Content Note: racism, white supremacy
Earlier this year, we reported on the racist and offensive content displayed by Worthington businessman John Placek on his giant electronic billboard along State Route 422 in Armstrong County. After resistance from the community, Placek lost his Sunoco franchise and seemed to retreat from this tactic of displaying the seedier side of community values.
The billboard is on a leased piece of property owned by the Worthington-West Franklin Township Fire Department. The lease is in effect for approximately another 15 months. There is no provision for the VFD to address content. Placek can post anything he wants on the Fire Department’s property.
The municipality has no jurisdiction. PennDOT does not have zoning regulations. Sunoco exercised their decency clause when they revoked the franchise, but Placek owns the gas station and has found a new gasoline supplier. You may want to re-read my posts from the spring to follow this twisted narrative. Things took a horrible turn when he posted content including a photo of Antwon Rose just days after the conclusion of the criminal trial of the man who shot him.
He’s back. Placek has recently posted several new offensive images that we’ve posted below. Other content calls for people to buy American gas, not Sunco gas. He also advertises for his family owned business, a pool and spa company. Scroll down for my suggestions on how to respond.
Again, it is worth your time to reread previous coverage.
So what can be done?
- Contact the Fire Department. They don’t get a pass on accountability for their poor business decision to lease the land without an escape clause. Make sure they know you want them to take action – even if it lands them in court paying John Placek to buy out the lease. The Fire Department might want to reconsider the leasing agreement when it expires 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 Be sure to check out his video response to your initial efforts to advocate around this billboard content. Rep Pyle needs to meet with African-American constituents from his district and participate in some anti-racism work himself to have any credibility. He’s one of the few people who absolutely benefits from this situation even if it isn’t one he created.
- 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.
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? I don’t think so, based on responses I personally received, including a threat to hire someone to rape me.
So how can white folks in Western Pennsylvania step up to address this blatant example of white supremacy in our region?
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