Race, Poverty and Neglect Dominate Casino Hearing, By: Richard Brenneman

Friday March 17, 2006

Issues of race, poverty and neglect dominated during the next-to-final hand of a high stakes gamble over the future of North Richmond. 

More than 200 supporters and foes of a plan to build a tribal casino in the unincorporated area gathered in Richmond Memorial Auditorium for the final hearing on a key environmental document. 

The draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will be used to help the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs determine if a disinherited tribe should be granted a new reservation on the site, the critical step before the massive casino can rise along Richmond Parkway. 

Don Arnold, chair of the Scotts Valley Band of Pomos—the tribal group seeking to have the land declared a reservation—listened throughout the hearing but made no comments for the record. 

The tribe is partnered with a Florida developer who specializes in packaging tribal casinos. They plan to build the Sugar Bowl Casino, a 225,000-square-foot, 1,940-slot Las Vegas-style gambling palace. 

Andres Soto, a Richmond Progressive Alliance activist and former city council candidate, was first to raise the issue of race, charging that casino developers had held out African Americans as the community’s “gatekeepers,” while North Richmond is seeing a rise in Latino and Asian residents. 

Noting that an elementary school near the casino site has a 65 percent Latino enrollment, Soto called for a new dialog. 

“Shame on you, Andres Soto,” said Barbara Becnel, an African American who serves as executive director of Neighborhood House of North Richmond, a program that provides services and housing for felons and substance abusers and provides meal for those in need.  

A frequent ally of Soto’s on other issues, Becnel said the casino is needed because “we need jobs in this community, and we can’t wait. It’s inhumane of our leaders to say we have to wait.” 

A major selling point for Becnel was the promise of Don Arnold, chair of the Scotts Valley Band of Pomos, to hire ex-felons, something neither the nearby city of Richmond nor Contra County is eager to do, Becnel said. 

Soto also blasted Analytical Environmental Services, the consulting firm that prepared the EIS. 

”They proudly describe their bread and butter business as doing reports for gaming tribes,” said Soto. “They have a vested interest in sugar-coating their reports.” 

A Thursday check of the firm’s website—www.analyticalcorp.com—showed that of 15 current documents available on-line, 10 were for Native American casino projects. 

Both Soto and William Thompson, a University of Nevada-Las Vegas professor who has been hired by casino opponents, criticized the EIS for neglecting the issue of gambling addiction. 

“The draft EIS is deceptive and incomplete,” said Thompson. “It implies no crime connections, an audacity that rises to the heights of deception.” 

Thompson cited the case of a Casino San Pablo winner who was followed out of the casino and robbed while attempting to deposit her winnings in a bank ATM. 

“No casino ATMs take deposits,” he added, a remark that drew gasps and chuckles from the audience. 

Thompson also said the casino would suck money from the already impoverished community, enriching Nevada slot machine makers to the tune of $30 million to furnish the machines and the tribe’s corporate business partner in Florida who will get 35 percent of the net for a tribe that doesn’t live in the area. 

“The money is coming out of the community. There will be no tourists because there is no hotel and no tourist attractions,” he said. 

Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who wasn’t able to attend Wednesday’s meeting, said Thursday that he was very concerned with the document’s lack of consideration of negative impacts. 

“It’s very hard to spell out mitigations when you don’t go into detail about the negative impacts. The Board of Supervisors is on record against the expansion of casinos in the West County. With three Las Vegas style casinos proposed within a few miles of each other, we have become the ground zero of urban gambling in California,” he said. 


Tribe vs. tribe 

One point on which all parties agreed was that Native Americans had been the target of virulent, often genocidal racism at the hands of the American government, and that the Scotts Valley Band and others had been wrongly stripped of their reservations a half-century earlier. 

But the casino project has also pitted tribe against tribe, with two Pomo bands confronting the Muwekma Ohlones, the only group of the three recognized as historic inhabitants of the site—the Pomos hailing from further north in Lake, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. 

The Muwekmas, however, have been denied recognition by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, despite their passionate arguments and the avid support of archaeologist Allan Levanthal, who appeared Wednesday night to argue on behalf of the tribe. 

Tribal chair Rosemary Cambra, accompanied by co-chair Monica Arellano, made a dramatic argument against granting the Pomos a reservation on traditional Ohlone lands. 

“We’ve never backed away from a public challenge when it comes to our religion, our history, or genealogy and our relationship to our sacred sites,” said Cambra. 

Turning to Scotts Valley chair Arnold, Cambra declared, “I don’t want to debate over our sacred sites versus your development, over sovereignty over our sacred sites versus your love of money,” she declared. “Take your vision home . . . do it in your own home. 

The Scotts Valley tribe is traditionally based near Lakeville. 

“Bring it on. Bring on the fight,” she declared. “But remember it is the Muwekma’s land. We’ve never left our land.” 

(The Muwekma’s aren’t entirely opposed to casinos; Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown once proposed backing them for a casino at the old Oakland Army Depot.) 

Another Pomo band was on hand to support Arnold and his tribe. 

Michael Derry, CEO of the Guidiville Rancheria’s economic development arm, urged approval of the Scotts Valley project. 

The Guidivilles are planning a casino of their own at Point Molate, a project which is several months behind the Sugar Bowl proposal. 

After the meeting Arnold said his band had supported the Muwekmas in their fight for recognition. “The reason they weren’t included in the EIS is that they aren’t federally recognized. One of our biggest problems is that we fight among ourselves,” he said, “and a hundred years later, and we’re both still fighting the federal government.” 


Other speakers 

Richmond City Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin was the only elected official to speak. 

While sympathizing with the plight of the tribe and recognizing the troubles faced by North Richmond residents, McLaughlin said the casino “will not bring about increased well being and quality of life just because it’s sought by Native American people.” 

The community needs “other, realistic alternatives to get out of decades of poverty and neglect.” 

Chantay Scott, who is of African American and Choctaw heritage, offered “100 percent support for casino. North Richmond has nothing now.” 

Lee Jones, president of the North Richmond Municipal Advisory Council and an African American, said that fears of crime were ridiculous, given that the community “is already inundated with crime and HIV. The community is full of it. We’re up to our necks.” 

The community needs jobs and hope, he said. 

“I feel like a swimmer in the ocean and all of a sudden I look over the horizon and I see this poor Indian saying he would throw us a life jacket and rescue us . . . let’s grab the life preserver.” 

But Latondra Goode, another African American, said “it’s a life preserver that’s thrown to us that’s filled with lead,” citing a study which she said revealed that the typical costs per resident of a new casino amounted to $214 a year. 

Tim Cromartie, an aide to state Sen. Kevin Murray, said he favored tribal casinos—but not in urban areas. 

Genocide can never be erased, he said, but casinos are not valid economic development projects for poor communities. 

“Yes, they bring jobs. But when you factor in all the social ills, they’re a band-aid. In the long run, the social ills will outweigh the economic development.” 

Fred David Jackson, who works at Neighborhood House and has lived in North Richmond since 1956, praised the casino project. 

“Crime is so bad now that I don’t think it can increase any more. The Native Americans can help empower our community,” he said. “They should have this chance.” 

Two BIA officials listened patiently throughout the hearing: Environmental Protection Specialist Patrick O’Malley and John Rydzik, chief of the BIA’s Pacific Region Division of Environmental, Cultural Resource Management and Safety. 

The agency is expected to reach a decision on granting the reservation in 120 days..