File Photo from 2014: Williamsport, Pa pickle-ball court in Memorial Park. 

More than two years ago, I created a Photoshopped image intended to highlight Gabe Campana’s flaws as our leader. Today, that image has creeped back into the local spotlight and I am absolutely dumbfounded.

The picture in question depicts Williamsport Mayor Gabe Campana with then presidential candidate Donald Trump. Behind them is a banner that reads ‘Make America White Again’ in the same typography as the candidate’s now infamous red hats.

This image was created in March of 2016, more than two years before the image was discovered hanging in the public office of the Mayor. I did not hang it there. I posted it on Facebook, directly to the mayor’s public wall. That picture was saved to a computer, printed out, laughed about and, ultimately, found to be so hilarious that it was hung on a public wall. It was displayed openly enough for a member of City Council to stumble across it innocently. �

When I made this image, Campana had just endorsed Donald Trump for the presidency. A city mayor endorsing a presidential candidate is virtually unheard of to begin with, but endorsing a man who was in the midst of running a hostile and divisive campaign while himself being at the helm of an extremely diverse community? That was done for personal notoriety, not for this community.

The easiest thing to notice in this image is the two men playing pickleball. You may remember 2013 when Mayor Campana unilaterally decided, without any votes or backing from city council in any way, to remove the basketball hoops at Memorial Park. He cited reasons ranging from “too much litter” to “gang activity.” 

Mayor Campana was quoted in the Sun Gazette on 6/19/13 as saying, “A lesson will be taught as a father and mother teaches their children… If the behavior improves, the courts will remain… If not, I will consider removing the basketball rims permanently. We cannot enable bad behavior.”

We are not Gabe Campana’s children. He is not our father. We elected him. He works for us. We pay his salary. Unfortunately, Mr. Campana doesn’t seem to understand exactly what his role is as mayor. His job is to represent us, not give us ‘tough love’ or put conditions on our right to enjoy the public parks that we pay for.

Even more alarming is how awfully the pickleball courts represent and benefit our community.

The median age in Williamsport in 2016 was 31.3 years old. The national median age was 37.8 years old. Our city is substantially younger than the national average. We are bursting with young professionals and creatives that are helping to bring the arts and small business back to Williamsport. Obviously, you’d want to encourage this growth by tailoring public recreational facilities to the correct demographics, right?

The USA Pickleball Association Fact Sheet for 2016, available online, states that 93.6% of pickleball players are over the age of 39. Those are the actual numbers provided by the USAPA. Less than 7% of those who partake in pickleball are younger than 40. I’d love to hear the mayor’s explanation on why he thought this would be beneficial to the community.

What about the younger generation? Young kids, many coming from financial hardships, trying to figure out a way to continue their education beyond high school. For many of them, the idea of burying themselves in student loan debt is enough to make them give up. There is a large segment of students that view basketball as a way to help fund college. Every year, there are over 21,500 full-tuition NCAA basketball scholarships awarded to students across Division I, II and III. The amount of partial scholarships is close to 100,000 in total. These numbers are easy to find on the official NCAA website.

The number of NCAA pickleball scholarships? Zero. 

Last month, Williamsport’s own Alize Johnson was drafted into the NBA by the Indiana Pacers. He worked tirelessly at his craft and that sacrifice will allow him to provide for himself and his family for the rest of his life. He is a symbol of how work ethic and drive can lead anyone to accomplishing their goals. He is the kind of person that Williamsport can look to proudly and say, “That’s our guy.”

I know Mayor Campana is familiar with this story. He made an appearance at the Draft Party held downtown. The Sun Gazette published some wonderful stories about Alize, filled with insights on his college career and his childhood. What stood out to me was a portion of a paragraph that read:

“It is not a stretch saying he would spend many summer days, playing from sunrise to sundown. He was shining on the Memorial Park courts at a young age, competing against players… who were four or five years older than he was.”

Mayor Campana attended the draft celebration of Williamsport native Alize Johnson, who spent his childhood summers refining his skills on a basketball court that Mayor Campana removed. The irony would be laughable if it weren’t so incredibly deflating.

There is an obvious, yet seemingly ignored, truth here. Demographic censuses available on StatisticalAtlas.com show that, in 2013, the five block radius surrounding Memorial Park was somewhat of an anomaly. That first block group after coming in from Newberry boasted a 38.3% Black population. From there, you’d have to head east all the way to Campbell Street before you find another block group with a a Black population over 17%. In fact, most block groups are under a 4% Black population rate in that area of the city.

Basketball is the only sport with the majority of it’s viewers and supporters being people of color. No other major sport can boast that statistic.

The racial demographics for pickleball aren’t available. All I can say is that if you can go to the USA Pickleball Open website and find me a single picture of a person of color competing in this year’s tournament, I’ll gladly eat the paper this is printed on. It’s a sport that is built on a predominantly old and white demographic. The demographic that makes up most of the block groups bordering the Memorial Park neighborhood. The demographic that Mayor Campana chose to cater to. The target demographic for the gentrification of the Memorial Park section of Williamsport.

Why am I telling you all this? Because the reason the image I created even exists is that our mayor has employed tactics made popular by President Trump to convince us that taking down those hoops was best for the city. He cited gang initiations and potential violence as his reasons and both were not based in any sort of fact. Memorial Park never had any shootings or gang wars. Using the discovery of empty drug bags and needles as an excuse to take down the hoops? I can walk down East 3rd Street or Washington Boulevard and find ten used needles in under a minute. Drug use is still rampant all across our city. In fact, one could argue that the opioid epidemic has gotten worse since the hoops came down. Just another example of how Campana’s logic was unfounded and sensationalist in nature.��

Playing basketball and gang violence are not synonymous. One doesn’t lead to the other. Trying to frame it as though they are connected is an incredibly racist notion, since basketball’s demographic is predominantly black. Trying to insinuate that a basketball court in a Black neighborhood that has some litter on the ground will lead to drug sales or violence is exactly why I included the words ‘Make America White Again’ in the picture. Campana’s actions would lead the public to believe that is his intention for Williamsport.

I’m not trying to make this my fight. It isn’t. Our city has an amazing council looking out for us. The tireless work and strong voice of Jonathan Williamson, Randall Allison, Joel Henderson, Elizabeth Miele, Bonnie Katz, Don Noviello and Derek Slaughter are the only reason we are having this conversation. They saw something they knew was wrong, and stood up for the people of this city. That dedication should not go unnoticed.

I just wanted to explain my thought process before everyone wrote this picture off as some kid in a basement somewhere trolling the internet to get a reaction. I’m a 32 year old father of two young girls. I own a small business and coordinate a craft fair in Williamsport. I know that this picture and this letter may make me a target for the segment of Williamsport that views liberal ideals as a poison. That’s fine. I can handle it.

What I can’t and won’t ACCEPT is overt racism in our city. The amazing diversity all around us is what makes Williamsport so special. We may be a small city, but we are a huge community. Our strength comes from the unique perspectives that build our foundation. We cannot fear that individuality. We cannot be intimidated by those differences. They are a gift and should be treated accordingly.

Mayor Campana addressed any accusations of racism in the article that brought this photo to the general public. His exact quote was, “My children are bi-racial, Asian and American, and I would never condone anything like that and I won’t tolerate any racist comments.”

Mr. Mayor, "American" is not a race. 

Statements like this, coupled with that picture being displayed for public consumption in City Hall as if it was funny, show how disconnected our mayor is from this city. It also shows a complete lack of understanding in regards to racial issues in general.

If Mayor Campana wants to start regaining credibility and trust within the city, he can start by re-installing the hoops at Memorial Park. That single gesture would speak volumes of his willingness to learn from his mistakes and do what he was elected to do: move Williamsport in a positive direction. I'm sure we could find another suitable location to house the pickleball facilities.

This is our city. It is up to us to build a brighter future for our community.

Stay active. Stay loud. Keep moving forward.

- Robert Iacuzio Jr.

// NorthcentralPa.com welcomes Letters to the Editor and Opinion pieces written by people with interests in the area. Send to: News@NorthcentralPa.com Attention: Letter to the Editor. //