by Shane Ralston, Ph.D.
I’ve lived in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, for seven years now. I’m a tenured Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Hazleton campus of Penn State University. Besides teaching ethics and logic to undergraduate students, I also indulge from time to time in citizen journalism, writing mainly for Truthout and Intellectual Takeout (both online forums devoted to reasoned discussion about contemporary social, political and environmental issues). In the Hazleton community, I also perform the function of intellectual gadfly, questioning, irritating and, when I’m successful, exposing the truth.
Socializing the Corrupt and Exposing the Paterno Truthers
As a citizen journalist, the first two matters I investigated dealt with student cheating scandal at the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) Academy and the harassment of journalists and scholars writing about the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal and Joe Paterno’s involvement. My journey began with a student telling me that he knew several cadets at the PSP Academy who were being “framed” (his word), after using cheat sheets, passed from one student cohort to the next. Through research and interviews, I discovered connections between the PSP Academy, Harrisburg Area Community College (which had a nearly identical cheating scandal at its municipal police academy a few years prior) and Penn State World Campus (future members of law enforcement “earn” degrees through the online division, while administrators tolerate and encourage student cheating). The outcome was the article “Socializing the Corrupt: Cheating, Higher Education and Law Enforcement in Pennsylvania.” My second investigation focused on the Penn State or Paterno Truthers. The Truthers are a group, made up mostly of Penn State alumni, who deny Paterno’s involvement in the Sandusky scandal cover up. I was shocked at the lengths the Paterno Truthers would go to intimidate those who write about Paterno and Sandusky, such as the professional journalist Sara Ganim, who was incessantly harassed and threatened on social media. In a second article for Truthout, entitled “Joe Paterno’s Ugly Defenders: Exposing the Penn State Truthers,” I sought to expose the Truthers.
“Nazi City USA”
By far the most bizarre experience I’ve had as a citizen journalist resulted from writing my third Truthout article—this one about Lou Barletta, the former mayor of Hazleton, now sitting Congressman and Trump supporter. In 2006, many of Hazleton’s Latino residents experienced fear and harassment after Barletta waged a media campaign that labeled the city’s Latinos “illegal” and “criminal.” Barletta attempted to enforce federal immigration laws using a local ordinance, the Illegal Immigration Relief Act (IIRA), which would fine landlords and employers who transacted with people who are undocumented.
After a decade-long legal battle over the ordinance’s constitutionality, Hazleton is now burdened with paying $1.4 million in lawyer’s fees. Meanwhile, Barletta profited from this shameful episode in Hazleton’s history. He gained national media attention as a “small town defender” and in 2010 won a safe seat in Congress. With President Trump’s blessing, Congressman Barletta has since launched a new crusade to pass legislation that would defund sanctuary cities.
I wrote the article to shed light on Barletta’s checkered past and express concern that this bill to defund sanctuary cities, if passed into law, might have a similar effect as the IIRA had on Hazleton: namely, to magnify racial tensions and create economic hardship for ordinary people. The title of the article, “Former Mayor of ‘Nazi City USA’ Pushes Legislation to Defund Sanctuary Cities,” upset Barletta and many of Hazleton’s elites. I cited Juan Santos, an activist and author in San Diego who was inspired by the words of Hazleton area resident Anna Arias. When testifying in opposition to the IIRA, Arias warned Hazleton officials that passing the law would cause Hazleton “to go down in history as the first Nazi city in the country.”
Hazleton’s local newspaper, the Standard-Speaker, featured a piece about my article in which Congressman Barletta called me a “liberal college professor” and Truthout an “extreme, fringe website.” Barletta invited me to leave Hazleton and move to a sanctuary city in California.
Three days later, the Standard-Speaker’s editorial board published a follow-up piece titled “Local prof needs lesson on city.” They claimed that by selectively quoting Juan Santos I had described Hazleton’s residents as Nazis: “The good people of Hazleton should be angry that a professor at the nearby campus would think to equate them to Nazis.”
To be clear, that was not my intention. I do not believe that it was Anna Arias’s intention either, when she stood up at that contentious Hazleton City Council meeting and heroically protested the discriminatory law. She spoke truth to power. And she was amazingly prescient.
Although it may have come off as an attempt to protect the image of Hazleton residents, to me the response from the Standard-Speaker Editorial Board works to disprove Arias by silencing those who would dare to repeat her words or recall the circumstances in which they were uttered. (The crowd in attendance booed Ms. Arias after she spoke.) We are now living Ms. Arias’s truth: not that Hazleton is Nazi City USA, but that most people outside of Hazleton perceive the city as a site of xenophobia, racial intolerance and anti-immigrant animus. To address this perception head-on, we need to discuss it openly, speak truth to power, not hide the past or silence those who wish never to repeat the past injustices committed against Hazleton’s Latino residents.
Though my quiet life of anonymity has vanished since becoming a citizen journalist, I’m still glad to have chosen this path. I hope that others will do the same. Indeed, it is not too difficult. There are plenty of progressive online issues forums – including this blog – that will publish pieces from anyone willing to speak truth to power. Unfortunately, most local newspapers will not.