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April 7, 2006
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Volume 34
Issue 14
 
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SEATTLE GAY HISTORY: The police pay off system ca. 1970
SEATTLE GAY HISTORY: The police pay off system ca. 1970
by Don Paulson - SGN A&E Writer

PART I: There was a musical in the 1950s called 'Tenderloin' which was in reference to the pay off system. The words read, "Isn't it funny the way money changes hands," which meant that everyone gets a cut, all the way to the top...

At the time of the Seattle pay off system nearly 1000 people profited directly from the rackets: Boot leg whiskey, organized theft, robbery, drug traffic, abortion, gambling, prostitution, land transactions, arson, phony stock sales and usury. The pay off system provided a safe haven for these illegal activities and insured them free of raids. Gay bars also got caught in the money net.

There were those who profited greatly by the system, but to tavern and gay bar owners it was a constant irritation. Mocambo gay bar owner Bob Bedord said, "We were not doing anything wrong, so, why should we pay? Also, we didn't think the police should have that much power."

Jim Feigley who owned the gay 611 Tavern recalls: "I got awfully tired of paying off every month. Once I gave them all Canadian money. They came back later and said, we don't take this shit, and I had to give them American money."

Bill Parkin who owned the gay Pike Street Tavern recalls the intimidation gay bar owners and their customers endured: "One time I had a change of beat cop. He'd come in, check I.D. and sit there and glare at the customers and drive them away. He was 6,' 4," good looking and terrifying. We called him, 'T.D.N,' - tall, dark and nasty. If you gave him any lip, he'd haul your ass to jail. The police had tremendous power, just one look could make you flee like you were a common criminal. Besides being homophobic, he was a cop who couldn't be bought and would not accept bribes.

"I finally complained to a Sergeant that I might as well close because T.D.N. drove all my customers away. The next day, my regular cop came in and said T.D.N. was transferred and the pay off's continued at the Pike Street Tavern. You could always tell it was the first of the month because a cop would walk in and go to the back room and you'd hand him an envelope with $100 in it."

According to Parkin, the pay off system definitely had an element of Mafia about it: you had to play the game or else. It opened the city to all sorts of illegal activities which brought in a lot of money, but it was totally unfair to legal business's like gay bars, he said.

Jim Watson who owned the gay Blue Note Tavern wanted to call his place the Blue Angel, but the vice squad said no because the angel is a religious symbol. He refused to pay off the police. "...[T]hey found all kinds of ways to bug me, and, then, they harassed my customers. I advised them not to show I.D. because showing it is against the 14th amendment. Finally I had to close."

Bob McFerron had a similar story. "No, you can't name your gay bar the Golden Garter because that is a ladies garment," he said they had told him.

"After I opened the Golden Horseshoe, two officers came in with greasy palms and I began to pay them $100 a month. As our popularity grew, it was a weekly thing. They even wanted a key to the back door so they could bootleg on weekends - no way!" said McFerron.

"On the other hand, a liquor inspector came in and caught a minor in here, I was in trouble. I told the beat cop about it and he said, 'What's that S.O.B doing in here, I told him to stay away!' Well he and another officer went out an arrested him for being drunk on the job. The beat cop tore up the violation ticket and I never heard anything more about it. But the pay offs continued."

The pay off system however was a quasi-blessing to the gay community in that it softened police harassment of gay bars and protected them from police raids - but there was considerable harassment if the bars refused to pay. But the handwriting was on the wall and soon the dreaded homosexuals would bring the whole system down.

Jim Feigley: "Mac and John who owned the 611 Tavern complained to City Hall, but they turned it around and were more concerned with their sexual orientation. Eventually, they did investigate but they never questioned any of the gay bar owners, only the police department. Four years later - when still nothing was done about it - they wrote the F.B.I."

Bill Parkin recalls: "When Mac and John complained to the F.B.I. it all came down. The 'homosexual problem' grew into a police problem. It was a shaker, the news story of the decade as the palace began to crumble. It was labeled 'Gayola' in the gay community. When it all came down to a jury trial, my picture was on the front page of The Seattle Times. It was a terrifying experience. We never knew who was going to be outside our door.

"Mayor Wes Uhlman ordered an inquiry by a blue ribbon committee and superior court judges called for a grand jury later that year. For all the gay bar owners who had to testify, it was scary as hell. Since gays were identified as whistle blowers, we kept waiting for reprisals from those who did not want the system ended."

The Wilson Brothers at the Times who broke the story got so many upsetting calls they had their telephone unlisted for the next twenty years. At this time the 'Queen City Business Guild' was formed. It was a protective organization for gay bars.

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