A look at demagogues’ fearful power: ‘9500 Liberty’ tells how bias burned county
“9500 Liberty,’’ a documentary about the recent bitter struggle over illegal immigration in Virginia’s Prince William County could be studied in film classes as a model of advocacy journalism. Filmmakers Annabel Park and Eric Byler are obviously on one side of the debate, but they give the other side its say, try to understand where these people are coming from, and watch as their opponents hang themselves with their own ropes. When Park and Byler briefly become part of the story — they posted sections of the film-in-progress on YouTube — they acknowledge as much and move on.
Best of all, they recognize and show us the bigger drama unfolding here. “9500 Liberty’’ is not just about the clash of immigrant Hispanics and white nativists, but about what happens when a community’s civic machinery is hijacked by ideologues and extremists — and what exactly it takes for the silent center to push back.
The film additionally makes very clear how few people you need to start a mob. In Prince William County in 2007, it took two: a rabble-rousing right-wing blogger named Greg Letiecq and Corey Stewart, the grandstanding chairman of the Board of County Supervisors. After Letiecq demonized illegals in particular and Hispanics in general on his website, Stewart capitalized on the panic to push through a controversial Probable Cause Mandate, requiring police to stop and question anyone they had “probable cause’’ to suspect was an undocumented immigrant.
“9500 Liberty’’ captures the impassioned town hall debate leading up to the vote, and the fear that animates the pro-mandate citizens is heartbreakingly apparent. They tremble as they describe a coming tidal wave of criminal brown people washing over them and destroying their schools and hospitals (no matter that the crime-rate has actually plummeted in the previous decade). They want us to know that the 9/11 terrorists were illegals; you do the math.
“9500 Liberty’’ understands that what moves these people is the idealized America they see vanishing before their eyes, one in which everyone looks and talks like them. Stated reasons for “probable cause’’ include speaking Spanish, playing Latin music, owning a chicken, and growing corn.
The movie also understands the melting pot that America actually is and always has been (since we kicked the Indians aside, anyway). The filmmakers follow the resistance of the legal immigrant community — the title comes from the street address of a huge anti-mandate banner mounted by Gaudencio Fernandez, a US citizen since the 1980s — and charts the growing realization of many that, legal or not, they’d best move elsewhere if they don’t want to be stopped by the cops every day.
We see what happens next: the bottom falling out of the housing market, retail stores closing for lack of customers, a recession made worse by punitive local ordinances. At this point, an initiative takes shape to repeal Probable Cause, spearheaded by two sympathetic county supervisors and a pair of middle-class moms who mount a blog to counteract Letiecq’s. The effort has the tacit support of the police chief, Charlie Deane, about as rock-ribbed an old-school lawman as they come.
The turning point probably came in early 2008, when Letiecq — who really is loathsome, in his zealously mild-mannered way — accused Deane of treason on his blog. The town hall debate this time around turned into a scathing indictment of Stewart’s and Letiecq’s tactics, and it came from citizens who had been too cowed to speak up the first time around. The immigrant community was no longer part of the fight; either they had all moved away or they decided to let the white folks hash it out.
A cynic might observe that the latter got involved only when they saw their property values start to decline. An optimist would take heart in the palpable outrage of citizens — trembling this time with indignation — who have remembered almost too late that scoundrels are emboldened by silence. “9500 Liberty’’ is both an inspiration and a warning.