One night after the murder of International District Emergency Center director Donnie Chin, community leader “Uncle” Bob Santos led about 150 people in a nonviolent rally and march against hookah bars at 10:30 p.m. on Friday, July 24.
Protestors marched through the International District carrying signs that read “Justice for Donnie!” What started as a nonviolent rally against hookah bars soon turned into a celebration of Chin’s life.
In that instant, some would argue, Chin’s murder had become the catalyst for a city-wide push against hookah bars that has recently resulted in plans for action by Seattle’s highest office on Monday.
While the circumstances of Chin’s death are still unclear, Chin had been vocal in his opinion that hookah bars brought undesired elements to the neighborhood. He was also murdered in the vicinity of King’s Hookah Lounge, a hookah bar that had been the focus of complaints by neighborhood residents, particularly those from Legacy House, a senior housing located across the street.
“This lounge, when they close up and the people come out on the street, they’re making so much noise,” Santos said. “Their car radios are blaring, every once in a while you’ll hear gunshots, and this is the intersection Donnie [Chin] patrols after hours because elderly live here, Legacy House, senior housing. … The noise is unbearable for them.”
King’s Hookah owner Amar Al Alimi met with representatives of Legacy House and city officials on June 18 to talk about the complaints of late night noise, litter, and street racing from hookah bar patrons in the area.
Al Alimi said King’s Hookah had attempted several strategies to address concerns, such as raising prices in hopes of attracting a responsible crowd and closing earlier on weekdays, but has not been effective in controlling his clientele once they are off his property.
Sokha Danh of SCIDpda recommended that King’s Hookah have security disperse cars after closing, warn drivers that they will be towed for illegal parking, install cameras, allow a one-time entry for patrons, and close before 2:00 a.m. It is unclear if these measures were taken.
Also at the June meeting, about one month before Chin’s murder, SPD recommended using political pressure to control hookah bars, because prior shootings that occurred at hookah bars in Seattle have not forced businesses to close down. Officers said at the time that they believe the cultural significance of hookah clubs is a critical reason why the city is moving slowly to force closure even though there are health and safety concerns.
This concern would be echoed by some members of the API community in July, following the first nonviolent rally and march led by Santos on July 24. Some community members privately expressed fears that the protests might be interpreted as an attack on another culture.
Hookahs are water pipes that are used to smoke specially made tobacco that comes in different flavors, such as apple, mint, cherry, chocolate, coconut, licorice, cappuccino, and watermelon, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hookah use began centuries ago in ancient Persia and India and they are popular today throughout the world.
One week after the first nonviolent protest, Santos led a second rally and march against hookah bars on July 31.
“After a successful rally last week, we’ve decided to take to the streets again in protest of hookah bars,” organizers of the protest said in a statement. “Hookah bars make the neighborhood unsafe. Unsavory people gather outside of them, park their cars in the middle of the street, and act aggressively toward community members passing by. We want them out of the ID.”
Community activist Frank Irigon said he sees the marches as vital to reducing the violence and crime the lounge brings to the community to an end.
“It’s been an ongoing problem, and hopefully with Donnie Chin’s death, it’s a catalyst,” Irigon said. “Unfortunately, it should have been done a long time ago and maybe Donnie wouldn’t have been murdered.”
About 350 people showed up to the second Friday-night protest and many people lingered in front of King’s Hookah for at least half an hour after the organizers suggested that the demonstration was over.
During the rally, Santos said over the bullhorn that he will lead a protest every Friday night until the Hookah bars in the neighborhood are closed down.
On Monday, August 3, Mayor Ed Murray announced that Seattle and King County are collaborating on enforcement actions against unlawful businesses violating the ban on smoking in places of employment and public places. Murray said the city is filing criminal charges against several businesses that have failed to comply with the law and have already been cited for violations.
That same day, the city filed criminal charges against the owners of King’s Hookah for failure to pay business taxes. If convicted, the penalties range up to a $5,000 fine and/or 364 days in jail.
In a conversation with the International Examiner days prior to Mayor Murray’s announcement, King’s Hookah owner Al Alimi expressed frustration about the protests against his business.
“[Chin’s murder] happened after business hours, I don’t know how they put it on me,” Al Alimi said during a phone conversation on Friday, July 31. “I’m not responsible for public place. I’m responsible for my property. What do they want me to do? Do they want me to patrol the neighborhood for them 24/7?”
Despite Al Alimi’s frustrations, he also expressed sadness for Chin’s death. “I feel bad about what happened,” Al Alimi said. “I agree the area’s not that safe. … I’m in the International District. There’s violence every day.”
The city said that in addition to violent incidents that have occurred near several smoking lounges—ranging from assaults to shots fired—three homicides over 18 months have occurred near smoking lounges, including Chin’s murder outside of King’s Hookah. Seattle Police have responded to more than 100 fights and disturbances connected to smoking lounges since 2012.
“Far too many smoking lounges attract and sustain illegal, violent activity that has no place in our neighborhoods,” Murray said. “These establishments are unlawful businesses that continue to thumb their noses at the law. We will soon have additional authority to help us clamp down on operations that foster an environment that threatens public safety in our neighborhoods.”
There are currently 11 hookah lounges in the city. These lounges serve walk-in customers in clubby or sometimes bar style interiors. They remain open until the early hours of the morning, something that’s in clear violation of state laws and county ordinances that ban smoking in places of employment, officials say.
In order to begin the process of enforcing the smoking ban laws, public health inspectors, working in close partnership with Seattle inspectors and police officers, have been dropping by businesses and issuing $100 smoking ban violations.
Under recent amendments to Seattle’s business licensing code related to Cannabis enforcement, the city can revoke the license of any business that is conducting unlawful operations, including violating the ban on smoking in places of employment. The new ordinance goes into effect on August 16. Business owners that continue to operate without a license face penalties of up to $5,000 a day and/or 364 days in jail.
“When businesses break the law and contribute to an unsafe environment, we must take measures to ensure the safety and health of the public,” said Councilmember John Okamoto. “The recent terrible murder of our friend Donnie Chin reminds us that we must work harder to protect our community and city.”
Santos said on Wednesday, August 5, that there won’t be a march on King’s Hookah Lounge this Friday because of the city’s plans to close hookah bars. However, he said, “if the King Hookah Lounge isn’t closed in the very near future, because of legal loopholes, we will march again on a date and time to be determined.”
The community should now be looking at why hookah bars were allowed to open in the first place, Santos said.
Isaac Liu and Travis Quezon contributed to this report.