Why us?

March 12, 2004

DOZENS OF Prince George's County ministers - claiming to represent some 200 churches in that county and adjacent areas - plan to gather in Annapolis this afternoon to stand in opposition to legalizing slot machines anywhere in Maryland and particularly in the state's majority-black communities.

Their message is simple: Why us?

Why is it that Prince George's County may end up with not one but two of the state's six slots parlors - with a third one in nearby Laurel?

The purely economic answer is location: The county's proximity to the D.C. and Virginia markets means the potential for the most lucrative slots sites in Maryland.

But when the question embraces the issue of bearing the considerable social costs of slots, then the answer involves the clout of the well-off and a good deal of hypocrisy.

Judging from the slots bill they passed two weeks ago, state senators are happy to stick the preponderance of these machines in the state's only majority-black jurisdictions, Prince George's and Baltimore City (which also would get two parlors) - while specifically barring slots from majority-white, better-off Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties. Though the state's richest area, Montgomery County, is also adjacent to Virginia, who even dared to seriously suggest putting slots there?

"I find it interesting that people supporting slots don't want it in their communities because they know the harmful effects. Well, we in the African-American community feel the same way," says the Rev. Jonathan L. Weaver, pastor of the Greater Mount Nebo AME Church in Upper Marlboro. "Montgomery County has become a very sophisticated voting block. We're taken for granted. It's high time we're heard, too."

Pastor Weaver also heads the Collective Banking Group, a financial organization of more than 180 churches in and around Prince George's that last week resolved to oppose slots. That follows a strong statement against slots by Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson. They share the same fear: the documented destruction by slots in the form of increasing gambling addiction rates, family strife, health problems, bankruptcies and crimes.

Baltmore's versions of these same questions haven't been posed as directly and loudly in Annapolis by anti-slots ministers and community leaders from this city. But as the slots issue moves to the House, it's time for city opponents to stand up, too.

In both Prince George's and Baltimore, some community leaders have been tantalized by the potential for some degree of minority ownership of slots parlors. This would boil down to trading small private rewards for a high public price. As Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's Democrat, puts it: "Just because black people are given a cut from gambling doesn't make it any more acceptable for the public at large."

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