“We was red lined in but now we black balled out so they can sell green… Ike is no uncle to me. How many brothers went to jail on this corner from moving dime bags. In a week he doing, what, a couple of hundred grand?”
Local rapper Draze’s mournful track “Irony on 23rd” has become an anthem for people in the Central District who view Uncle Ike’s, one of the city’s most popular legal pot shops, as a slap in the face.
Since it opened in late 2014 the store has been a source of controversy for the reasons Draze outlines so eloquently in the song — from community members feeling voiceless in the process of land development, to the unfairness of a wealthy white business owner profiting from doing the exact same thing that many poor people of color are still in jail for.
So today on 4/20, the pot smoker’s holiday, community members of plan to take their next stand against Uncle Ike’s Pot Shop.
Protestors will convene at 3pm at Garfield High School before making their way to Uncle Ike’s.
“Unity On Union” is the call to action. Organizers include Draze himself, the NAACP, Africatown, Mount Calvary Christian Center, The Black Book Club, Seaspot Media group and Third Level Events.
Ian Eisenberg, the owner of Uncle Ike’s, didn’t respond to my interview requests. During past protests Eisenberg had been mostly dismissive.
“I feel like I’m in a Spike Lee movie,” he told the Seattle Times earlier this year when hundreds of protestors broke off of the yearly MLK Day March and forcibly shut down the store for a few hours.
But a lot of other people did want to talk about Uncle Ike’s — how it’s become a symbol for uneven development in the CD and the displacement of a historically black community — and the specific legal and ethical issue of the store’s proximity to its neighbor, Mount Calvary Christian Center, and the Joshua Generation Teen Center across the street.
Section 18A of Initiative 502 originally stated that marijuana could not be sold, “within one thousand feet of the perimeter of a school grounds, playground, recreation center or facility, child care center, public park, or library, or any game arcade admission to which is not restricted to persons aged twenty-one years or older.”
But it has since been amended at the discretion of the city to only require retail businesses selling marijuana to have a 500 feet buffer when it comes to child care centers, game arcades, libraries, public parks, public transit centers, and recreational centers or facilities, or 250 feet in the case of property zoned downtown mixed commercial and residential.
Unless the city is now classifying the Central District as downtown, Uncle Ike’s does not appear to meet the required buffer. But rather than put the burden of proof on the business owner, it has been up to the Mount Calvary to prove that the Joshua Generation Teen Center falls under one of the protected categories.
“So the law does not specifically say teen centers or it doesn’t say churches or it doesn’t say mosques,” say Draze. “But I think the spirit of the law when they created it was trying to make sure we had discretion in protecting the youth.”
Mount Calvary tried to argue this point in court for the purpose of getting an injunction to keep Uncle Ike’s from opening in the first place, but lost on the grounds that the Teen Center was not open enough days to meet the criteria.
This didn’t sit well with Reggie Witherspoon, who has been the Pastor at Mount Calvary for 28 years.
“To discredit my teen center and to disrespect my youth and to say it’s not a legitimate teen center is asinine and very offensive,” he said.
For him, the proximity of the weed store to his church is more than just a technicality.
“It’s against everything,” says Witherspoon. “It’s the opposite of what we teach our young people relative to taking care of themselves, the impact of drugs etc. So for them to have to see it every week is just not a good look.”
He says he met with Mayor Ed Murray soon after he learned what Eisenberg was planning to do with the property, which had previously hosted a Mediterranean restaurant that closed after an arson in 2013.
“And I told the Mayor that if this were Magnolia and you were 250 feet away from those white kids in Magnolia, I don’t believe you’d allow the store to open up,” he says. In the end, he concludes, the city prioritized tax revenue over the well-being of the children.
But it’s not just about weed. It’s really about respect for the community.
“This is not an attack on anybody who smokes marijuana or who doesn’t smoke or anyone who has a pot shop, that’s not our issue,” say Draze. “There is one pot shop in the state of Washington that is within the legal of 500 feet from where youth assemble. And it just happens to be in what is known as a traditionally black neighborhood in Seattle. I just don’t think that’s a coincidence.”
Neither does lawyer Sheley Secrest, the Vice President and Chair of Economic Development for the Seattle King County chapter of the NAACP.
“These types of stores, weed stores, that doesn’t happen in white neighborhoods. Mothers, parents, everyone would be outraged at the idea of a store selling these types of drugs within a 500 foot you know radius of where children hang out,” she says.
Over the past few years, Secrest has spent a lot of time contemplating how development can be approached from the standpoint of community benefits.
“We want to be able to be a part of the development,” says Secrest. “We want it to reflect our needs and our wants. We wanted to be able to see the beauty of our culture in our neighborhood so that’s what this action on 420 is about. It’s developing yes, but with a community benefits approach.”
That might seem like an abstraction, but Jaebadiah Gardner of OnPoint Real Estate sees real ways to make that happen.
“In particular to our neighborhood, it really boils down to not being able to have the wealth and resources to acquire the things that we need to maintain our foothold,” says Gardner who recently won a Business Human Rights Leader award from the City Office of Civil Rights.
To him, lack of employment opportunities have also systematically prevented the community from being able to keep pace with the housing market. Gardner calls out the big employers like Amazon and Boeing and asks why they insist on hiring transplants when there are perfectly good local candidates who could fill those positions.
“It’s not just about white people coming in and pushing us out. It’s more about what job employment are we not getting, A, and B, how do we come together as a community to acquire real estate in the Central District in a productive way?” asks Gardner.
Gardner views protests as a Band-aid, and hopes this incident with Uncle Ike’s will be a catalyst for the community to come together to take preventative measures.
“I’m going to host a pretty informal community meeting to literally just lay out the lay of the land in the Central District, to just inform everybody where development projects are going on. Because its also a foresight thing,” says Gardner. “I don’t expect a single mom or the grandparents who take care of their kid’s kids to be on top of this, so I feel like my duty is to make sure that my company informs the community and hope the community uses the information to its best advantage.”
“The eyes of the country are looking at Seattle to see how we handle this.”
Draze is looking forward as well — though his gaze is turned towards how an informed community can make pragmatic decisions about its elected officials.
“Uncle Ike’s is not our focus,” he explains. “It might seem that way. But let’s just say that our focus is our elected officials, our state liquor board etc, they’re the focus. Ian [Eisenberg] doesn’t have the power to change this beyond moving, and he’s already proven that he doesn’t have a heart, not for us, not for these issues.”
If you’re looking for more irony, consider the parallels between the city’s handling of Uncle Ike’s and the push to shut down hookah lounges last summer. Both are cases of businesses operating on the blurry edges of the law. But while the Mayor threatened to shut down the mostly Somali-owned Hookah Lounges, driven by the perception of them hosting a criminal element, he seems to be going out of his way to protect Uncle Ike’s.
“That right there is a shining example of institutionalized racism. If you have the resources and you’re white and you’re able to do things that you know black people couldn’t do,” says Gardner. “We’ve been selling weed for hella long and we’ve been getting in trouble for it, and now its okay? For real? Now its okay? Because you’ve got a license? Because you can afford to get a license?”
“They need to know its wrong, that they blew it,” says Draze in reference to the Mayor and the State Liquor and Cannabis Board. “The community knows it’s wrong and wants them to do something about it, and if they don’t, jobs will be on the line down the road. It’s not a compromise.”
But the stakes are even higher than what happens with Uncle Ike’s and Mount Calvary. Draze views Seattle as the guinea pig for what is likely going to happen across the country.
“The eyes of the country are looking at Seattle to see how we handle this, how we do this, so lets make sure we do it and do it right,” he implores.
“I just want to invite people to come out, sign the petition, and let their voice be heard.”