Days after a billboard with a swastika appeared off a main road in Butler County, the local YWCA chapter gathered local leaders and residents to coordinate a community-wide response.
“There is a significant number of people who are not willing to sit by and let this hate speech go unchallenged,” Elizabeth Short, executive director of YWCA Butler, tells Pittsburgh City Paper.
About fifty people, including faith leaders, non-profit leaders, and ordinary residents, attended the Wednesday night meeting, which combined online and in-person participation.
Prompting the conversation, a billboard in Summit Township on Monday began displaying a swastika alongside the message: “FBI corrupt & dangerous THE GESTAPO.”
According to reporting from the Butler Eagle, the sign is located along a local school bus route and includes a rotation of other hateful and offensive messaging, such as, “Whites are under attack stop it now!!”, “Stop teaching critical racist theory to our kids”; “God’s law ‘marriage’ one man-one woman”; and “God prohibits same sex marriage.”
Update: new slides up since this morning :melting_face: pic.twitter.com/csAB2xqA5j— Steph :crescent_moon: (@stephan13leigh) January 10, 2023
Short says the new signs have sparked broad outrage.
“Our goal last night with the group is to take efforts to bring unity in our community and make sure people know there’s a safe space here,” she says.
The signs are situated on property owned by Owen Oesterling, who is believed to be leasing it to John Placek, according to the Eagle.
Placek, of Worthington, Pa., has a history of installing billboards with similarly offensive messaging on private property throughout Western Pennsylvania.
Earlier this year, the Jewish Chronicle reported on the appearance of the same swastika-themed display in Armstrong County. In 2019, Placek was forced to sell a gas station in Worthington after he installed a billboard with racist messaging that angered Sunoco management, according to Triblive.
Placek has consistently stood by his messaging in interviews with local media outlets.
Summit Township officials told the Eagle they could not intervene because Placek and Oesterling are entitled to freedom of speech, but Short says those at the YWCA-led meeting were not convinced by this argument.
“You have to believe, particularly with the inclusion of a swastika on this billboard, that there’s something that can be done,” Short says.
Laura Cherner, a communications director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, tells City Paper her organization was alerted to the situation, and has been working with local leaders and law enforcement.
“There is a difference between free speech and hate speech,” Cherner says. “Hate speech incites violence and creates a threat to the community… I think any extremist symbols, such as Nazi paraphernalia and the messages that were paired with it, can be a precursor to violence.”
Cherner says the Federation has protocols for dealing with antisemitic threats, and notes the billboards are just one indication of rising threats to the Jewish community, locally and nationally.
“We've seen a steady rise in antisemitism in Pittsburgh and throughout the country,” Cherner says. "And so this is nothing new... Western Pennsylvania specifically already has a significant portion of white supremacist and extremist groups that are better known and identified in western Pennsylvania. And, you know, this confirms their presence.”
Cherner says the Federation encourages anyone in the area to report incidents of concern through their website or phoneline.
Short says Wednesday’s meeting was convened hastily to begin coordinating a response, but confirmed more conversations will be coming, along with more decisive action.
“One of the things that a lot of people heard in response to this is 'freedom of speech and freedom of expression,'" Short says. "That is absolutely an American value, but another value is equality, and I’m glad there are people in the community who are willing to fight as hard for equality.”