16 protesters arrested as Alabama state police raid electronic bingo casino

Thursday, July 1, 2010

16 protesters arrested in Ala bingo casino raid

EUTAW, Ala. — The governor’s bid to shut down electronic bingo in Alabama set off a night-long standoff at a rural casino and the arrest Thursday of 16 protesters angry over the loss of jobs in a poor county.

The protest grew into a pumped-up political rally as 10 black legislators, as well as the white Democratic nominee for governor, arrived at the Greenetrack casino to voice support for the demonstrators and some 400 laid-off casino workers.

Scores of the workers remained outside the casino, which had its entrance blocked off by state troopers securing more than 800 electronic bingo machines inside. In sweltering heat, onlookers cheered loudly as the 16 were released.

“We went to jail for poor folks. We went to jail for justice,” said Democratic state Sen. Bobby Singleton of Greensboro, one of the 16 arrested.

Alabama Public Safety Director Christopher Murphy said the 16 were arrested without incident after blocking the entrance to Greenetrack for 12 hours after the Alabama Supreme Court cleared the way for state troopers to enter and secure more than 800 bingo machines. The 16, accused of trespassing, were released later on signature bonds of $1,000.

The Supreme Court ruled late Thursday afternoon that state police could resume removing the machines from the casino. A dwindling crowd outside the casino groaned in disapproval when told the justices also had removed Circuit Judge Eddie Hardaway from the casino case.

A flurry of orders from Hardaway — including one shortly before midnight Tuesday — had forced troopers to halt their raid, return bingo equipment and vacate the building.

Republican Gov. Bob Riley and gambling task force commander John Tyson Jr. contend that court rulings in recent months have made clear the electronic bingo machines are illegal slot machines.

Raids and threats of raids by the task force have closed all of the approximately two-dozen non-Indian electronic bingo casinos in Alabama except Victoryland in Macon County, the state’s largest with more than 6,000 machines. The task force is seeking an Alabama Supreme Court order allowing a raid of Victoryland. The three Creek Indian casinos are under federal control.

Legislative Black Caucus Chairman John Rogers joined the protest Thursday but indicated he would not urge more arrests, as he did earlier in the day. His message, he said: “Don’t take our jobs away.”

While Greene County is mostly black, Rogers didn’t see it as purely a racial issue.

“It’s an economic issue. It just happens to be blacks who are suffering the most,” he said.

Riley, on the coast to deal with the oil spill, denied that race played any role, noting that scrapes over electronic bingo had also occurred in mostly white Dothan and Walker County, where casinos closed.

State Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, the Democratic nominee for governor, appeared outside Greenetrack to voice support for the casino workers. Sparks, who proposes legalizing, taxing and expanding gambling in Alabama, criticized the task force raids.

“We will stop this nonsense in Alabama,” he said.

Tyson responded: “Apparently, Sparks prefers illegal gambling and the corruption it causes to the rule of law.”

Among those arrested Thursday morning was Greenetrack CEO Luther Winn. He said he wasn’t upset over his arrest.

“I’m devastated for the 400 employees of Greenetrack who don’t have a job now,” Winn said.

One of the laid-off employees, LaToya Pelts, said she is a single mother of two boys who has bought a house and a new car. Greenetrack was her only source of income.

“How does he expect me to take care of my children now?” she said.

Tyson said Winn, along with the trespassing charge, was charged with assault in a confrontation with a state trooper at a checkpoint Wednesday. Tyson said Winn “mashed the accelerator” and struck the trooper with the side-view mirror of his vehicle as he went past the checkpoint.

Winn denied hitting the trooper with his car mirror.

Associated Press writer Kendal Weaver in Montgomery contributed to this report.

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