By Kellie Patrick Gates
About 50 protesters organized by Casino-Free Philadelphia blocked the front gate of the SugarHouse Casino construction site early Tuesday morning.
It was still dark at about 5:45 when Casino-Free co-founder Jethro Heiko began massing his troops on a traffic island just across Delaware Avenue from the site. Just after 6, they would march across the roadway together. Those who were willing to be arrested would link arms in front of the gate.
The protest was designed to send a message to SugarHouse and Foxwoods, the other casino planned for Philadelphia's waterfront: Anti-casino activists will do everything they can to stop the casinos from building, and, if they open, to stop them from succeeding.
Casino supporters – including neighborhood residents and many in state government – say the casinos will bring jobs to the city and their revenues will bring tax relief. The protesters think any benefit will be outweighed by gambling addiction and increased crime. According to state reports, casino revenues in Pennsylvania have increased. But the activists believe the money will dwindle after the novelty of gaming wears off.
The activists came from many neighborhoods. “I think casinos are a mistake in what is arguably the most historically important city in America,” said Old City resident Ed Fischer, who carried a canvas bag with the words “Casinos out of Philadelphia.”
“Casinos are a magnet for crime and corruption, and they won't fit into a plan for the waterfront,” Fischer said, referring to the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware, a waterfront development blueprint put together by PennPraxis after more than a year of community input.
(The City is using the Vision to develop a master plan for the waterfront. PennPraxis executive director Harris Steinberg has said the casinos are a bad fit with the plan as designed, but he has not condemned gaming or any other use.)
Queen Village residents Ramona Johnson and Andrea Preis were among those prepared for arrest. "We live in a beautiful neighborhood with lots of children and families," Preis said before the march began. "We think this kind of enterprise is just endemic to city living."
This was nothing new for at least some of the police, either. “I've been doing it for 12 years,” said Captain William V. Fisher, commanding officer of the Civil Affairs Unit, who was in charge of the scene.
The protesters crossed the street together and took their positions, and Fisher introduced himself to them.
“You are blocking the entrance way to a construction site,” he told them.“If you want to protest, go to the other side of the gate. It's a public sidewalk and you're free to use your first amendment right, the Freedom of Speech, and you can protest.
“If you continue to stay here, you're going to become subject to arrest.”
Fisher told the gate-blockers they would receive two warnings, and then arrests would start. When Fisher was through, Heiko began:
“These casinos were brought to us by force, not by choice,” he said. “In most states, citizens have a right to vote on whether casinos even come into their states. In most cities, when a referendum is put on the ballot, people get to vote on it. Not in Philadelphia. Not in Pennsylvania.”
Police captain William Fisher, commanding officer of the civil affairs unit, watches protesters after issuing first warning
The state legislature passed the gaming law in 2004. A referendum asking whether residents wanted to keep casinos out of neighborhoods was prepared for the spring 2007 city ballot, but the State Supreme Court ruled that the referendum could not be held. The city put stickers over the ballot question.
“The casinos sued, including SugarHouse casino, to knock that question off the ballot,” Heiko said. “We're here today because the casinos should pull up stakes.”
The rally continued for a few more minutes as the first of two police vans pulled up and backed in. Officers opened the back doors. The protesters who planned to get arrested sat on the ground, their arms entwined. Within minutes, 14 of them were taken away. Both police and demonstrators acted calmly as the activists hands were bound with plastic ties and they were placed in the vans.
“Are you ready?” a police officer asked Johnson when it was her turn. She nodded, and then he and a second officer helped her onto her feet before slipping the plastic tie on her wrists.
SugarHouse attorney Chuck Hardy and a few representatives from Keating Construction, SugarHouse's contractor, watched from the other side of the gate as the events unfolded. Also visible were two large trucks, each with a load of six metal pilings.
Before the official start of the protest, Casino-Free co-founder Heiko, who lives near the site, said the daily delivery of pilings was earlier than usual, and he attributed that to the protest. “The trucks are usually lined up, waiting for them to open the gate,” he said. “And there are usually more than two trucks.”
Hardy said the 16 pilings came at the usual time. Because of the extra-large size of the load, the trucks can only travel on the streets at off-peak times, he said.
When a stream of workers started pulling in at about 7, Hardy commented they were right on time. “There's nothing unusual today, from an operations perspective,” he said.
Casino-Free attorney Paul Boni, who was standing nearby, said it appeared that the workers' group entrance had been staged.
Like Hardy, Boni was there to keep an eye on things for his client. Those arrested were taken to Central Detectives for processing. “We'll be following the activists through the system,” Boni said. Those arrested had made prior arrangements with friends or family, should they need bail, he said. The arrested protesters were charged with two misdemeanors, defiant trespass and failure to disperse; and one summary offense, disorderly conduct. Summary offenses are less than a misdemeanor, comparable to a traffic ticket. They were all released on their own recognizance.
After those arrested were driven off in the vans, their supporters continued to chant, cheer, and waive signs – to the side of the gate. They promised protests would continue.
Several passing motorists vigorously honked their support; others yelled things like "build the casinos. We want jobs!"
A limited number of workers are now sinking pilings and filing them with concrete. There are 84 of them to drive, and then construction will pick up dramatically. The steel has already been ordered.
Hardy, the SugarHouse attorney, said that the protest did not disrupt work at SugarHouse at all on Tuesday.
“Not today,” agreed Dan Hajdo, a Casino-Free spokesman. But Hajdo said the group successfully made its point. “It does not take that many people to block an entrance and disrupt construction,” he said. And when construction picks up, Casino-Free will be back.
Queen Village resident Ramona Johnson was one of 14 arrested for blocking the gate.
Trucks brought 16 pilings to the site before protestor's blocked the gate.