1. It wasn’t on the agenda, but the roomful of activists from Seattle’s East African community put the issue front and center anyway yesterday at the city council's regular Monday-afternoon meeting. Showing up in force, the group, which also included African American civil rights leaders, was there to condemn mayor Ed Murray’s proposed crackdown on all 11 of the city’s hookah lounges—largely East African immigrant chill-out spots around town that feature hookah pipes, flavored tobacco, and cozy couches, along with R&B videos and sports programming on the large-screen TVs. The mayor’s crackdown is supposedly a simple case of enforcing no-smoking rules, but Murray, by grandstanding with a press conference last week where he framed the move as a broader war on violent crime, revealed his ulterior motive to win political points. And now he’s facing justified blowback for such naked politicking, and, as some activists said yesterday, for racism.
(PubliCola reported on the proposed crackdown last week, pointing out, among the other clumsy aspects of Murray’s Giuliani jabbering, that he had left a white hipster private smoking club on Capitol Hill off his list. Whoops.)
“What the mayor did was demonstrate that not only do black lives not matter to him, but black votes don’t matter to him either,” King County NAACP attorney James Bible said to enthusiastic applause.
“We're blaming all of this violence on hookah lounges, but I have yet to see one strand of evidence that connects that,” said Gerald Hankerson, president of the King County NAACP. “This is racist at best.”
The activists held up signs that read:“Stop blaming hookah lounges. Criminalizing hookah lounges is racist and xenophobic.”
Hookah lounge owner Abdul Mohammed said that he and his fellow business owners are willing to work with the city and the community to address youth violence; the mayor presented stats at his press conference last week documenting violent crimes near hookah lounges. (PubliCola has requested crime reports outside other nightspots around town.)
“[Hookah lounge owners] pledge to support programs and initiatives to better our youth,” Mohammed told council. “We want the city to end the violence with us. We don't want the dehumanization of our businesses to take away from the issue at hand.”
Another speaker, Meron Alexander, added: “The youth violence has been there before these hookah bars opened and will continue to be there unless the city allocates proper education, allocates proper funding to create programs for the youth to stop the violence. The hookah bars for us are a place where our [East African] community...can come together and just hang out.”
Jenn Hagedorn, a self-described public health professional and antiracist organizer, explained the physical health detriments of stress that people of color face being minorities in society. “The orchestrated harassment and criminalization of black-owned businesses will serve to further oppress families and communities of color that already bear the brunt of chronic stress and economic exploitation,” Hagedorn said. (She went on to urge the city to honor its own policy and conduct a racial equity assessment of the crackdown.)
On yesterday’s council agenda? Council president Tim Burgess’s tax on guns and ammo (it passed unanimously). The largely white grandmothers-against-gun-violence group, on hand to support Burgess, cheered when a black woman speaking against the hookah lounge ban noted that easy access to guns is more of a cause of violence than the lounges.
The activists had clearly added an agenda item to the council’s work plan. Shortly after the meeting outgoing lefty council member Nick Licata, who had led the fight against a similar mayor Greg Nickels–era crackdown on hip-hop clubs in the late ’90s and early 2000s, posted on Facebook, noting a letter he’d sent to Mayor Murray yesterday. Licata's letter urges Murray to slow down and to take a “measured approach” by monitoring hookah lounges to gather more data on the alleged crime epidemic and to consult the city’s race and social justice initiative. “No evidence has been presented to show that they are the source of violence. We do not want to repeat the biased enforcement that we saw over a decade ago in trying to close down hip-hop venues because they were accused of being the source of violence,” Licata said in his Facebook post.
PubliCola has asked the mayor’s office for comment. The mayor said last week that he's submitting legislation to council to prevent any new hookah lounges from opening.
2. In an office shakeup, Mayor Murray has promoted his policy shop whiz Mike Fong to become his new chief of staff. Murray's current chief of staff, Chris Gregorich, is going to remain on staff as a strategic adviser to work on on top Murray initiatives such as implementing the $15 minimum wage, the HALA recommendations, and Murray's transportation initiatives.
In a related move, Murray is also going to create a new staff spot to fill a role Fong had been doing ad hoc—Murray's council liaison on political initiatives.
3. In other Murray staffing news: Yesterday he announced that he'd hired Ian Warner as his new legal counsel. Warner, who is African American, is part of the legal team working with court-appointed SPD monitor Merrick Bob. Warner will fill the spot vacated by Lorena González who left Murray's staff several months ago to run for city council. González got 65 percent of the vote in last week's primary, making her a heavy favorite to win the general election in November.