Last week, the Kittanning Leader Times ran a comprehensive article on the racist billboards posted along State Route 422 in Worthington Borough. The article is behind a paywall so if you’d like to read it, you will need to invest either $2.99 for a days access or $20 for a month.
The reporter, Jon Andreassi, did a thorough job of fact-checking each of the claims the billboard sent through the community and pointing out the errors to Mr. Placek for his comment.
When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in the 19th century, working underneath him was an assistant by the name of Lewis Latimer.
Latimer was an African American man, born in Massachusetts in 1848.
After assisting Bell with his landmark invention, and even defending Bell’s claim to the telephone in court, he joined Thomas Edison’s “elite research team,” per the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s website.
Placek was unaware of Latimer’s work with Bell and Edison, and questioned whether or not his contributions to science and technology were true, because he had not learned about him in school.
When this reporter suggested that inequity in American education was part and parcel to the original motivation to initiate a Black History Month, he retorted:
“There should never be a Black History Month. Someone started that (expletive). Just like Jesse Jackson started that African American (expletive). There is no such thing as an African American, you’re either American or not,” Placek said.
That “someone” was Republican President Gerald Ford, who was the first American president to formally recognize Black History Month in 1976.
He also spoke at length with the billboard’s owner, John Placek, who has no intent of backing down or even acknowledging the harm he’s causing.
Placek insists his intention with the billboard, and its aforementioned contents, is to “start a conversation” about race and to unite a bitterly divided country.
“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.
Placek repeatedly stated his belief that there is “one race, the human race.”
“What I do not like is that white people cannot express their views without being called a racist,” Placek said.
He continued to say that there is only “American history,” but again went on to express a desire to protect “white history.”
“I am sick and tired of them tearing down our white history. I’m standing up for America. I fought for America. I got bullet holes in me,” Placek said. “I grew up with nothing … and I didn’t cry and sniffle. I’m just a self made man … I was poorer than any black ever thought about being.”
Yesterday, WPXI sent a crew out to Worthington to do a ‘man in the street” sort of story – I know this because the reporter sent me a Facebook message asking for contact information for my own sources in Worthington and acknowledged she was already en route. My sources have been unable to be available upon demand of the media both because of their own commitments and in some cases, because they are afraid.
Having received a threat myself by a supporter of John Placek claiming that they’d like to hire someone to rape me over this story, I cannot blame anyone for remaining silent. Nor can I remain silent.
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But we do now have more information.
- John Placek owns the billboard structures and sells the advertising. He remews his permit with PennDOT for $10 each year.
- The billboard is located on property owned by the Worthington-West Franklin Township Fire Department and leased by Mr. Placek. As of this date, the lease is valid for another 18 months. According to Fred Neal, the department’s assistant chief, there are no provisions in the lease to address content.
- Worthington Borough Council President George Kerr clarified that the borough does not have any zoning or permitting authority over the billboard.
- Mr. Placek claims to have sold his businesses Country Pools and Spas. It is still unclear if he has other business interests, including a reported franchise relationship with a Sunoco station in nearby Worthington.
- Mr. Placek told WPXI that he has purchased two additional billboard structures and has yet to decide where to place them (this is not in the transcript, but if you watch the video you’ll find this around the 1:56 mark)
What we have is a situation where John Placek is dominating the discourse because he controls the messaging of the billboards and he has zero hesitation in spewing his views to the media. The messages he’s been sending since 2010 on the billboards and in the course of his business operations has certainly had an impact on the local residents with whom I’ve spoken – they are afraid if they speak publicly that they will be targeted by Placek’s supporters and they are afraid about their family members who are employed by businesses they believe Placek owns or influences.
We also have a regional newspaper, the Kittanning Leader Times, that charges an exorbitant amount of money for anyone wishing to read their coverage of any issues, including this one.
There are no groups or organizations one might define as progressive in Armstrong County to provide mutual aid and support for those who want to organize. And this means that the people who are speaking out are left to fend for themselves and are also left without tools and information. For example, a small spurt of efforts to contact Sunoco about the billboards resulted in a false sense of resolution when in fact Sunoco has nothing to do with this. In other cases, local folks are tagging regional media on their social media content and feeling frustrated and overlooked because that’s not effective in generating media coverage. And the Facebook groups discussing the matter are filled with vile cackling about how these messages are both true and effective.
There’s also a considerable lack of awareness of what can be done about this. Based on what I see, there’s simply no way to pressure Mr. Placek into reconsidering his ignorant, uninformed, and racist ways. He does seem to get very upset about being labeled a racist so perhaps we need to more consistently remind him that he is in fact a racist and spewing racist messaging on this billboard. It is not “allegedly racist” content. It is racist content and he is a racist for deliberately creating it.
But there’s no economic pressure point if he’s retired and has his resources to spend as he pleases.
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 zone this area. 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.
Representative Pyle’s offices can be reached by phone (724) 763-3222 and (724) 295-2200 and (717) 783-5327. You can email him firstname.lastname@example.org and find him on Facebook here as well as Tweet at him @RepJeffPyle
State Senator Donald White retired suddenly at the end of February so there’s no one holding that office. You can reach his staff still at 717-787-8724. No word yet on when a special election will be called to fill his office. So double the calls to Pyle?
Finally, there’s the very critical issue of the absence of any organizing resources on the ground in Armstrong County. When I spoke with local Democrats, they kept asking me to identify what they could do. When I ask the folx on the ground who reached out to me, they kept asking for support and for “messaging” that challenged Mr. Placek’s themes.
Someone has to get something started. Democrats and other progressive groups have resources they can invest in this region. But waiting for someone local to stand up and resist all of this atrocious hate and the very loud enthusiastic support for that hate demonstrated in the comments on my blog and elsewhere on social media – is that just going to happen without support.
So let me offer a few random ideas that are completely my own.
- Organize a private meeting of people who oppose this billboard nonsense and talk about what can be done. Bringing people together around a common cause has a lot of power, even if it’s just a few folks. Someone in Worthington has an office space or a home or other venue that they can make available.
- Keep pressuring elected officials to go on the record speaking out against the racism and specifying how they address racial justice in their work. Turn up to the Borough Council meetings, Representative Pyle’s public appearances, and the monthly membership meetings of the Worthington-West Franklin Township Fire Department. Bring a friend. Ask the hard questions. Ask about the leasing arrangements, the contracts, etc.
- Organize an action with the folks on the ground. What about holding a candlelight vigil at the billboard location? That will draw attention. What about a racial reconciliation march? Reach out to larger groups in Pittsburgh for support and safety.
- Print your own messages. Make your own flyers and distribute. Publish a zine. Circulate your own messages without the need for billboards and paywalls.
- Write letters to the editor of the Kittanning paper and the Valley News Dispatch.
- Reach out to me if you’d like to be put in touch with people in the region.
We can’t roll in from Pittsburgh to save anyone, but we can rethink how we allocate our more plentiful resources to support our rural neighbors. People are telling me that they want alternative messsages. How are we going to respond?
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Our previous coverage (with images of the billboards)
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