SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The battle over urban casinos took a bizarre twist on
May 13 at a planned anti-casino rally at the California state capitol. In
this election year with two initiatives related to Indian gaming on the
November ballot the event in itself was not really remarkable, and in fact
was largely ignored by those in attendance in the face of a much bigger
story - the audience.
Apparently a large group of homeless people and street kids were brought in
and paid to attend the rally by at least two different organizations from
Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. However, in at least one of the
cases, it is not clear who actually paid them.
Even before the rally it was apparent there were tensions among the crowd
which culminated with a small shouting match between a group of African
American youths and a group of young self-described anarchists over their
clothing choices. There were people sleeping on the grass in the midst of
the audience and capitol security had asked organizers whether the crowd
belonged there or not.
Trouble began in earnest early in the rally when several audience members
loudly began to demand money that had been promised to them over the PA
system at a downtown Sacramento non-profit that works with the homeless
called Loaves and Fishes.
"Someone told us to come over here for a job and that they would pay us $10
for coming here," said Scott Menefee, who also said that he and many of the
surrounding crowd were recruited at the soup kitchen.
Upon further investigation, it quickly became apparent that many in the
audience were paid to be there. A group of about 10 young people from
Berkeley, donning the look of anti-WTO protesters, complete with gas masks
and black scarves admitted that they were paid $40 to show up at the rally
but were unable to identify the person who asked them to come.
"We don't know who is paying us, all we know is that we were told to get on
a bus and show up and we would get $40. That's the truth," said one young
man who refused to give his name.
When asked about how they feel about tribal casinos, another young man in a
gas mask yelled, "Everything sucks, burn everything."
After the rally one of the groups headed back to buses bound for the Bay
Area. Among the group were elderly Asians who could not answer questions
because of a language barrier and several young surly men who were rumored
to be part of a Bay Area Asian street gang.
Another young well-dressed Asian man appeared to be in charge of that
group. When reporters and others tried to question this man, he refused to
answer questions and when Indian Country Today was identified, he said that
he was "against Indians and you." When asked if the people getting on the
bus were paid to be there, the well-dressed young man shot back, "are you
paid to be here?"
Several of the other young men then proceeded to menace and threaten
reporters and a lobbyist who had come by to find out what was taking place.
Shortly afterward a near riot ensued among the homeless when it at first
appeared that they would not be paid.
About 150 homeless people finally crowded a tall gentleman in a red shirt
who had the sign up sheet and handbills that told them where to go to
collect their money for attending the rally.
The handbill, which confirmed that they had been promised pay for the rally
told them to get their cash at Heaven's Gate Enterprises from someone named
"Mitchell" it turned out was Mitchell Welsh, who works for Heaven's Gate
Enterprises, a Sacramento-area non-profit, not to be confused with the
suicide cult of the same name who made headlines a few years ago. Welsh
confirmed that he had paid the homeless people to show up but claimed that
there was a "mistake" regarding the recruitment at Loves and Fishes.
"We pay these people a prediem (sic) normally and that is what this was."
However, it is made clear in the handbill handed out at the rally that the
purpose was to pay people for attending the rally.
Welsh also said that his organization opposes urban casinos but claims to
support tribal gaming in rural areas.
Joan Burke, who works at Loaves and Fishes said her organization was
contacted by an unknown person on the morning of the rally asking to
recruit homeless people to attend the rally. She said that Loaves and
Fishes refused but that Heaven's Gate had sent people down anyway and made
an announcement for a "job" for the day over the loudspeaker.
Burke explained that Loaves and Fishes, a well-established charitable
organization in downtown Sacramento, has several programs and an open door
policy which was apparently taken advantage of presumably by
representatives from Heaven's Gate Enterprises who came in and made the
"This was a despicable exploitation of the poorest members of society.
Imagine paying people this financially challenged to do this. This violates
everything that we stand for and we are a non-partisan organization. It's
just disgusting," said Burke.
Besides the very questionable ethics of recruiting homeless people to
attend a political rally, Burke said that it is also "a very bad idea" to
just dispense cash to homeless people because many of them have drug and
alcohol problems and cash enables them to feed their addictions.
Not much is known about Heaven's Gate Enterprises other than that they
claim to have a contract with the state Department of Corrections to
rehabilitate former prisoners. It is unknown who they are politically and
financially linked with. Welsh did not return follow-up phone calls
regarding these questions.
It is also unclear who paid the Bay Area group to attend. One source, who
asked to remain anonymous and had been in meetings with card club
representatives claimed that the idea of busing in homeless people and card
club patrons to anti-tribal casino rallies had been discussed by the card
club representatives "in jest." The card clubs are backing a November
ballot initiative to force tribes into negotiations or expand slot machines
to their establishments.
Other sources have discussed the possibility that the crowd was planted to
try and discredit the rally organizers, though these sources also said that
they have no proof of such a plot.
Ostensibly the rally was organized by Citizens Against Urban Casinos, a
shadowy group without a Web site that was founded by an Assembly of God
minister in Sonoma County named Chip Worthington. Worthington, who did not
attend the rally, did not return phone calls. One of the featured speakers
was from a Rohnert Park-based group called Democracy for Citizens.
Linda Lamb, who is the director for Democracy for Citizens, claimed her
group had nothing to do with the paid attendees and said she was "baffled"
as to whom had paid them to attend. She said the rally was to include
private citizens from the towns of Rohnert Park, Plymouth, San Pablo and
Hisperia - all of which are facing issues with urban casinos.
It should be noted that during the event when a speaker asked the audience
for a show of hands of people from Plymouth, a Sierra Nevada foothill town
not far from Sacramento, not a single hand was raised.
Other Rohnert Park organizers were also at a loss to explain who recruited
the crowd and each person interviewed said that they had never seen them
"I would never bring my children to someplace where I didn't think that
they would be safe," exclaimed Lamb.
The strange events of the day were well noted by the small press corps in
attendance. Jake Henshaw, a veteran reporter with the Palm Springs Desert
Sun's Sacramento bureau was among those who witnessed the very bizarre day.
"This whole thing is so weird," Henshaw said.