Friday, May 14, 2010

The KKK in Western PA

Joe and Mary Walbeck of West Wheatfield Township lived peacefully in their predominantly white neighborhood until Nov. 15, 2009, when they found the remnants of a 6-foot cross burned in their yard.
The Walbecks are white parents of an adopted black son, Shaquille Howard, 16, who came to live with the family three years ago, according to Mary Walbeck.
"We just fell in love with him, and we didn't want him to leave," said Walbeck from her home in a Feb. 18 phone interview.
After seeing the cross, she was "dumbfounded" and became fearful, she said. If a criminal would trespass in her yard, she did not know where the person would stop.
Her foster son responded to the incident with disbelief.
"I thought it was a joke," Howard said from his home in a phone interview on Feb. 9. "We found out later that it wasn't a joke. It hurt me, actually."
Walbeck said her neighbors were equally shocked by the cross burning.
"Everyone thinks it's terrible, or just wrong, to do something like that to a kid," Walbeck said.
On Jan. 22, the FBI took over the case. The lead investigator is Special Agent Sonia Bush, who said in a Feb. 18 phone interview that she cannot speak about the ongoing investigation.
The FBI identified a person of interest in the cross burning. Walbeck said that the man is the grandson of a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, the organization's national leader. Walbeck said the investigation is dragging on, and no arrests have been made.
"The longer this goes on, it just gets worse," Walbeck said.
Walbeck said investigators have released no new information since November. She added that she expressed her concern to Bush.
"She says all the right things," Walbeck said. "But they don't make you feel a lot better."
Walbeck said her adopted son is a caring member of the community.
"He's athletic, very social, easy to get along with, leader-type kid," Walbeck said.
She said that news articles portraying Howard as a troubled child are innacurate, and that Howard makes significant contributions to his community, she added.
"He has educated us all," Walbeck said.
Walbeck said her adopted son's contributions will affect the country, and that he will be elected president.
"He'll be somebody someday," she said.

Shaquille Howard (left) with his brother Chauncy Howard. (Photo from Facebook)

Criminal Racism
Cross burning is a hate crime. A hate crime is defined as a crime motivated by a bias against a race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability.
Hate crimes include murder, rape, assault, intimidation, robbery, arson and vandalism with a discriminatory motive.
Americans committed 13,690 hate crimes in 2008, according to the FBI ( Of these, 51.3 percent were racially motivated. Of those, 72.6 were committed against blacks.
The number of hate crimes increased nationwide between 2004 and 2008, according to the FBI crime statistics. Incidents increased from 7,649 in 2004 to 7,783 in 2008, an increase of 1.8 percent.

Racism at IUP
Racism is evident elsewhere in Indiana county, residents say.
Devvon J. Horn, 20, an IUP sophomore from Philadelphia, said both white and black students "disliked" his relationship with a white student.
Students wrote discriminatory remarks on a white board attached to his dorm room door, he said in a Feb. 16 interview in Putt Hall.
Horn also said two of his friends were walking to dinner in the fall 2009 semester when white men shouted racist slurs from a window of Delaney suites.
Clifton J. Hardison, 21, a former student and Indiana resident, said he experienced more racism in Indiana than in his hometown, Harrisburg. He said a fight broke out at New Year's Eve party at IUP.
"A white guy called my boy a n*****," said Hardison in a Feb. 16 phone interview.
Dr. Susan R. Boser, IUP sociology professor, is striving to end discrimination on campus.
"I came close to it because I saw a need," Boser said in Stouffer Hall her office on Feb. 19. "I have strong opinions on equity and social justice."
Boser spoke of a black Muslim student who wore a head scarf to class.
"In the middle of the night, somebody wrote 'n*****' on her door," Boser said.
In summer of 2008, one of Boser's advisees was accused of academic misconduct.
"She said it wasn't her. I listened to her story, and I believed her," Boser said. "I had so much respect for her."
The university judge determined that the wrong student was accused. A different black student was guilty.
"It was, essentially, an act of discrimination, that they all look alike," Boser said.
Dr. Roger Briscoe, professor and adviser of the NAACP at IUP, said less than 30 of the 750 IUP faculty members at IUP are black, about 4 percent. Thirteen percent of students are from a racial minority.
"In order for there to be a resolve in racism, there has to be a change in attitudes," Briscoe said in his Stouffer Hall office on Feb. 22. "If there's going to be a change, it has to start in schools."
Briscoe said the Klan is active in Punxsutawney and that the majority of students on IUP's campus there are black.
"Of all the places to put an extension campus," Briscoe said, "Punxsutawney is the worst."
Charles M. Simelton, 23, is a black student from Philadelphia who transferred from the Punxsutawney campus in 2007.
"It was crazy that they would put us there," Simelton said in the Stapleton Library at IUP.
Simelton compiled a list of his experiences with racism at Punxsutawney. On his first day on campus, he said a young girl pointed at him and said, "Hey, Mommy, there is a nigger!"
"The mom just laughed and acted as if nothing was wrong," Simelton said. "That was crazy."
He said he was grocery shopping when a girl turned to her friends and said some black people were hanged a few miles outside of the city and hoped Simelton and his friend would be next.
He said a KKK meeting house was about two miles from campus. One of his friends, a black Muslim, unintentionally signed a lease for an apartment next door to the meeting house. Simelton suspected that the landlord was "trying to set her up."
He said Punxsutawney students were warned by faculty not to walk around at night. They carried BB guns to protect themselves. He said some of his friends were chased by men in pick-up trucks.
"We honestly walked around scared at night," Simelton said.

The Ku Klux Klan in the 21st Century
The Ku Klux Klan experienced membership growth in the mid-Atlantic regions from Maryland to New York in the 2000's, according to the Anti-Defamation League (
The ADL was founded to fight anti-semitism but now promotes civil rights for all groups. There are 30 offices throughout the country. The ADL, based in Washington, D.C., is funded through donations.
The ADL estimates that 5,000 Klansmen are active in more than 40 Klan groups, many with multiple chapters called "klaverns."
The World Knights of the Ku Klux Klan originated in Sharpsburg, Md., and spread to Pennsylvania, according to the ADL. The World Knights lead statistically in recruiting new members and organizing racist events. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware comprise Federal District 3 of the KKK, according to the KKK Web site (
This Web site allows prospective Knights to join for a yearly donation of $35. The site also hosts a store ( which sells merchandise with slogans such as "The Original Boyz N The Hood: Knights of the Ku Klux Klan" and "Klan Kids Kare."
The site also links to the Internet television show "This is the Klan" (  The Black History Month edition for February, 2010, opens with sarcastic comments about black contributions to the United States.
"We would not be a nation today if it wasn't for the black leaders who built this nation in Philadelphia in 1787. They were all black, weren't they?" says Thomas Robb, national director of the Knight's Party as he turns to his co-host, Rachel Pendergraft on the Web show.
Pendergraft is the Premier Spokeswoman for The Knights Party. Her response was that the history books may say that the nation's founders were black in a few years.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Life on the Pittsburgh Streets

    Carl Harris grew up in a house that he can clearly see from the place he spends the weekend. Harris begs on Saturdays and Sundays in Pittsburgh's Strip District, at the base of the hill where he was raised. He tries to make 42 dollars by the time the bus comes at 3 p.m. so he can stay in a motel near West Mifflin.
    Harris has two daughters, ages 30 and 9. One lives in South Carolina, and the other lives in the Hill District with her mother, he said. (Photo/Alyssa Choiniere)

    Harris lost his left arm and left leg at age 10 when he was run over by a train. "I was playing on freight trains and fell off," he said. He has a positive demeanor, offering a smile that shows several missing teeth to passerbys. He welcomed the sunshine instead of cursing the hot day.
    This gives me something to do -- keeps me busy," he said. "Is this what you do in your leisure time?" he asked, laughing and motioning toward the camera. (Photo/Alyssa Choiniere)

   "I hope you like Pepsi," says a man bringing Harris a meal of roast chicken and fries. He invited Harris to an outreach for hungry people called "The Table," held at the Hot Metal Bridge Church on Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m.
    "People are pretty nice out here," Harris said. "You want some of this?" he asked with a grin as he opened his plastic fork with his one arm and few remaining teeth. (Photo/Alyssa Choiniere)

    A man sneaks a glance at Harris' change cup, walking swiftly by, while a girl points toward Harris with a look of disgust. The majority of people pretended not to notice Harris, though some openly acknowledged him, either positively or negatively.
    One time last year, a police officer told Harris he was not allowed on the Strip. "I transferred, and then came back," Harris said. (Photo/Alyssa Choiniere)
    Harris looks out on the crowds of people walking by, some dressed in church clothes, others with designer purses and high-heeled boots. He started begging in the Strip District four years ago, and many pedestrians recognize him, saying they will see him next Sunday.
    "I think sometimes that's a good thing, in case I get in trouble or something," he said.
    He is saving up to get an apartment in the city, and is taking classes during the week to earn his G.E.D. (Photo/Alyssa Choiniere)

    "This is the hardest part," Harris said. "Cleaning up after you're finished." He hobbles across the street on one crutch, avoiding cars to redeposit his chair, a milk crate. He then returns to pick up every scrap of paper he dropped before walking several blocks to catch a bus that would take him 35 minutes away, to the place he calls home for now.
    "I hope this weather lasts," he said. Minutes after Harris boarded the bus, thunder rolled and lightning broke the gray clouds open, turning the sidewalk into a riverbed. (Photo/Alyssa Choiniere)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Remembering RMU Students 2 Years Later pt. 2

Today would be Gillie's 25th birthday. I don't feel like being overly depressing, so just watch this video. I made it after I heard the jury's verdict on the double murder.
And if anyone feels inspired, watch Hot Fuzz tonight in memory of Gille. :) Thanks.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Remembering RMU Students 2 Years Later

On Jan. 22, 2008, two years ago to date, an off-campus apartment of Robert Morris University was transformed from a friendly study group to a blood bath.

Students Jonathan “Gillie” Gilbert, 22, Michael “Fudd” Tatolovich, 20, and Michelle Machusko, 20, were gathered around a computer for session of studying and socialization. Within minutes, laughter was replaced by screams as H. Paul Visnansky entered the room. He opened fire on the three students.

A cell phone fell to the floor as a friend heard the last words of Tatolovich. He rushed toward the back door in a feverish attempt to save his own life, but was shot down within inches of his goal. Visnansky shot multiple rounds into Gilbert, who fell to the floor, dead. Beside Gilbert, Visnansky pressed the head of his fiancĂ©e into the floor. Machusko, was shot seven times. 

Machusko suffered severe injuries, but survived to sustain paralysis on her right side. She was the only survivor. Her injuries destroyed her dreams of graduation and ballet.

Visnansky was arrested when he jumped from the window that Tatolovich missed by moments. Visnansky landed on the ground with his weapon, a .357 Magnum, still in hand. He told police officers that he had killed three in the room.
The only recollection Visnansky gave of the incident was that “the gun powder smelled really bad." Police reported that Visnansky was laughing and grinning in the backseat of the police car.

Though some accounts reported that Tatolovich and Gilbert were strangers to Visnansky, friends have reported that the four spent time together.

Gilbert was a sophomore elementary education major at Robert Morris. He transferred from the Community College of Beaver County in 2007.
He was the only child of Lorraine Gilbert, who was planning to celebrate his 23rd birthday with him in less than two weeks.

Gilbert worked in the campus daycare center, where he and the children shared a mutual love of life. The children called him “Mr. Jonathan,” and gave him his first and final experience impacting young lives.

Gilbert had a contagious energy and natural light. His enthusiasm, humor, and childish innocence set him apart from his peers. He left a mark with the children, his friends and family, and everyone that ever came in contact with him long enough to hear his infectious laugh.

Gilbert left a permanent mark on the world with his art. He was a member of The Organization of the Arts for Awareness and Change, and acted in the Organization's production, titled, “The Worst Day Since Yesterday.”

The production was founded on the words of Stephen Covey, “While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions.” This message resonates deeply in the tragically concluding act of these innocent victims.

 Tatolovich was a friend of Gilbert's since high school and his roommate in college. His legacy was established by his family, who are rekindling the warmth of his friendly and selfless lifestyle with a memorial scholarship dedicated to his honor and memory.

The Tatolovich family, of Center Twp., is well-known throughout their hometown. The family owns funeral homes established in Center, Aliquippa and Ambridge. The Tatolovich family has been the forerunner in providing sincere empathy to local families with lost loved ones.

Tatolovich was a popular figure as a player on the Center Area High School football team and a friendly face on campus at Robert Morris.

A death sentence was initially sought in the Visnansky trial. However, because he pleaded guilty, Visnansky was charged with two consecutive life sentences for first-degree murder, plus 20 to 40 years for attempted criminal homicide.

Lorraine Gilbert said, “I feel justice would be served if he would die.”

According to Keith Johnson, a retired prosecuting attorney, the vast majority of trials are resolved with plea bargains. He said that justice is not purely served based on facts of a crime but based on the answer to the question, “Can I win this case?”

Campus shootings are an increasing travesty in our society. According to the Associated Press, there were at least 13 fatal campus shootings between June, 2000 and February, 2008. These records are not inconclusive, as it did not include the Robert Morris shootings.

Eight of the 15 confirmed shootings in this decade occurred between April 2007 and April 2008. The shooting at RMU followed the Dusquesne University shooting of September 2006, making this the second campus massacre in the Pittsburgh area in less than two years.

Many of these fatal shootings are covered by the press for days, or even weeks. However, some, like the RMU campus shooting, seem to fall below the eye line of national coverage, and the travesty is scarcely heard outside of the immediate area.

Many locals of Pittsburgh reported that they were never even told about these shootings. Some of these are students themselves.

RMU students were not informed of the tragedy until 2 p.m. the next day, in a time in which campuses across America claimed to be tightening up security measures.

There are 19 colleges and universities in the Pittsburgh area, many with multiple campuses. Measures taken against campus violence save lives. The most fundamental of these measures is awareness.

Awareness of these issues demands action, and action demands that the lives of Jonathan Gilbert, Michael Tatolovich, and many others, were not lost in vain.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kiva: Loans that Change Lives

Kiva is a micro-lending organization, unique because of its mission to connect lenders directly with entrepreneurs in developing countries.

This organization was the first of its kind. Kiva is affiliated with worldwide micro-financing groups which enables individuals to loan to qualified entrepreneurs across the globe.

Lenders can make contributions as little as $25 and will be repaid according to a preset timetable, which varies by case.

The person-to-person connection of Kiva starts with a photograph. While exploring the benefits of becoming a lender, you can scroll through a list of real people in developing countries, see their faces, hear their stories, understand their needs and fulfill them.

This is Koffi Hounlessodji, a 22 year-old trained in sheetmetal work in Tojo. He seeks a loan of $1,200 to purchase supplies so that he can make stoves and doors in greater quantities.

Similar stories are posted on Kiva every day and loans are distributed, giving these hard-working individuals a chance at success and a boost to the local economy.

William Easterly, economist and author of "The White Man's Burden," writes, "Acknowledging that development happens mainly through homegrown efforts would liberate the agencies of the West from utopian goals, freeing up development workers to concentrate on more modest, doable steps to make poor people's lives better."

Kiva is an organization making doable steps. Instead of handouts, this organization allows people to help themselves and make a drastic difference in their lives and communities.

The Poverty News Blog started a lending team for Kiva. The team writes, "We want those who read the blog to take action upon what they read."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Another Way to Help in Haiti

I was just observing my ads, and noticed the one to the left, "Save a Shirt, Buy a Life." I thought it sounded cool, and discovered another way to help in Haiti. The organizations sponsoring the ad is donating meals in Haiti for 17 cents each. They also have some very cool t-shirts. The shirts have a message on the front for a specific cause, from human trafficking to homelessness. They even have a shirt for Haiti earthquake relief. The product description shows what you're buying for others in addition to the t-shirt. I think it's quite clever.
If the ad isn't shown, go here. If it is, please just use the link from the sidebar.

Earthquake in Haiti

I'm delaying my Mali series to cover the earthquake in Haiti that struck Port au Prince Tuesday afternoon.

Thousands were killed and many are still buried alive in the largest earthquake to hit Haiti, recorded at 7.0 on the Richter scale. This is comparable to the California earthquake that shook the country in 1989, and 1.0 higher than the Chinese earthquake that displaced 250,000 in 2009.

Death tolls are still mere speculations, but the count could reach as high as 500,000. Port au Prince was home to 2 million people, many of them severely impoverished. Many homes were in shantytowns, far less stable than architecture of U.S. buildings constructed near fault lines.

Aftershocks continued to rock the country as wails rose from the ruins and Haitians searched through the rubble for the crushed corpses of loved ones. Dust-covered people roamed the streets. Their grey skin and hopeless gaze is hauntingly reminiscent of the living dead.

Schools, hospitals, the cathedral, parliament, and prisons were listed among the destroyed buildings. Inmates are now feared roaming the streets.

The archbishop is counted among the dead, killing the last ray of hope for many Roman Catholic Haitians.

The U.S. is launching a massive, immediate effort to help the country, alongside other aid workers from Iceland to Venezuela.                                                    

The first 24 hour period is the most crucial time for providing aid in natural disaster. You can make an emergency donation to help rescue workers find and sustain the living among the rubble.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Nutrition in Mali, Africa

In the Western world, we say that no parent should ever have to lose a child. In Mali, the death of a child is a harsh expectation. The average Malian woman gives birth to 10.4 children. According to a 2004 World Health Organization report, 438 children out of 1,000 die before the age of 5. 

Katherine Dettwyler, anthropologist and author of the ethnography, "Dancing Skeletons," spent years researching in Mali to determine the reasons for such a catastrophic child death rate. Her conclusion was that poor nutrition practices caused the majority of deaths.

Most organizations, however, focus on immunizations from diseases like malaria. While these vaccinations are crucial, Dettwyler writes that proper nutrition would help children survive these rampant diseases. Vaccinations save a child from disease only long enough so that they may starve later.

The practices in Mali for feeding children are a stark contrast to American customs. It is not understood by most Malians that a child must eat to grow. Malians deduce that the parent should have more food. After all, the adults did all the work, and they are bigger. Logically, wouldn't the adults need more energy? Therefore, the adults get the good food of meat and vegetables, when these luxuries are available, while the children eat millet.

In America, we say "Finish your dinner before you go out to play." In Mali, when the child stops eating, he must be full. He must have had enough to eat. If the child does not want to eat her vegetables, she doesn't have to. She must not need them. Children refusing to eat the healthy food is a worldwide phenomenon. But in Mali, there are no threats about finishing peas before dessert is served.

With these assumptions in Mali, it is futile to simply give a mother more money to buy food. Nutrition is simply misunderstood.

Dettwyler observed that the practices of organizations were improper in decreasing child death rates. One experience was prominent enough to become the title of her book. She said that she was invited to a celebration of a village that was declared stable after months of care by an organization. The children danced before her in glee, malnourished, bony bodies moving fluidly. The children, she said, looked like dancing skeletons. Success in the village was not yet achieved. Yet, the organization's workers moved on, counting another achievement.

If you want to help a child in Mali, I have one picked out for you already.

Founemakan is a 7-year-old girl in Mali. You can sponsor her through Plan USA. I recommend this organization based on personal experience. If the link doesn't send you to Founemakan, a sponsor has already chosen her. But, there are sure to be more Malian children to choose from.

I will write more on Mali very soon. Thanks so much for reading.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Malaria: The Cost of Prevention

A young African mother is caught in a nightmare. Her twin daughters are at an age where they should be learning how to form their first sentences, how to run, and how to giggle with unbridled enthusiasm.
Instead, they are dying.
Hasena did not know the name of the plague which infected her tw0-year-old daughters, much less that the carrier of the plague was less than an inch long. She only knew that her daughters were sick, and that her only chance to save them was 40 miles away. Hasena made the two-day journey with a toddler in each arm.
“When I was a few hours away from the health center, they both stopped crying. When I arrived, the nurse told me that it was too late to treat their malaria.”
I found Hasena’s quote and story, paraphrased here, at
By the time you finish reading this post, five more children will die from malaria. The majority of malaria’s victims never live to see the age of 5. Malaria deaths would significantly decrease with simple resources, such as mosquito nets and increased education. According to William Easterly, author of “The White Man’s Burden,” 5 million children would be saved from malaria by donating 4 dollars per African mother.
The prevalence of malaria is not due to a lack of resources, but rather a lack of knowledge. This ignorance is pervasive in America.
Life extends beyond the borders of America. It reaches beyond the current economic crisis, beyond pop culture, and beyond the stress of earning a paycheck. If one asks, “What’s in it for me?” the most sincere answer is blunt: Nothing.
Saving a life won’t get you a better job, and it won’t buy you a new pair of jeans. But for a child and a mother who are so far away that they may seem invisible, it will be the most precious extension of grace, granting the promise of life and a future.
Visit to donate.