Wilkes-Barre city council demands removal of KKK brick from Public Square

i Jul 17th 2019

By Jerry Lynott, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

WILKES-BARRE — City councilwoman Beth Gilbert is calling for the removal of a Ku Klux Klan brick from a city-owned property, legally or illegally.

Gilbert took it a step further than three of the five other council members during Tuesday night’s work session in calling for the brick bearing the name of the East Coast Knights of the True Invisible Empire to be taken off a column on Public Square.

“I hope that after further research we are able to confidently take the brick down and in the meantime, I hope that someone, quite honestly destroys it, “Gilbert said with a laugh. “I think that that could be the best thing that could happen in the city if that brick is destroyed.”

She later acknowledged destroying public property was not the responsible way to resolve the controversial issue, but it was the morally right thing to do.

“I think it would be a blessing in disguise,” Gilbert said.

Last Friday Gilbert stood in the crowd watching Harrisburg-based activist and city native Gene Stilp climb a step ladder and try to pry the brick loose with a small sledge hammer and chisel. When police stopped him he reached into the cardboard box he brought, climbed the ladder again and attempted to smear roofing cement on the brick so the city would have to remove the brick.

Stilp, who was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct, attended the work session and said council’s remarks affirmed his act of protest last week

“I was trying to save the council time,” Stilp said. He added that he plans to attend Thursday night’s meeting when the public is allowed to speak.

City stands firm

The city has stood firm in its position that the brick, purchased at cost of $35 and attached to the column a few weeks ago, will stay and that the free speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment apply to the group in this case.

City Attorney Tim Henry offered to review the legal cases councilman Tony Brooks cited that he said dealt with the free speech issue before the city.

Brooks, who also attended Stilp’s protest, recalled a speech President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave in 1941 on the four freedoms for which America stands. FDR spoke of the freedom of speech and the freedom from fear, Brooks said.

”I do not support giving such an organization a permanent advertisement that strikes fear into so many citizens of Wilkes-Barre,” Brooks said.

One of the online comments to a newspaper article on the controversy called for his death, Brooks said.

“My family and so many others want and deserve the freedom from fear that the brick strikes in so many,” Brooks said.

Council vice chairman Bill Barrett compared the brick’s removal to taking down Confederate monuments and other memorials to groups because they represented hateful groups.

“I support the removal regardless of how we do it or what we have to do, whether it’s simply refunding somebody their money and see what happens,” Barrett said. “Something needs to be done.”

There should have been a better screening process in place when the group bought the brick back in 2016, added council chairman Mike Belusko.

“That should never have made it to that monument,” Belusko said.

The delay between the purchase of the brick and attaching it was a production matter. The manufacturer had to have a minimum order of a dozen or so before the bricks could be produced, city officials said.

“We’re in the process of changing the whole process,” City Administrator Rick Gazenski assured council.

Fireworks in focus

Before the start of the meeting Fire Chief Jay Delaney and Police Chief Joseph Coffay addressed council about their departments response to fireworks on the Fourth of July, the second year after the state legalized the sale of commercial grade fireworks.

“It didn’t get any better this year. In fact it got worse and I feel very comfortable saying it sounded like a war zone,” Delaney said.

Fireworks started a structure fire on North Washington Street, Delaney said.

He presented each council member a copy of pending legislation, House Bill 1687 cosponsored by state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, that aims to give local level government more authority to try to regulate fireworks.

Coffay said there were many anonymous calls to 911 about fireworks, but officers were unable to talk to a person who made the call.

“Next year I think we’re going to actually do a more proactive approach,” Coffay said, and assign units to fireworks calls and identify people who are not following the law.