City authorities are trying, again, to shutter the last black-owned nightspot in the increasingly white and gentrified Central District, where the percentage of the population that is black has plummeted from 51 to 21 percent over the past 20 years, according to census data.
On a recent Sunday, after midnight at Waid's Restaurant and Lounge on Jefferson Street and 12th Avenue, several dozen people, most of them black, danced on a crowded floor to upbeat reggae music. "We Are All One," declared a banner looming over the proceedings. "How is this dangerous?" asked club owner Waid Sainvil, in between pouring drinks for patrons at the bar. Sainvil, a stocky naturalized immigrant from Haiti with dreads and a wide smile, has owned and operated the business since 2006. "My customers love this place," he said. If it is shut down, "we'll march downtown," Sainvil promised, glancing up at me with a momentary, fierce look.
The irony is that in 2007, as The Stranger reported at the time, a group of residents who lived near the nightclub marched to City Hall and urged the city council to pass legislation to "protect" their neighborhood. One man who lived around the block told the council that a recent shooting was "the result... of an illegal nightclub in our neighborhood." But Seattle police said there was no connection between the club and the shooting, and the irate residents later apologized for the confusion.
The same story is playing out today, seven years later, only this time around, Seattle police and the city attorney's office are in agreement with some of the neighborhood complaints, asking the Washington State Liquor Control Board to revoke Waid's liquor license—two years after an unsuccessful request to the board ended in a settlement agreement. Losing the liquor license would force Sainvil to close the business that he says is his everything. A hearing is scheduled for next month.
The city's latest arguments to the liquor control board are based on police reports alleging a series of low-level crimes—including $10 and $20 sales of marijuana and serving alcohol to minors—that took place in or around the restaurant. None of the alleged crimes directly involve Sainvil. The club's legions of supporters say police have singled the business out with sting operations designed to entrap Sainvil. In the serving alcohol to minors case, according to documents offered by city officials, three women with fake IDs were able to get inside. In the other cases, bartenders and security guards told undercover cops where they could buy marijuana. Not exactly villainous, violent stuff, particularly in a city that officially ranks small marijuana busts as its lowest law-enforcement priority, and in a state that in November 2012 (the month after the marijuana busts at Waid's) legalized marijuana. The city also cites an allegation of an attempted sexual assault at Waid's in 2011, which Sainvil says is unfounded.
Fans of Waid's emphasize another story: one of a generous, successful immigrant who runs an off-the-wall joint that's an alternative to the usual late-night fare, a place that welcomes fellow migrants, African Americans, and hippies. There's even a weekly Russian night. The club's walls are adorned with posters promoting peace and love, Haitian artwork, and a big Haitian flag. Waid's frequently hosts charity fundraisers and is all about giving back to the community, they say. Then, turning angry and indignant, they say the campaign against Waid's is motivated by racism.
"I reject that, whole cloth," said Matthew York, a senior attorney for the Seattle City Attorney's Office. "I mean, right across the street there's an Ethiopian business that's been there for years. I get that he feels picked on, but we have eight years of problems that have nothing to do with race." At a tense neighborhood meeting in February, York sat at the head of the room with three binders of paperwork stacked on top of each other—years, he said, of police reports involving Waid's nightclub.
After York read off a litany of issues from his binders, Sainvil countered: "The only night that we get complaints is reggae night, when we have black patrons... They say there are shootings. Whatever happens in that area, they put it on me. That's not fair." Employees, patrons, and community activists chimed in, pointing out that black-owned Central District bar/clubs such as Hidmo, Oscar's, Thompson's Point of View, and Club Chocolate City have all shut down. "It's obvious that they're after this guy because they don't want black businesses in Seattle—it's called gentrification," said one. "You could put a stack of stuff on every club in Seattle if you scrutinized them," said another.
A white woman named Carol made exasperated noises, and then raised her hand and identified herself as a resident of the Jefferson, a new multistory, mixed-use structure that recently opened next door to Waid's. "You have to follow the law, okay? What scares me is the gunshots, the fights. You cannot sleep through it," she said. "The people who leave your club, they leave the street and shoot their guns... What I see going on is not okay."
"But it happens all the time in Belltown and Pioneer Square," Robert Redwine, a black music producer, interjected from across the room.
"You're killing your people," she responded.
There were audible gasps, and Redwine called out, "I've never killed nobody. That's a racist statement!" The moderator called for a "time-out." Later on, the woman attempted to clarify that she is not a racist and said she was sorry for the remark.
Sainvil doesn't dispute that the area around his nightclub is violent and crime-ridden. "Just last night, there was a shooting a block away from Waid's," he told me recently, expressing concern that his club would be blamed for the incident. Two years ago, when police tried to pin a violent incident on Sainvil, it ended up undermining the city's case and led to the settlement with the liquor control board, according to Sainvil's attorney Raymond Connell. He and Assistant Attorney General Brian Considine jointly interviewed Seattle police officers at the East Precinct office. The city had asserted that Sainvil was responsible for "overserving" alcohol to two men who beat up and shot a guy who had attacked their girlfriends after they walked out of Waid's. "Each officer had a different version of what happened. The right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing," Connell said, adding that the allegations swiftly lost all credibility. In fact, Connell said, Sainvil called the police to report the shooting as he witnessed it unfold, and police decided to assign him a portion of the blame. But the two men hadn't stepped inside the club all evening, and Connell said they were never charged. Considine did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
Even Sainvil's critics admit he's a stand-up guy. "As for Waid's character, I am sure it is unimpeachable," Tri Nguyen, the landlord of a nearby property, said at the neighborhood meeting. "He has done a lot for the community... that is cool and I love that. That is not the issue. The issue is people cannot sleep. And people are afraid."
But so far, none of the complaints have stuck firmly. The city has never cited Waid's for a noise violation—Sainvil said he's spent tens of thousands of dollars soundproofing the building, and when I walk there, I can hardly hear the boom-bap of the hiphop and reggae until I'm a half block or so away. Even then, it doesn't seem terribly loud.
In a letter to the liquor control board, Assistant Chief Mike Sanford cited a selection of police reports and argued, "These blatant drug deals, disturbances, assaults, and liquor violations show a pervasive pattern of activity that threatens the public safety and welfare of the City of Seattle."
At the neighborhood meeting, however, East Precinct captain Pierre Davis, referring to the provisions of the old liquor control board settlement agreement, equivocated about Sainvil: "This individual had a task. This is what we need you to do. And obviously he's done a large portion of that. There have been some things that have slipped through the cracks." Davis did not explain, when I asked, what Sainvil could have done that he hasn't done.
It would be a "huge loss" if Waid's was forced to shut down, writer Naomi Ishisaka, who's written extensively about gentrification in the CD for Seattle magazine, told me. "There is no space owned and operated by a person of color in the Central District that people can go to after-hours," she said—an important point that's somehow missing from those reams of official paperwork. "This is a last stand."