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Seattle Queer bars targeted in weekend busts; LCB claims "business as usual"

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The Cuff
The Cuff

Two late-night outings by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board and Seattle's Joint Enforcement Team have local Queer businesses shaken and angry as community leaders seek to address the harm the exercises have inflicted.

Called "raids" by bar owners on social media, the patrols were described by LCB Chair David Postman as business as usual, and not part of a targeted effort to crack down on Queer spaces.

Despite these assurances, however, the LCB and JET have significantly shaken the Queer community's sense of safety and trust in their leadership.

The controversy reflects long-standing and historical tensions between bar owners and their patrons on one side and law enforcement on the other, most concerning lewd conduct. The weekend's LCB and JET exercises resulted in reports of such alleged violations.

In the face of these actions, local bar owners have banded together to call for an explanation of the inspections and demand greater accountability for the regulatory agencies that exercise control over Queer spaces.

As of publication, neither bar owners nor the LCB have responded to the SGN for comment.

Two late-night busts
The enforcement actions took place on the nights of Friday, January 26, and Saturday, January 27. The blog Capitol Hill Seattle reported that the Cuff Complex, the Eagle, Massive, Neighbours, and Queer/Bar were among the targeted establishments.

Friday night's busts were conducted by Seattle's Joint Enforcement Team, an organization started around 2015 that coordinates collaborative enforcement between business regulatory agencies such as the LCB, the Seattle Police Department, the Seattle Fire Department, and the Department of Transportation.

According to Postman in a routine LCB caucus meeting Tuesday morning, Friday's exercise affected ten establishments, two of which were known Queer spaces. He said that this resulted in one instance in which officers "did see people who were dressed in a current violation," referring to laws regulating public nudity in alcohol-serving establishments.

Joey Burgess, owner of the Cuff, told The Stranger that JET entered the bar at 12:30 Saturday morning with flashlights, frightening several patrons. The agents spotted a bartender's bare nipple and at least one patron in a jockstrap. Describing the scene, Postman said as many as 10 officers could have been involved, representing all of the JET agencies.

Postman told the community members present at the meeting that "these were not raids" but "two separate instances of standard enforcement action," and that "there is no crackdown."

Nonetheless, Postman's own statements make it clear that, for those present at the busts, this was a distinction without a difference. Enforcers even took photographs of the bar patrons dressed in the allegedly offensive attire, for evidence.

Said Postman, "I can certainly see how this would look and feel to somebody inside of these clubs."

Saturday's enforcement action was conducted not by JET but by the LCB. At least two Queer establishments were targeted, though reports from more establishments have surfaced. This resulted in the officers reporting another lewd conduct violation.

According to Postman, "This was just LCB officers, two who were doing their regular Saturday night work.... [One] witnessed another apparent violation of the lewd conduct law. The other witnessed no violations at all."

Fighting legal harassment
At the heart of the weekend's de facto crackdown is a legal situation that leaves Queer bars uniquely open to harassment by law enforcement, and a concern over the agencies' targeting of Gay men.

Bar owners teamed together to issue a statement demanding accountability from JET and the LCB. The coalition's statement says, "None of the venues in our coalition have ever been cited for alcohol- or violence-related offenses. Citations were issued based solely on individuals' clothing choices, such as being shirtless or wearing a jockstrap, which we consider a breach of the power entrusted to JET and the LCB for maintaining public safety."

The coalition also declared, "The absence of violence- or liquor-related issues in the citation indicates a concerning focus on targeting Queer individuals in Queer spaces."

Washington law
Washington's lewd conduct laws leave little room for free expression in businesses where alcohol is sold. According to the Washington Alcohol Code 314-11-050, 1(a, b), "Licensees may not allow, permit, or encourage employees (including him or herself) to: Be unclothed or in such attire, costume, or clothing as to expose to view any portion of the breast below the top of the areola or of any portion of the pubic hair, anus, cleft of the buttocks, vulva, or genitals."

This does not apply merely to genital nudity or sexual activity. As stated, the law does not allow any employee, regardless of sex or gender, even to be shirtless in a place where alcohol is sold.

While the legislature considers changing these laws to allow alcohol sales in strip clubs — as lobbied for by the worker group Strippers Are Workers (SAW), a move that would weaken the legal justification for these citations — Postman said the weekend's proceedings took place "as they should": "When there's laws on the books, it's really hard to just say, well, we've decided not to enforce that one. The lawmakers, the legislature, doesn't like that, and for good reason."

In an attempt to take some pressure off the bar owners themselves, Postman explained, "When I looked up some of these clubs, the reviews of these clubs, in more than one instance, include ... how uptight they are and how strictly they enforce Washington State liquor laws... I read that and I go, 'Right on.'"

Burgess, however, described exactly what this means for the Queer community. "You're allowed to be who you are in Seattle," he explained, "as long as you don't go into a Gay bar."

A point of agreement
Underscoring the corner the law paints Queer spaces into, Postman agrees. "The lewd conduct law — it's problematic," he said. "There were photographs taken, as evidence. I think that's unfortunate. [However,] I understand why that happened."

Postman's statements highlight an approach to the enforcement of laws that disproportionately impact and harm some communities. As to what appears to be LCB policy, Postman articulated the imperative to enforce laws as written, without selectivity: "For our officers, they don't get to just ignore it. If they go into a club and they see something, whatever it is, their obligation is to follow up. They don't say, 'Well, that's not a priority, so I'm not gonna say anything to anybody about that.' We don't do that. We tell the people about the apparent violations and then we come back and talk about it. That's what's happening here, and I think that's happening the way it should."

Despite earnest denial that there is no concerted effort against Seattle Queer bars, Postman's statements do not address why so many were targeted in such a short time, nor the reasoning behind choosing these establishments in particular. His statements merely call these exercises "our normal business."

If Postman is correct, then to these business owners, it's business as usual that's to blame. According to Burgess, "They're just not going into the other bars the same way as this."

"I hate to feel like [it's discrimination]," he said, "but to me, there is no other answer."

This story will be updated as new information is received.