Following a backlash from the East African community last year that included allegations of racism, mayor Ed Murray backed off an original plan to promptly shutdown hookah lounges citywide. Instead, he ordered the city's Office of Civil Rights to conduct a racial equity impact analysis of the proposal.

 Late last month, the mayor issued that report.

The analysis—the “racial equity toolkit report” as it’s officially known—doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know based on the discussions and debates that took place last fall. Nor, does it reach a conclusion on the central claim made by critics of the mayor's hookah crackdown last year—that it was racist. After interviewing voices on all sides of the debate, the report simply highlights aspects of the crackdown policy that affect the East African community. (This raises practical questions about the race and social justice analysis Murray pledged to do of the current, controversial construction on 23rd Avenue; the 23rd Avenue street redesign was characterized by NAACP leader Gerald Hankerson as an overtly racist project and Murray said he would submit the project to the racial justice tool kit to see if that was true.) 

Using interviews with more than 70 stakeholders in the hookah case, (such as hookah lounge owners and patrons, local health officials, and east African community leaders), along with police data of incidents reported near hookah lounges, findings from visits to hookah lounges conducted by city staff, legal background info on the state’s indoor smoking ban, and policy recommendations made by stakeholders, the report is simply a formal write up all aspects of the issue and debate.

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IMAGE: Josh Kelety

The report has heavy emphasis on systemic racial inequities and issues facing Seattle’s African American and East African communities, such as youth unemployment, housing unaffordability, wealth and income gaps, and low high school graduation rates that were identified by members of the east African community as root causes of disturbances associated with hookah lounges as opposed. The same arguments were made by the opposition when Murray first rolled out the crackdown.

The report paraphrases feedback from the community: “There’s no opportunity for employment...[there are] so many factors keeping youth from the jobs they need. No program prepares them for work tools, get jobs around the city. Unemployed, free youth have nothing better to do than hookah bars and streets.”

In that context, according to the report, community members added: “These spaces [hookah lounges] create opportunities for networking between members by bringing together professionals from many different sectors (techies, doctors, lawyers, professors, college students and other young people); also bring in business for nearby businesses, restaurants, gas station, etc.”

The report summarized:

Stakeholders shared that a lack of responsiveness by the City to address what they felt were existing gaps in City services amplified the perception of a lack of public safety in relation to hookah lounges. Stakeholders stated that in the International District, problematic trash pick-up and poorly lighted spaces contributed to an overall feeling of a lack of safety which, when coupled with messaging related to violence, led some members of the community to place the blame on the lounges.

The stakeholder recommendations include doing culturally sensitive anti-smoking education for East African youth, investing in culturally relevant community youth gathering places, a culturally sensitive one-stop shop for East African businesses and start-ups to learn about city codes and regulations, and a comprehensive, community-informed public safety strategy for addressing gun violence.

Additionally, the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs has hired a consultant to identify the needs of the East African community. And the mayor also put together a Chinatown/International District public safety task force to come up with recommendations for improving public safety in the International District; the hookah lounge crackdown followed the shooting death of ID community leader Donnie Chin near Kings Hookah Lounge, a hookah lounge in the ID. The subsequent crackdown was rife with racial tension between the Asian and East African communities. 

The report also includes a letter written by Mayor Murray addressed to the city council where he lays out a slightly defensive outline of his commitment and efforts to address the racial inequities facing  local African American and East African communities. Murray cites the increased funding in his 2016 budget proposal for the Career Bridge jobs program and a Bloomberg Philanthropies funded initiative looking at improving outcomes for East African youth.

Murray concluded the report with a summary of negotiations that took place between hookah lounge owners and the city; remember, after Murray backed down from his initial spin that hookah lounges were murky dens of violence and stuck with the simple position that the indoor smoking ban prohibited them, talks began between lounge owners and the city to find a solution. Murray writes: “We were unfortunately unable to reach a final agreement regarding how best to structure [lounge] membership and guest policies that would allow them to operate without violating the state’s indoor smoking ban.” Hookah lounge owners have previously argued that they are private clubs, with volunteer workers and patrons with memberships, and therefore not subject to the indoor smoking lounge. King County Public Health argues that hookah lounges are “public places” because they are not private and open to the public via low cost "membership-fees." The city adopted this legal view.

Murray ends his letter by noting an ongoing King County Public Health lawsuit against Medina Hookah Lounge, a hookah lounge in the International District. Testing the competing claims, the lawsuit should clarify whether or not hookah lounges violate the indoor smoking ban.

For now, it’s a waiting game. Russell Knight, the Tacoma-based attorney representing Medina Hookah Lounge—he also represented eleven Seattle hookah lounges during the talks with the city—said that the trial date is set for May. Murray's office said they are holding off enforcement action against hookah lounges until there's a ruling in the case.

However, after all this, Murray, right  back where he started, may be forced to make a decision about hookah lounges. Knight says a settlement in the King County case is more likely than a court ruling. And a settlement could come without clearing the legal or political haze.

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