Seattle Declares War On Hookah Lounges

Aug 12, 2015
Originally published on August 15, 2015 5:50 pm

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is trying to close all the city's hookah lounges.

Hookahs are the Middle Eastern water pipes used for smoking flavored tobacco, and the lounges have caught on in some parts of the country. Health risks from smoking aside, the city believes the lounges are also magnets for violent crime.

The legal justification for this crackdown is the state's ban on indoor smoking in public places, but the reasons go beyond smoking.

"There have been more than 100 fights and disturbances, and of the 11 hookah establishments that we know exist in city limits, there have been shootings outside of four of them. Three of those shootings have been homicides," Murray says.

In fact, the mayor's crackdown came soon after the late-night shooting death of Donnie Chin, an anti-crime activist in Seattle's Chinatown-International District.

There are still flowers on the sidewalk where he died. The spot is near a hookah lounge that's become a source of annoyance in this mainly Asian neighborhood. Teresita Batayola runs a health services center at the same intersection. She says Chin had been keeping an eye on the hookah lounges.

"He said after the club closed people were congregating outside those clubs, and that they had arms," Batayola says.

The police are still investigating Chin's death, but the city's implication is clear: Hookah lounges are trouble.

Here's where things get complicated, politically. These hookah bars are hangouts for young Somalis and Ethiopians — people who say they often feel left out socially.

Ahmed Washuge has just ordered a hookah flavored with orange, guava and mint. "I can't imagine that being taken away from me, you know?" he says.

He's not talking about the hookah so much as the scene — a room full of youngish people sitting in deep armchairs, playing cards and dice games. A lot of customers say they're here because there's no alcohol, and it's an alternative to the bar scene. Most are recent immigrants, and Washuge thinks that's a factor in the current crackdown.

"Mostly East Africans or Middle Eastern have hookah bars, and I feel like it's more like a race thing," he says.

This argument is catching on. Just in the past few days, civil rights leaders who barely knew what a hookah was have rallied to the cause. On Monday, the issue triggered a "black lives matter" chant during the city council meeting. Attorney James Bible was one of those attacking the policy.

"Ultimately what we have here is a perception that black people are criminals, violent and dangerous, and what the mayor did was demonstrate that not only black lives don't matter to him but black votes don't seem to either," Bible said.

Lost in this anger is the fact that many East African parents don't like the hookah lounges. They worry about what their kids are up to there and some of them have asked for them to be closed. But now their leaders are hedging, saying they're also not eager to run anyone out of business. Seattle's liberal Irish-American mayor, meanwhile, insists this isn't about discrimination.

"If we have a bunch of Irish pubs in this city where young people are being shot and murdered outside of I'll close them down," Murray says. "What we have right now is a situation that is clearly connected to a certain type of business, and we gotta act."

Other American cities have closed hookah lounges based mainly on anti-smoking laws. But now that Seattle has added public safety to the mix, the mayor faces some politically toxic blowback over race.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Seattle has declared war on hookah lounges. Also known as nargile or shisha, depending on where you are in the world. Hookahs are Middle-Eastern water pipes used for smoking flavored tobacco. They and the lounges have caught on in some parts of the U.S. Hookah smokers risk cancer, of course, but as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, Seattle also believes the lounges are magnets for violent crime.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The legal justification for this crackdown is the state's ban on indoor smoking in public places, but the reasons go beyond smoking. Ed Murray is Seattle's mayor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ED MURRAY: There have been more than 100 fights and disturbances, and of the 11 hookah establishments that we know exist in city limits, there have been shootings outside of four of them. Three of those shootings have been homicides.

KASTE: In fact, the mayor's crackdown came soon after the late-night shooting death of Donnie Chin. He was an anti-crime activist in Seattle's International District - that's Chinatown. There's still flowers on the sidewalk where he died. The spot is near a hookah lounge that's become a source of annoyance in this mainly-Asian neighborhood. Teresita Batayola runs a health services center at the same intersection. And she says Donnie Chin had been keeping an eye on the hookah lounges.

TERESITA BATAYOLA: He said after the club closed, people were congregating outside those clubs, if you will, and that they had arms.

KASTE: The police are still investigating Chin's death. But the city's implication is clear - hookah lounges are trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KASTE: But here's where things get complicated politically - these hookah bars are hangouts for young Somalis and Ethiopians, people who say they often feel left out socially. Ahmed Washuge has just ordered himself a hookah flavored with orange, guava and mint.

AHMED WASHUGE: I can't imagine that being taken away from me, you know?

KASTE: He's not talking about the hookah so much as the scene - a room full of youngish people sitting in deep armchairs playing cards and dice games. A lot of the customers say they're here because there's no alcohol and it's an alternative to the bar scene. And most of them are recent immigrants. Washuge thinks that's a factor in the current crackdown.

WASHUGE: Most of the East Africans or Middle Eastern have hookah bars. And I feel like, you know, it's more like a race thing. That's what I think.

KASTE: And this argument's catching on. Just in the last few days, civil rights leaders who barely knew what a hookah was have now rallied to the cause. On Monday, the issue triggered a Black Lives Matter chant during the city council meeting. Attorney James Bible was one of those attacking the policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES BIBLE: And that is the law and that's what they did. And ultimately what we have here is a perception that black people are criminals, violent and dangerous. And what the mayor did was demonstrate that not only black lives don't matter to him, but black votes don't seem to either.

(APPLAUSE)

KASTE: But lost in this anger is the fact that many East African parents don't like the hookah lounges. They worry about what their kids are up to there, and some of them have asked for them to be closed. But now their leaders are hedging, saying they're also not eager to run anyone out of business. Seattle's liberal Irish-American mayor, meanwhile, insists that this is not about discrimination.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURRAY: You know, if we have a bunch of Irish pubs in this city where people - young people - are being shot and murdered outside of, I'll close them down. What we have right now is a situation that is clearly connected to a certain type of business, and we've got to act.

KASTE: Other American cities have closed hookah lounges based mainly on anti-smoking laws. But now that Seattle has added public safety to the mix, the mayor here faces some politically toxic blowback over race. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.