by the mayor’s proposal.
“We can no longer see ourselves as separate and different — this is what systems of oppression want us to do,” the letter reads.
To read the full letter, visit tiny.cc/loveletter