Yesterday afternoon, groups who line up on opposite sides of mayor Ed Murray’s hookah lounge crackdown faced off at city hall. And, in marked contrast to last week, when a large crowd of East African immigrants surprised the council by showing up to protest the proposal (despite the fact that it wasn't on the council's agenda), the crowd this time was evenly split pro and con. Some people who returned this week to condemn the proposal—it wasn’t on the agenda this time either—believed that Murray, not wanting to be embarrassed again, helped organize the turnout from the pro camp.

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Pro– and anti–hookah lounge groups gather outside council chambers at city hall.

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Murray supporters from left to right: Ahmed Ali, Ubah Warsame, and Abdi Mohamed.

“His [the mayor’s] mouth pieces are going out and giving false allegations [about hookah lounges] to our communities. There are people who have official titles with the city, who used to work for the city, still work for the city, who go down [into East African communities] and organize for the mayor, for the mayor's political salvation,” Medina hookah lounge owner Nabil Mohamed, who's Ethiopian, told PubliCola at city hall yesterday. “This is divisiveness and dirty politics.” Nabil Mohamed said that SPD's recently hired East African liaison, Habtamu Abdi, was sent out last week by the Mayor's office to drum up anti–hookah lounge sentiment in East African communities.

Murray's spokesman Viet Shelton said the the mayor has been "working with the East African and API [Asian Pacific Islander] community for a while" ever since the runup to mayor's original anti–hookah lounge announcement three weeks ago. "It's  been a two way street" of communication, Shelton said, and the mayor's office has been "working with them to make sure their voices were heard and would continue to be heard." Shelton added that Abdi, the SPD's liaison, was engaged from the beginning, both informing the mayor's office about concerns in the community about hookah lounges and also getting people engaged. Shelton acknowledged that the last week's big showing at city hall from East African opponents of the ban surprised both mayor's office and the members of the community who supported the mayor's ban, and so they have "continued organizing."

Council president Tim Burgess had to extend the public comment period to accommodate the hookah lounge showdown. The opposition, a group of Middle Eastern and East African hookah lounge owners, young patrons, and sympathizers, sported the now familiar black and red “Stop blaming hookah lounges” posters, while older members of the Somali community and representatives from Somali community institutions came out in force to support the Mayor. (The organizations testifying in support of the crackdown ranged from the Somali Health Board to the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority.) Indeed, adding a further divide, members of the International Districtcommunity held signs condemning the businesses with references to the recent shooting death of ID community activist Donnie Chin near King’s Hookah Lounge.

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International District community members stand in contrast with hookah lounge supporters.

Pro–hookah lounge speakers made clear that they think the mayor is exploiting divisions within the East African Community (and between them and the Asian American community) to carry out his agenda of closing all 11 of Seattle’s hookah lounges.

“The mayor has made shameful political use of the grief and the pain that we are experiencing in the African American and Asian American communities. His political opportunism is not uniting us, but it is dividing us, these communities of color in a time of mourning,” Henry Luke, with the group Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) said during public comment. He read from a letter titled “a love letter to our communities: when we mourn we all mourn.” (A copy of the letter can be found online here.)

Lu read: “By blaming hookah lounges for this violence, Mayor Murray is diverting attention away from the city's long time neglect of these communities of color…As result of the mayor's actions, rumors and misinformation and mistrust have spread like wildfire. But our communities know one thing for certain: The problem of violence existed long before the first hookah lounge ever opened its doors in Seattle."

Others from the East African community stood by the Mayor during public comment. “I am very concerned about what the hookah lounges are doing to our children. Hookah, health wise, it is very detrimental to our health and our youth's health. Hookah has no place in our culture, in our values, our religion.... We need to close those places down,” Ubah Warsame, a Somali community activist based out of Tukwila, said.

Ubah Warsame told PubliCola the Somali community is excited that the Mayor wants to close hookah lounges due to the associated violence. “We've been trying to get somebody's attention [for a long time]. It's sad that it has to come to the point that we have to lose lives in order for this to come above the surface and on the table as a priority.”

“These are primarily East African people,” said Somali community activist Abdi Mohamed in front of the pro-hookah lounge crackdown crowd assembled on the steps. “They have a unified message to support the mayor's decision to shut down the bedrock of crime, the bedrock of illegal substances where people smoke mushrooms.” (Abdi Mohamed also stood shoulder to shoulder with Murray when he first announced the crackdown.)

It was apparent there was a generational aspect to the East African community's disagreement. “There are not many places that we can go as Muslim Americans,” said Taki Alazadi, a young University of Washington Bothell Alumnus who started a petition supporting hookah lounges (it has garnered over 1,500 signatures so far). “Our religion does not support alcohol so we are not able to go there [bars],” he went on to say, barely holding back tears at the podium. “People say, ‘Oh this is a health issue.’ I understand that. But we're 18 and above and we have the choice,” he said to cheers from the pro–hookah lounge attendees (some of the pro-hookah lounge signs featured slogans like “we respect our elders”).

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Hookah lounge supporters gather outside the Bertha Knight Landes room at city hall.

“You can see the generational gap and also the people that we have versus the people that they have. They [Murray’s supporters] have more conservative, older people,” Medina hookah lounge owner Nabil Mohamed said.

“I'm Eritrean-American and no person that came up here and said that they speak for East Africans [actually] do,” Banaa Be—a young pro–hookah lounge Eritrean woman—said at the end of public comment regarding previous comments over hookah lounges place in East African cultures. “You don't speak for me. I speak for myself.”

The back and forth continued outside of council chambers as the opposing camps faced off, lining up on opposite sides on the large stairway in the city hall atrium and shouting across at one another while simultaneously jockeying for the attention of the television cameras. City hall security attempted to maintain order and deputy mayor Hyeok Kim watched from the sidelines, clearly taken aback by the spectacle. Joined by an elderly member of the East African community, she eventually walked off into the elevator.

Ahmed Ali of the Somali Health Board (he has backed the Mayor on the crackdown from the get-go) told PubliCola that the mayor's office had reached out to him to show up at city hall. “Yes the mayor's office has reached out to me and the Somali community at large,” he said, while Warsame—who was standing next to him—not-so-subtly attempted to tell him to stuff it, shaking her head as I posed the question to Ahmed Ali (when I had put the same question to Warsame a few minutes earlier, she had denied that there was any nudging from the mayor). Ali told me that the mayor's office originally reached to the Somali Health Board out following Donnie Chin's shooting: “They've [the mayor's office] invited us to come talk about the health aspect [of smoking hookah] and how it's impacted the community.”

While Murray's spokesman Shelton acknowledged that the mayor's office was doing outreach "meeting with members of the community to help them participate" he also noted that the East African and API community who support the mayor's proposal "are good organizers themselves."

Members of the Asian American community in the International District were out in force supporting the ban as well, citing issues of late night disturbances and violence.  One commenter said ID community activist Chin would have wanted the lounges to close. “The two hookah bars in our area, King's hookah lounge on Eighth Avenue South and Medina hookah lounge on South Dearborn have been a blight fostering violence, gun play, brawls,” Teresita Batayola, executive officer of the International Community Health Services—which is located in the ID—said. (When Mayor Murray originally announced the crackdown he cited over 100 incidents of fights and disturbances in and around hookah lounges since 2012 and three homicides near such businesses over the last eighteen months, including Chin's shooting, which  occurred near King's Hookah Lounge in the ID—but several hours after the establishment closed.)

I'm looking to see if any of  the organizations that spoke out in favor of the Mayor's crackdown rely heavily on city funding. So far, we know the Somali Health Board, a steadfast backer of the ban, does not receive any funding from the city. 

“If he's going to be our mayor, lead us. Be a mayor, not political,” Nabil said, saying that the mayor’s tactical comeback efforts are not addressing the “underlying issue, which is youth violence, gun violence.” He added that his business and other hookah lounges have received letters from the city ordering them to shut down before the 31st of August.

Yesterday, I reported that the city appears to be taking a different approach when it comes to marijuana lounges, proactively trying to foster them in accordance with laws restricting indoor smoking—a progressive initiative, but one that apparently doesn't extend to hookah lounges.