City Declares War on Hookah Lounges...Again

Surrounded by East African and International District community members, Mayor Ed Murray this morning announced a plan to shut down hookah bars throughout the city, saying they’d become a magnet for violence in the city. “I do not want to see another person killed or harmed as a result of violence related to hookah lounges,” Murray said. “The City of Seattle...will no longer tolerate hookah lounges that have been a source of violence and disorder.”

Hookah is a type of water pipe, similar to a bong, that is used to smoke flavored tobacco called shisha. It has been a traditional social activity among Persians for more than a millennium, and is also popular among young adult Americans.

According to a mayoral press release, in the past year and a half hookah lounges have seen three homicides, four shootings, and over a hundred brawls. “While not all smoking lounges attract violence, the extraordinary levels of violence connected with many of them, combined with the fact that they are operating in violation of state law and public health codes, demands action,” said the press release.

Dr. Ahmed Ali, executive director of the Somali Health Board, said that part of the cause for the alleged connection between violence and hookah lounges is “other activities” inside, including alcohol and marijuana.

Indoor smoking in public places has been illegal in Washington since voters passed I-901 in 2005. This fact prompted city attorney Pete Holmes, who flanked the Mayor this morning, to call hookah bars “an illegal business model.” Lounges protest that they are exempt from the law because they are private clubs that charge membership fees, but the King County Hearing Examiner decided last year that they count as public spaces for the purposes of the law.

Holmes said that today his office filed a gross misdemeanor charge against King’s Hookah, located in the International District, for failure to pay business taxes. He promised similar action against hookah bars that don’t skedaddle. Many of them, he said, “have been magnets for violence and other public safety threats. It is time to shut them down.”

This isn’t the city’s first attempt to ban the lounges. Back in 2013, then-Mayor Mike McGinn’s administration was set to start ticketing hookah bar customers, according to the Seattle Times:

Troubled by indoor smoking, blocked fire exits and shootings near some Seattle lounges, a team of city and county watchdogs scheduled enforcement action against eight clubs on June 22.

A plan calling for officers to write $205 tickets to lounge customers for violating the state’s indoor-smoking ban went all the way to the desk of Interim Police Chief Jim Pugel, who wrote “reviewed and approved.”

But days before the sweep, the city reversed course. Pugel nixed the ticketing, and other city employees — including fire inspectors and nightlife regulators — stood down.

But now, said Murray, the city has the capacity to revoke the licenses of businesses that are breaking the law. Last month we covered the legislation which gave the director of Financial and Administrative Services (FAS) the authority to revoke the licenses of businesses who are violating law. Crafted as a response to illicit medical marijuana shops, the authority applies just as well to hookah bars, said Murray. (We’re still not clear on exactly why the city needs to give itself special permission to enforce laws---stay tuned.)

For members of the pan-Asian community in the International District, this is an issue of safety, says longtime ID activist Sharon Maeda. She says that police have been lax in their attention to the ID. “I don’t think there’s any question that the people that went to the hookah lounges were involved in various kinds of disruptions” in the neighborhood, she says, in part because hookah lounges tend to attract bar patrons after bars close at 2am.

For East African parents, she says, it’s an issue of safety for their children. “Unbeknownst to us, they’d been trying to shut down the hookah lounges too...some of [their young adult children] are getting caught up in this stuff.”

One of the opponents of King’s Hookah Lounge was Donnie Chin, the beloved ID activist who was shot to death two weeks ago at the intersection beside King’s. Murray’s move to shut down hookah lounges is in part a response to outrage over Chin’s death. It is not yet clear whether King’s or its patrons were involved in the killing.

Chin, who acted as an unofficial first-responder to crises in the ID, had been lobbying the city for two years to deal with the late-night noise and violence that King’s created, says longtime Seattle civil rights activist Bob Santos. “The problem was that Donnie had to monitor all these young people that were coming out of the lounge after they closed in the intersection,” he says. Santos stresses that Chin’s work was an attempt “to preserve our neighborhood for the people who built it”—that is, for the communities founded by Asian immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“This is a bigger story than shutting down a fucking hookah lounge,” says Santos. “The hookah lounge is just a small, little, dinky issue in the overall story of the International District that Donnie worked on and gave his life [for].”

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