John Placek is again courting controversy for a billboard he created featuring Nazi imagery and, what many consider to be, hate-filled messages.
Placek bought a new electronic billboard on the corner of Route 422 and Bonniebrook Road in Summit Township. The Worthington businessman populated the billboard with the type of messages he has previously filled other billboards he owns near his business.
One slide features a red swastika next to the words “FBI CORRUPT & DANGEROUS THE GESTAPO.” Another shows two men kissing in a wedding photo with the message “GOD PROHIBITS SAME SEX MARRIAGE.” A third states “WHITES ARE UNDER ATTACK STOP IT NOW STOP TEACHING CRITICAL RACIST THEORY TO OUR KIDS!!”
The hate-filled messages provide Placek with a third season in the spotlight.
In August, Placek faced criticism for a billboard he created that featured a Nazi flag with the words “FBI The Gestapo.” At the time, he told the Chronicle that it wasn’t his intention to offend anyone, but he thought the raid at Donald Trump’s home was comparable to the Nazis murdering more than 6 million Jews and stealing their property.
“In my mind, they’re equivalent,” he said at the time. “I know you don’t want to hear this. What happened to the Jewish people, it was criminal. You’re talking to an old colonel from the Army. I served 22 years defending the Constitution of the United States of America. I’m pro-Israel and everything. I’m not anti-Jewish, but I was trying to make a statement that you can’t just go and do that to people.”
He went on to state that he viewed the Holocaust as one of the major tragedies of our time, “but, in my mind, what’s going on in our country is equivalent.”
In 2019, following the acquittal of former East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld in the fatal shooting of Antwon Rose II, Placek displayed photos of both Rosfeld and Rose with the message: “Legal System Works, Justice Served, Get over it.” Another sign featured the billboard owner’s face with the message, “I’m white and Proud of it.”
The owner of both a gas station and pool company, Placek lost his Sunoco affiliation following the Antwon Rose controversy.
Still, he remains unapologetic and continues to create offensive messages featured on billboards he owns.
The latest controversy appeared to divide the community. On the Butler Eagle’s Facebook page, which included a link to the story it published, nearly 900 people commented on the billboards, many in support of Placek and what they viewed as a free-speech issue.
Cindy Parker posted in part, “Whether you agree with the sign or not, the Constitution of the United States still gives us As Americans the freedom of speech.”
Jill Wiles commented, writing in part, “Biblical truth is not hate. How does this project hate? It is biblical. If you don’t believe, then you don’t have to worry about it.”
Joyce M Pears posted in agreement of the messages, “So awesome! Truth be spoken.”
Kim Callander agreed with Placek’s false equivalency, writing in part: “pretty sure, the billboard owner is comparing the current administration and those currently in power to the Nazis Party. In September, the sitting President did use some pretty hateful and divisive language and insinuated that millions of Americans were the enemy because of their political and religious beliefs…I think many have jumped on Biden’s band wagon and are riding with him, just like many Germans jumped on board with Hitler and helped him eradicate approximately six million Jewish people and many others who tried to save them.”
Others didn’t share Placek’s views.
Rita Ryan simply stated, “The sign promotes hate,” and Jenifer Hasychak replied, “It’s an aggreesive (sic) sign. It provokes aggression. That’s the bottom line. It was created with malicious intent to stir the pot.”
Natalie Byers lives approximately 10 minutes from the billboard. A new mother, she worries the billboards make Butler County look simple minded and is counterproductive to the goal of having people visit the area.
And while Byers said she tries to stay out of politics she did think there was hate behind some of the messages.
“If he’s trying to do God’s work, this is the completely wrong way to do it,” she said. “It divides the community rather than bringing it together.
Congregation B’nai Abraham is located in Butler, Pennsylvania. The synagogue’s spiritual leader, Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer, said the billboards are a terrible thing to see.
“When I found out about it yesterday, I got in the car and went to look at it,” she said. “It reduces me to tears, and it’s very scary to look at.”
She said that while Butler tends to be a conservative community, her faith in humanity was restored when she attended a meeting organized by the YWCA.
“With less than 24 hours’ notice, between people in the room and on Zoom, there were 50 participants and two tables full of members of the Butler Clergy Network,” she said.
The organization, Gray-Shaffer said, was created in response to Oct. 27 and was already planning a Feb. 19 “Love Your Neighbor” gathering against the rise of antisemitism in the country. That gathering will now take on added value because of Placek’s billboards.
Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Community Relations Council Director Laura Cherner said the billboard illustrates the point that she and the CRC have made for some time — we’re experiencing a steady increase and rise in antisemitism.
“It’s exemplified right in front of our eyes by a billboard like this,” she said.
Cherner went on to note that Southwestern Pennsylvania has a significant population of extremists and white supremacists.
“The issue with a billboard so prominently displayed is that one, it emboldens people that harbor these vies and two, it stokes a lot of fear, anxiety and sadness in the community. Anytime you see a Nazi symbol it traumatizes the Jewish people and all minorities in the community.”
Cherner was happy to see the community organize the meeting at the YWCA and said Butler is working to create another event to speak out against hate.
She urged anyone who sees hate messages or feels threatened to report what they’ve experienced to both law enforcement and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. PJC
Note: According to a story in the Jan. 15 issue of the Butler Eagle, John Placek removed the image of a swastika from the billboard he owns.
Placek said he decided to remove the Nazi image after learning it upset a Holocaust survivor.
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org