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Seattle Declares War On Hookah Lounges

<em></em>Jubin Fallahi enjoys a smoke at the Medina Hookah Lounge in Seattle. There are 11 known hookah lounges in the city, and the mayor wants to shut them all down.
Martin Kaste
Jubin Fallahi enjoys a smoke at the Medina Hookah Lounge in Seattle. There are 11 known hookah lounges in the city, and the mayor wants to shut them all down.

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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.