Why Aren’t We Talking About The Ties Between the Armstrong County Billboards, White Nationalism, and Domestic Terrorism?

Inflammatory question? Perhaps.

Peanuts Racist
Cartoon using Peanut’s characters to satirize anti-racist work.

John Placek denies that he is a racist white man, but spends thousands of dollars ‘trolling’ Worthington, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania with racist, white nationalist content. And as he told WPXI, he plans to erect two more billboards somewere nearby.

Worthington Billboard
“Stand Up Against White Racism!” (I’m not sure this actually means what Mr. Placek intends?)

When we look at the early deconstruction of white nationalism’s role in the terrorist attacks on the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand we see a lot of fingerpointing to the Internet as a portal for haters and extremists to find like-minded individuals.

Lee Jarvis, co-editor of the journal Critical Studies on Terrorism, says that the internet has provided people with minority-held beliefs a space to connect with other like-minded people in a way that can normalize their world view.
“There are fears that if you have a small number of people with same ideas, the ideas feel more legitimate and widespread than they actually are,” Jarvis says.
The fact that the document is laced with internet in-jokes, references and memes underlines that many white supremacists are radicalized by socializing with each other online, he adds.

John Placek is not alone in his world views about Black people, racial privilege, and white privilege. You need only read the comments on this post to see that many people agree with him or perhaps, many more people are willing to publicly agree with him than are willing to publicly challenge him and his beliefs.

I’ve heard from folks on the ground in Armstrong County who denounce Placek privately and claim that they don’t want to give him attention. I understand that tactic, but in response I remind you that the people who are most impacted by these billboards have repeatedly asked allies to speak out, to put out alternative messaging. No one in Armstrong County seems to be able to figure out how to do that.

I can’t do it because I do not live there. I can continue to signal boot the concerns of marginalized people who are expressing their fear and apprehension. I can push external groups to invest resources in doing anti-racism work in Armstrong County. I can keep saying “Hey, look over here at this situation” and hope my readers will continue to take action.

So even assuming the number of people in Armstrong County who agree with these billboards is small, their impact is outsized because Placek literally controls that largest forum in the entire county. Keep in mind the regional newspaper is behind a paywall and the local paper and public TV station are owned by a man facing multiple charges for sexually assaulting a disabled child. He’s also a pastor and a member of the Kittanning Borough Council.

I wonder if any journalist in this region (and their producer/editor) has the guts to explore the similarities between this racist terror looming over Armstrong County and the shootings in New Zealand? I don’t necessarily think John Placek is going to shoot anyone, but I do think that his billboards and the people who support them are very much a part of the problem that feed the white supremacist terrorism.

I’ve pitched the story a dozen times, but the only response is the typical “gotcha” story, not a nuanced examination. I’ve even suggested that KDKA’s Lynne Hayes Freeland invite the journalist who did pretty excellent work on the local coverage of the story on his show to discuss. I’ve made the same suggestion to WESA The Confluence. His name is Jon Andreassi. He knows the region and can speak about the culture that creates and sustains this level of racial antagonism.

John Placek is a racist. He is not an “alleged racist.” The content of the billboards is racist and hateful, not ‘controversial. He is ignorant of basic US history and unwilling to open his mind to new (to him) facts. He actively engages in choices that terrorize people in his community and then hides behind his grandchildren’s ethnic identities to excuse his behavior.  He’s a coward as well as a racist and a bully.

“I can tell you categorically I am not a racist, but we need to have a conversation about racism,” Placek said.

Placek says he has seven grandchildren. Three of them are black, two Hispanic and two are white.

God be with those children.
No one can force the billboards down. There is no known pressure point with the exception of Placek’s sensitivity to being labled a racist and perhaps some form of social shunning by people in his circle. That’s unlikely to happen.

One local resident has suggested “if the money at the fish fry and the events at the Civic Center (who are advertising on the board) starts to dry up, people will notice and hopefully do the right thing.” He describes this type of thinking as a nuanced connecting of the dots to generate public pressure.

The Fire Department might want to reconsider the leasing agreement in 18 months and perhaps add clauses about this sort of issue. And it would be interesting to know how much Mr. Placek pays the Fire Department – perhaps they would consider donating that amount of money toward anti-racism work in Worthington to offset the harm they are causing? Contact them Phone: (724) 297-3473 Fax: (724) 297-5913 and on Facebook.

Then there’s the matter of zoning. This billboard is reportedly very bright and distracting, but PennDOT does not have any zoning regulations in place. Since Mr. Placek plans to erect two more structures, it might be worth putting a lot of pressure on PennDOT to get some zoning in place. They cannot (and should not) control the message, but addressing the public safety matters around the bright lights is within their responsibilities.

The State Legislators that govern Worthington and surely have dedicated PennDOT staffers is State Representative Jeffrey Pyle. The Senate seat is empty.

Representative Pyle’s offices can be reached by phone (724) 763-3222 and (724) 295-2200 and (717) 783-5327. You can email him jpyle@pahousegop.com and find him on Facebook here as well as Tweet at him @RepJeffPyle

Perhaps there is time to get an injunction in place regarding electronic billboards if PennDOT acts swiftly before the two new structures are erected? It seems worth a shot.

Meanwhile, I’ve shared the latest images in this post. The Peanuts one is ridiculous. The other one is just …  odd. Why would he enourage people to stand against ‘white racism’ (there’s no such thing as white racism, there is just racism)? My suspicion is that he meant to stand against what he mistakenly believes is racism targeting white people versus racism by white people?

We are just unwilling to do the very hard work of examining the impact of anti-Blackness in our lives as well as the consequences of growing up in a society that rests on racist foundations. We can shake our heads and roll our eyes about Mr. Placek’s ignorance and silliness, but that’s not helping people who have to live in the reality where he has most of the power.

The Australian-born suspect who shot and killed dozens of Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, has published a manifesto praising US President Donald Trump and Anders Breivik, the Norwegian white supremacist who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011.

The 74-page dossier, which has been described by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as a “work of hate”, hailed Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”.

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