Seeznins: The Rise and Fall of a Young Black Man's Dream
What you see depends on where you stand
By Helen Silvis Of The Skanner News
July 11, 2011Sam Thompson is crushed. His dream was to open a bar that would bring people together to enjoy themselves: a bar that would connect Portland's Black community and be a positive force for change. Last December, when he opened Seeznin’s Bar and Grill on 82nd Avenue, his hopes were high. But just months down the road that dream is shattered. Now, Thompson says, he has been forced to close Seeznin’s for good.
Unlike most rapid restaurant closures, money isn’t the main reason. What’s at issue is how Portland deals with gang violence. And how Portland Police Department view Thompson’s bar and his predominantly, but far from exclusively, young Black customers.
“I called the bar Seeznin’s because that’s my name,” said Thompson. “So every time you say something bad about it that’s hurting me.”
Portland Police Chief Mike Reese made his views clear in a letter he wrote June 28th, asking the Oregon Liquor Commission to immediately suspend Seeznin’s liquor license. In his letter, Reese cites the fatal shooting June 26 of Leonard Irving, on 82nd Avenue opposite the bar. He also characterizes the bar as a hangout for “Crip” gang members and connects it to the April 10 shooting death of 19-year-old Mario Marin, at nearby NE 86th St. and Sacramento.
“Based on the history of serious and persistent problems and the authority granted under ORS 183.430 (2), I am requesting an emergency suspension,” Reese says in the letter. “I believe the recent events of documented gang activity and two murders associated with the establishment in the last ninety days, gives you grounds to enact such order.”
Deal With the People Causing the Problem
Thompson says Reese’s letter asking for Seeznin’s liquor license to be instantly revoked is false in its overall conclusions and in many details. It's defamatory, he says.
“They have labeled my bar as a gang bar, not understanding that it’s not that at all,” he maintains. “I’m a victim of the violence that’s been going on – as well as of these false accusations. To characterize me as gang associate is highly offensive.”
Thompson told The Skanner News his intentions were quite the opposite. He wanted to create an environment that supports positive relationships among young Portlanders. By creating a place to develop positive community networks, Thompson hoped to help give young Black men opportunities and help them stay out of trouble.
“I have no sympathy for gang members,” he says. “I believe people who are terrorizing the community need to be treated as terrorists and taken off the streets.
“Bars have never killed anyone. Parks have never killed anyone. Deal with the people who are the problem.”
Shootings have occurred in many parts of the city, on neighborhood streets and in parks as well as near drinking establishments, including: The Interstate Bar and Grill, The Good Call, the 82nd Avenue Bar and Grill, and JDs Bar and Grill on NE 60th, as well as downtown at Kelly’s Olympian, the 915 Club, the Barracuda nightclub and the underage club, The Zone. Response from the OLCC has varied. The 915 lost its liquor license immediately, for example, but others, such as the Interstate Bar and Grill, and the Good Call, remain open until 2 am.
Joyce Olivo, who runs Good Tymez Entertainment, helped organize a youth employment fair at Seeznin’s during the day on a Saturday, and she held receptions there for two of her young performing artists.
“I’ve been to Seeznin’s countless times and I’ve never felt unsafe,” she told The Skanner News. “I’ve never seen any gathering of gang members or questionable people there ever. Every time I went there I felt safe. I was embraced by everyone there: by Sam, by his mother, by his sister. The people who went there were family, friends, longtime members of Portland’s Black community.
“I think it’s very sad that they moved so quickly to condemn Sam, instead of giving him some support. Do you know how many bar fights there are every weekend all over town?
"In fact the same night of the shooting, there was a stabbing downtown. Did they close the bars near there early? No."
Thompson hit out at city policymakers, saying Portland has its priorities wrong.
“Do you know bike lanes will get $600 million over the next 20 years, but there is half a million for gang outreach for the next two years.” he said.
“Outreach organizations have to go to a bidding party to get any funding. We have the worst kind of racism here in this town. It’s not blatant – it is undercover. It’s better to be a bike or a dog in this town than a black male.”
The City of Portland funds 10 outreach workers who serve at-risk youth across the city.
What You See Depends on Who You Are
Reese starts his letter by noting that when officers went to “walk-through” the newly opened bar on Dec. 4, 2010, they noticed “everyone in the establishment was dressed in blue clothing.” Outside on the street, officers had seen a man they identified as a “known Rollin’ 60s Crip Gang Member.”
Thompson had painted his bar in the colors of his alma mater Grant High School -- blue and silver, a color choice which may have played into the police perception. A native Portlander, who grew up in “The Hood” at NE 39th and Killingsworth Street, Thompson says his mother Karen Jackson gave him all he needed to stay on the right track. After graduating from Grant, Thompson went to college on a basketball scholarship, and took business classes, then ran a promotions and events company in Indiana. More recently he worked at Self Enhancement Inc. as an in-school coordinator, mentoring high school students.
One of Thompson’s students at SEI was Andre Dupree Payton. Payton graduated from Grant High School in 2010, but soon after he was shot and killed outside of a downtown night club. Thompson says that’s what prompted his decision to do everything in his power to prevent other young lives being lost to violence. He started a campaign, Restore the Village, that sought to bring the community together to support youth and families.
Thompson hoped Seeznin’s would be a place where community members could connect with one another and build a support network for struggling youth and families.
In its short life the bar hosted: a Benson High School Alumni 10-year reunion (free of charge); a youth employment fair that gave 22 young people food handlers cards; a retreat for Oregon Convention Center staff and receptions for singer songwriters Aaron O’Bryan Smith and Talia Reasoner, who won BETPark talent competions. Thompson helped organize a basketball tournament at SEI, and he hosted a free barbecue for families and children in nearby Glenhaven Park, paying out of his own pocket for food and a bouncy castle. The Skanner News Video: Job fair
Thompson says he hoped to attract customers from all walks of life, including his Restore the Village partners. Fewer came than he expected, but he was pleased to be visited by Terrell Brandon and Jerome Kersey.
Staff from Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice, gang outreach workers, youth workers from the Police Activities League and dozens of grassroots activists attended a series of Restore the Village meetings this year. But despite those efforts and a similar church-led campaign, Portland has seen a spate of shootings, and two of them occurred close by Thompson’s bar.
Police Chief Reese details these shootings and other police reports in his letter to the OLCC. After the initial walkthrough that set off police alarms, police were called to a fight on Dec. 29. When an officer arrived he found one intoxicated man in the street outside of the bar. Thompson told the police officer the man was part of a private bachelor party and was under the influence when he arrived at the club.
A Young Man Shot Dead in the Vicinity
Three and a half months later, on April 10, police got a call from a gang outreach worker who said a fight had broken out at the bar and a group of young black males were “refusing to leave.” The outreach worker identified the group from their clothing as “Hoover” crips gang members. As officers were responding they were alerted to a fatal shooting. Mario Marin Alexander, 19, was shot and killed on NE 86th and Sacramento about two blocks from the bar. Nobody has been arrested for the crime, but Reese identifies Marin as one of the “Six Deuce Crips,” a rival to the Hoovers, suggesting a gang killing.
Thompson says he did refuse entry to a group of young Black males that night. But he denies a fight occurred and says he has the video to prove it.
“They were underage,” he said. “They were kids. I have never served minors. I’ve worked with minors and I would never let minors inside the bar (during drinking hours).”
In fact, Thompson maintains there were no fights in his bar or on his premises – period.
Kendal Smith backs this claim up. “I’m a witness. I have been there every single day it’s been open– except two, and there have been no fights at all within the bar,” he said. “
The neighborhoods along 82nd Avenue have seen other shootings in recent months. On April 25 a woman was robbed and shot on NE Russell and 84th Avenue, but Reese did not link that to the bar. Police arrested and charged 19-year-old Domonique Williams, July 8, for attempted murder, robbery and for being a felon in possession of a weapon.
A Loaded Gun in a Trash Can
A month later, on May 20, police were patrolling 82nd Avenue and saw men they identified as Crip gang members about to enter Seeznin’s. One of those men, Dante ‘Manny” Hall was a suspect in “numerous gang-related shootings in the Portland Metropolitan area over the past several years,” Reese writes in the letter. Officers suspected Hall had a gun, so after trying unsuccessfully to stop him outside, they followed him inside the bar. There, Reese says, they found a loaded 45 revolver in a wastebasket, and found Hall “hiding in a closet area.”
Police took Hall into custody on a parole violation.
Reese writes that Thompson told officers Hall was ‘family‘ and had called him by a nickname ‘Fresh’ saying, “Do you want me to call your mom?” Thompson says he did so because, “I know his mom.”
But he says police never told him they had recovered a gun that night.
“No-one has ever told me a gun was recovered in my building,” Thompson says. “They never showed me a gun recovered in my building. They came in with a brown paper bag and they left with a brown paper bag. I have the video. At the very least, let me know what you’ve found in my bar.”
Thompson says police told him Hall was a felon under supervision and not allowed in a bar. He says he asked police to give him a list of people who should not be in the bar and he would enforce it. In the absence of a list, he welcomed any adults who were behaving well. According to Reese’s letter, police were also suspicious of Thompson because he rents the building from Eddie Bynum, who has a criminal record. Bynum had told a police officer he was the “money backer” for the bar, the chief writes. But Thompson says his only connection to Bynum is as a tenant. ‘My only dealings with Eddie are that I lease the building from him,” he says. “And that was on my OLCC application.”
A Meeting But Not a Meeting of Minds
On May 24, Thompson met with police and OLCC staff including: Officer Charles Harris, Liquor License Investigator for the Portland Police Bureau’s Drugs and Vice Division; Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Commander Bill Walker; East Precinct Captain Mark Kruger; Tactical Operation Division Lieutenant Tom McGranahan; Gang Enforcement Team Sergeant Don Livingston; East Precinct Neighborhood Response Team Sergeant Wendi Steinbronn; East Precinct Neighborhood Response Team Officer Joe Young; East Precinct Neighborhood Response Team Officer Chris Barber; Pete O’Rourke (OLCC); Carl Lewis (OLCC); Theresa Marchetti (Office of Neighborhood Involvement); and OSP Detective Roger Edwards (Lottery Division).
Thompson admits he probably was on the defensive at the meeting. He expected to see some friendly faces in the form of the mayor’s Public Safety Advocate Antoinette Edwards and Rob Ingram director of the Office of Youth Violence Prevention. Instead, he says, “It was me on my own and 18 people who hated me.”
Thompson says talked about his vision of providing a safe place where no gang affiliation was tolerated. And he talked about his work with youth. But police viewed it differently.
Reese wrote about the meeting, “It was brought to Thompson’s attention that exposing children to known gang members is not the safest thing to do.”
Joyce Olivo says Reese just doesn’t get it.
“Sam’s a very good person, and he really opened his place up to the community,” says Olivo. He held a three day event open to families and kids. That’s why I held the youth employment fair there... He’s a young Black male in this city, trying to do good, and it’s really sad that rather than lending him more support, they condemned him right from the start.”
A 'Good Dude' Meets a Tragic End
After the meeting, Thompson painted his building beige, he said, in an attempt to reverse the prevailing police view of his bar. But worse was to come. On June 28, after a 21st birthday party at the bar, an unidentified assailant shot and killed Leonard Irving. Irving, 34, was a father who worked two jobs to provide for his family. He had gone to the bar to attend the birthday party for his nephew, Lamare Lovette Hill.
But in the early hours of the morning, as Irving and Hill were leaving, words were exchanged between Hill and another man. Irving intervened trying to calm the situation. He took his nephew and had crossed the street when shots were fired. Irving was hit four times in the back and died at the scene. One bullet hit Hill in the neck, injuring him. Another bullet hit Jeray Lashawn Jessie, 21, wounding him in the arm.
“He was a good dude,” Thompson says of his friend Leonard Irving. "He was good people and I was close to him and his family.”
And he says, videotape will show the shooter did not come from within the bar.
“Whoever did that was never in the bar,” he says. “That was a tragic event, but I am not responsible for that person’s criminal behavior.”
Police arrested Isaiah Eric Mandley Jr., 23, and charged him with murder, but released him five days later saying he was innocent of the crime.
Chief Reese writes that gang enforcement officers told him they knew Hill to be a ‘Woodlawn Park Blood, and currently in a feud with all Crip sets.” And they said at the hospital it was clear that bad blood existed between Hill and Jessie. To cap it off, Dante ‘Manny” Hall, was one of Jessie’s visitors.
Despite Chief Reese’s advocacy, the Oregon Liquor Licensing Commission did not suspend Seeznin’s license. Instead it placed seven stringent restrictions on the bar. The OLCC told Thompson that to continue as a bar he would have to:
Hire at least four DPSST-certified security people to be on duty Fridays and Saturdays from 9pm to close, and one DPSST-certified security person all other time.
Institute a dress code. Anyone wearing “gang-related clothing” to be refused entry. The OLCC list of “gang-related” clothing includes: “athletic jerseys… torn or ragged clothing, casual sweat pants or track suits, headwear of any kind, or known biker or street gang attire, including colors.”
Wand everyone entering the bar and search all bags. Any person with a weapon (or prohibited item) to be refused entry for 24 hours.
Refuse to let anyone who leaves the bar after 10:30 pm re-enter until the next business day.
Use age verification equipment to check the age of every patron.
Report any violent of illegal activity to the Portland Police Bureau immediately.
Shut down the bar at 11 pm, with the business to close at 11:30 pm.
Can A Young Black Male Run a Bar in Portland?
For Thompson, the restrictions meant the end of his dream. He’s closing Seeznin’s, he says, because the restrictions would effectively kill his business anyway. He can’t afford to hire so many security staff, and there is no point in a bar that has to close just as his customers are going out. He says the age verification machine requirement makes no sense when he has never allowed minors to enter at night. As for the clothing code, Thompson and his staff say it’s aimed at anyone wearing clothing common to most young Black men.
“Their advice is 1970s crap,” he said.
“Gang members don’t wear colors nowadays. They dress just like everyone else. And it’s a sports bar. So how are you going to tell people not to wear their team clothes.”
Thompson says he doesn’t know yet what he’s going to do. He just knows his dream of a community bar that brings networking opportunities and new choices to young Portlanders won’t happen this time around.
Olivo says Seeznin’s was an important resource that could have made a lasting positive impact on Portland.
“Portland has a really small Black community, and many of us don’t feel comfortable when we go out downtown," she said. "At Seeznin’s we could see a gathering of people who looked like us, and we could go somewhere where we were welcomed.
“What’s happened to Seeznin’s goes to support the feeling that many of us have in this city: that Portland is a very racist city. Our dollars are welcomed when we go to spend them in some White-owned bars or clubs downtown. But when we try to bring money back into our community, by supporting Black-owned businesses, then that’s a problem.
“They wanted him to fail.”
For Kendal Smith and Yarmaire, who both helped behind the bar, the loss of Seeznin’s is more than losing a job or a hangout. It means having to deal with a social world they feel doesn’t want them. When more than one or two young Black men go out together downtown, they said, clubs refuse them entry, saying there are “too many of you.”
“They let you go in if it’s 9 pm, but not if it’s 11 and more people are around. Or they say you can go in but you can’t come out and go in again,” Yarmaire said.
Both men say that inside Seeznin’s they had some of the best times ever. Tragically, Smith said, the night that Leonard Irving was killed had been one of the best.
“It was moving. It was a nice night.”
MORE: City of Portland Seeks New Powers toControl Bars
Watch the Skanner News Video: Seeznins parody of D'Angelo
Photos from top: Sam Thompson; teens at Seeznin's job fair; Thompson with JRiss of Streetbeat magazine; Thompson with Joyce Olivo at the job fair; Shakeena Richmond, Sarina Simpson of Lifeworks, Quinice Jenkins and Marilyn Lindsay were among more than a dozen volunteers at the job fair; Mario Alexander Marin; children play on the bouncy castle Thompson brought to Glenhaven Park for a free family barbecue; Kendal Smith tended the barbecue