I condemn what happened here. This is not acceptable, said Arias. We must let those involved know we will not stand still and let this happen again.
The public meeting was among a number of activities to get the word out about the Hazleton assault and another arson attack on the White House Café in the Black community in nearby Wilkes-Barre. It was organized to ask that protest messages be sent to the Hazleton mayor demanding the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators and to raise funds for the rebuilding of the SWP campaign hall.
The panel at the September 18 speakout also included Rev. Douglas McKeeby of Trinity Lutheran Church; Amilcar Arroyo, publisher and editor of El Mensajero, a local Spanish-language newspaper; and Arrin Hawkins.
Tim Mailhot, Socialist Workers candidate for U.S. Congress in Pennsylvanias 11th C.D., chaired the meeting. In the arson attack on the SWP campaign hall, he said, a brick with incendiary material attached to it was thrown through the front window, igniting a slow-burning fire and badly damaging the front of the hall and burning campaign literature. The smoke that filled the room rendered the centers book stock unusable.
An alert neighbor across the street noticed what was going on and called the fire department at about 4:30 a.m. Her action prevented the attack from destroying the entire building, which includes apartments upstairs where two families were sleeping.
Earlier that same morning, the White House Café in Wilkes-Barre, a larger town near Hazleton, suffered severe damage in another arson attack. The perpetrator of that crime also set fire to two houses in the Black community. He was reportedly caught while trying to set a third house ablaze. Michael Boyle, 23, whom the Wilkes-Barre police have charged for these arson attacks, said he tried to burn the African-American-managed café because he was taught to hate Blacks, according to local TV interviews.
Attacks like these two take place in the political context of sharpening attacks on working people in this country, said Hawkins at the speakout.
As the rulers argue over perspectives for defending their declining system in this election year, Hawkins said, they use civil discourse less and less, resorting more to slander and innuendo. This coarsening of capitalist politics encourages rightists and racists to lash out violently.
During the week following the firebombing here, Hawkins and Mailhot visited White House Café manager Bob Harris and longtime Black rights activist Beverly Collins in Wilkes-Barre to extend their solidarity and thank them for supporting the protest campaign against the firebombing of the socialist hall. Collins joined other area defenders of political rights in issuing a public appeal to urge authorities in Hazleton to find and prosecute those responsible for the arson attack in Hazleton (see lead article and editorial in last weeks Militant).
At the speakout, which 40 people attended, Arias reported that in the last month there have been attacks on three different apartments of immigrant workers in Hazleton who are Latino. In one of these incidents, someone attempted a forced entry into the house where immigrant workers live. In the other two, rocks were thrown through windows and one was accompanied with a note saying, Go Home.
No one has the right to tell anyone to Go home, Arias said. She told the Militant after the meeting that the residents involved in the attacks had decided they would not move.
Rev. McKeeby, who had taken part in a September 13 press conference on the firebombing, spoke on behalf of the Hazleton Ministerium. This was an attack on ideas, McKeeby said. In this community we may have different ideas, but we need to be more tolerant in our discussions with each other. The firebombing could happen tomorrow at a synagogue or at a newspaper, he added.
Amilcar Arroyo told the audience he respected the ideas of the socialist campaign and all those defending liberties and freedom.
On display in the hall were some of the many support messages and letters to Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta, which are arriving daily. They included letters from James Lafferty, on behalf of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyers Guild; members of the UNITE local at the Point Blank Body Armor garment plant in Oakland Park, Florida; David Greenlief, UNITE-HERE union representative; and Jose Sandoval and Sandra Blas, coordinators of Community Volunteers in San Jose, California; David Riehle, President of United Transportation Union Local 650 in Minnesota; Gillian Barker, professor of philosophy at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; and Nick Castle, film maker and member of the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles.
During the week, working people from Hazleton and neighboring towns continued to visit the campaign headquarters in solidarity. One member of the executive board of the local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Wilkes-Barre visited to show his support and made a contribution toward the rebuilding effort.
SWP national campaign treasurer John Studer pointed out that the next weeks will be crucial in building the broadest campaign possible in demanding that the city public officials act to rapidly arrest and prosecute those responsible. At the time of the speakout, Mailhot reported that no word has been received from the local police on the progress of the investigation. In fact, police officials still have not released the premises to insurance adjusters to allow estimate of the damage and replacement of the broken glass display window, Mailhot said.
On September 16, an article by L.A. Tarone appeared in the Hazleton Standard Speaker questioning whether the arson attack was politically motivated. It was definitely arsonno doubt about it, acting police chief James Schellhamer is quoted in the article as saying. But theres no evidence that it was politically motivated. The article refers to incidents of cars being torched in the past year in the area, raising the possibility that the firebombing of the socialist campaign center was simply another act of vandalism.
Mailhot sent a letter to the editor in response to this article, which was featured in the papers September 18 edition. The message [the perpetrators] are trying to convey is clear: Shut up. Keep quiet and stay in your place, Mailhot said in the letter. Such attacks are intended to close down the space for democratic rights and civil debate. They are ultimately aimed at the working class.
During the event, nearly $800 was raised for the $3,500 SWP Campaign Hall Rebuilding Fund, launched after the attack. Contributions are being used to purchase wood, sheet rock, and paint to reconstruct the destroyed display area, replace damaged equipment, and replenish the entire stock of smoke-damaged books. Books with minor damage were offered to visitors for a modest contribution.
The Sunday, September 19, edition of the Hazleton Standard Speaker ran an article on the speakout, saying that the event was organized by the Socialist Workers campaign to make it known that they are not going to back down.