A diverse group of mostly young Seattleites overflowed the chambers at a Seattle City Council on Monday to speak out against a proposed closure of all Seattle hookah lounges.
Eight council members were present, including the chair Tim Burgess, Kshama Sawant, and Bruce Harrell during a 20 minute public comment period that Burgess had to extend to accommodate the unexpected number of speakers.
Around 60 people waited patiently during the earlier part of the meeting’s agenda, holding signs that read “Stop blaming hookah lounges!” The same sign declared criminalizing hookah lounges was “racist” and “xenophobic.”
“The youth violence has been there before the hookah bars were open and will continue to be there unless the city allocates proper education and proper funding to create programs for the youth,” said Seattleite Meron Alexander, who works as construction estimator. She was addressing connections to street violence made by Mayor Ed Murray last week when he vowed to shut down the 11 hookah lounges currently operating in Seattle.
“The city is telling me, I can go out in the city, go home drunk out of my mind or go out and get high and go home, but I can’t go to a hookah bar, hang out with my friends and go home in my right mind?”
She suggested the city was making a problem out of what is actually a solution, pointing out that late opening hours mean hookah bars give people a place to sober up before driving home on lively weekend nights.
Shakespeare Feyissa, a personal injury lawyer who is Ethiopian American, testified that he was amazed that the Mayor didn’t bring any evidence to show that hookah lounges spiked violence before proposing the ban.
“The owners [of hookah lounges] and the city’s interests are aligned. The want a safe place. The don’t want violence. They don’t want shooting,” Feyissa said. “No shooting ever occurred in any hookah lounges.”
He went on to say that making hookah lounges responsible for violence that happened on the street, sometimes after they were closed for the night, was holding them to an impossibly high standard.
That might sound familiar to the owners or patrons of now-shuttered businesses like Hidmo and Waid’s. Seattle has a history of blaming black-owned businesses for violence and other problems that occur outside their doors.
Jenn Hagedorn, public health professional, and anti-racist community organizer with a group called European Dissent, echoed those sentiments in her statement, referencing the indoor smoking ban that would be the city’s official grounds for shutting down the hookah lounges.
“As a public health professional, I am clear, no one is saying smoking is good for your health… I also know in order to understand the public health impact of closing down hookah lounges we need to have a much broader scope of analysis than looking at smoking.”
Hagedorn said racism, more specifically stress that is caused by racism, was the primary health care concern related to this issue.
“Hookah lounges represent a primary opportunity for social cohesion, and thus stress reduction,” she said. “Hookah lounges also provide a stable source of income for families of color.”
She urged the city to do a racial equity assessment of the impacts before making the decision.
Hagedorn’s comments were followed by those of Nebeel Mohammed, owner of the Medina Hookah Lounge in the International District, who said one of the reasons he’d started his business was to create a safe place for his community to socialize.
“For much of East African and Mid Eastern Communities hookah lounges serve as culturally appropriate social activities,” Mohammed said. “It’s a place to talk about politics, society, sports and share laughter with one another.”
But he added that they were also valuable settings for cultural exchange.
“Hookah lounges as of late have become seemingly universal. You will find a racially diverse group of all interacting with one another, exposing each other to different cultures and perspectives.”
Mary Flowers, who testified after Council Member Tim Burgess added time for public comment, called on the council to look at the group of young people who’d turned out to the meeting as a possible resource to mitigate problems of gentrification, segregation and violence in the city.
“There are young people who go to the hookah lounges, that many call ‘thugs,’ who sit alongside people who work for Microsoft and other companies and are able converse and are able to come into a respectful, respectful setting where they are respected as human beings,” she said.
Overall, the City Council Members seemed to be caught by surprise by the outpouring of support for the hookah lounges, but were courteous and attentive in the face of criticisms from speakers like Flowers that they are out of touch with the realities facing community members.
“You’re not going to divide Somalis, against Eritreans, against American-born blacks, against Asian people,” Flowers continued. “We’re very sorry for every death, including Donnie Chin.”
She was referencing the shooting of the International District community leader and anti-crime patroller who was shot late last month near the King’s Hookah Lounge. Chin’s death lead some International District community members to voice concerns that Seattle hookah lounges were attracting violent elements in neighborhood — which prompted Mayor Murray to announce the crackdown.
Worth noting that in the same week, two American of East African descent were killed in drive-by shootings in Federal Way and New Holly, nowhere near hookah lounges.
No word on yet on whether the Mayor will proceed with his plans, given the public outpouring at yesterday’s meeting. But Council Member Nick Licata has already asked Mayor Murray to reconsider the ban, at least for a 60 day monitoring period, to see if crime can actually be directly linked to any of the businesses.
You can watch the full video of the council hearing here.
This post has been updated since it was first published.