My father, on the left, was the owner of the Pink Tavern off of Pioneer Square in the late 1940s.
My father, on the left, was the owner of the Pink Tavern in the late 1940s. Courtesy of George P. Paulson

Editor's Note: George P. Paulson recently posted on Facebook the story of his father being driven out of business by corrupt and violent cops. His father was the owner of the Pink Tavern off of Pioneer Square back in the late 1940s. The Pink Tavern was already established when Paulson took it over, and the clientele was African American. Despite its name and location near Pioneer Square, the Pink Tavern was not a gay bar. George does not know the exact address of the business, but believes it was on S. Washington Street. His father has been dead for 17 years.

The following is the story of how corrupt Seattle cops drove my dad out of business. Although this story took place over 70 years ago, the complete lack of accountability on the part of the police will sound very familiar.

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Shortly after being discharged from the US Navy following the end of the war, my dad, Pete Paulson, moved out to the West Coast, got married to my mom, Helen, and became the proud owner of his own business, the Pink Tavern located right off Seattle’s Pioneer Square. The old brick building is still there, on S. Washington Street (my son and I are pretty sure we found it on a visit to Seattle a number of years ago). Back then, that area of Seattle was known as "Skid Road."

Another picture from the family photo album of my dad behind the bar.
Another picture from the family photo album of my dad behind the bar. Courtesy of George P. Paulson

At first, things couldn’t have gone better. Business was great, and my dad seemed to have a real knack for running the business. The Pink Tavern’s customers—all of whom were black—referred to my dad as “Pretty Pete.” “Pretty Pete” liked to roll filterless cigarettes together to make super-long cigarettes, and then pass them out to his favorite customers. They’d sing together the chorus of the song “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think”:

Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.

Business was so good that my dad hired a waitress to help out in the evenings. He even tore out the corner stove—the sole source of heat in the winter—to make room for a few more bar stools. “Pretty Pete” felt like he was living the “American Dream.”

Enter Seattle’s Finest. Of course, the local cops on the beat had been shaking my dad down for money from the get-go. He’d been told that this was just the way things were, just another business expense, like paying the electric bill, and he always paid the cops off without question.

Then, one day, the liquor inspector turned up and demanded his cut. “What? You, too?” my dad asked out loud.

That very evening, the two cops who’d been shaking him down walked into the Pink Tavern and told him: “We hear you’ve been complaining. We’re going to get you.” My dad tried to brush it off, but the cops would have none of it. He’d crossed a red line by publicly acknowledging police corruption.

Not knowing what to do, and scared—he’d put his life savings into the Pink Tavern—he called his brother, George, who was then serving as the Greek Orthodox priest down south in Tacoma. Father George told my dad not to panic, he had friends in the police department, and he’d make it right.

He was able to quickly arrange a meeting with a very high-ranking police officer in the downtown office. The brothers explained the situation to the very high-ranking police officer, and the very high-ranking police officer told them that they must be mistaken, because no police officer serving in the Seattle Police Department would ever shake down a local businessman.

Time for Plan B. Father George suggested that the best thing now would be to offer the cops a really big payoff in hopes that this would set things right. That very evening, the same two cops entered the Pink Tavern and sat down at the bar. My dad placed an envelope stuffed full of cash down in front of them and told them that he wanted to be friends. The cops responded: “We hear you’ve been downtown. We hear you’ve been talking. Get out! We don’t want your money. Get out! We’re going to get you.” And they were as good as their word.

The woman in the middle is my mother. The woman on the right was a server in the bar.
My father is on the left, and the woman next to him is my mother. The other woman, whose name I don't know, was the waitress they hired. Courtesy of George P. Paulson

Hoping to provoke him into taking a swing, the cops called my mom a whore to my dad’s face and accused him of pimping her out to the Pink Tavern’s customers. They planted minors in the tavern with fake IDs, then busted my dad for serving alcohol to minors. He had to pay a fine and spend time in jail. And they started really harassing the customers. One night, the cops followed a customer out the door into the adjoining alleyway where they ended up shooting him dead.

My dad got the message. He took a job as a machinist at Boeing and moved to Tacoma a few years later.

Fast forward about 30 years. My mom was reading the local paper, the Tacoma News Tribune, when she suddenly started shouting, “Pete! Pete! Look! Look! Here he is!” There was a picture of one of the two cops who’d shaken them down for money and driven them out of business all those years ago. He was on the front page. He’d gotten caught up in an investigation of corruption in the Seattle police department. I urged my dad to call the paper and tell them his story. But he just sat in his chair in front of the TV and shook his head repeating over and over, “What’s the use?”

Perhaps not all the cops who were walking the beat on Skid Road back when my dad had the Pink Tavern were corrupt. But to a greater or lesser degree, they were all complicit in that corruption and enabled it to continue year after year because they remained silent. Their silence—that infamous “Blue Wall of Silence”—made any accountability for their actions all but impossible.

I’ll close with some relevant words from an article in Politico written by the legendary Frank Serpico six years ago, written in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson:

[T]oday the Blue Wall of Silence endures in towns and cities across America. Whistleblowers in police departments — or as I like to call them, “lamp lighters,” after Paul Revere — are still turned into permanent pariahs. The complaint I continue to hear is that when they try to bring injustice to light, they are told by government officials: “We can’t afford a scandal; it would undermine public confidence in our police.” That confidence, I dare say, is already seriously undermined.

Things might have improved in some areas. The days when I served and you could get away with anything, when cops were better at accounting than at law enforcement—keeping meticulous records of the people they were shaking down, stealing drugs and money from dealers on a regular basis—all that no longer exists as systematically as it once did, though it certainly does in some places. Times have changed. It’s harder to be a venal cop these days.

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But an even more serious problem—police violence—has probably grown worse, and it’s out of control for the same reason that graft once was: a lack of accountability.

To read a deeply researched account of those years of SPD corruption, see Seattle Justice: The Rise and Fall of the Police Payoff System in Seattle by former King County prosecutor Christopher T. Bayley, which Seattle magazine wrote about here.

George P. Paulson was born in Seattle, grew up in Tacoma, and now lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.