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What’s the Matter with Virginia?
Documentary traces an Arizona-like immigration law
by Suzi Steffen
9500 LIBERTY: Written and directed by Eric Byler and Annabel Park. 81 minutes. In English with Spanish subtitles.
One of the key moments in 9500 Liberty, a documentary about a community dealing with anti-immigration passion and immigrant rights, comes when a white, Republican, young Prince William (Va.) county supervisor speaks in Spanish to a room full of furious, hurt Latinos. He calls them “his friends out there in the audience” and says that he hopes they can work together to explain that the community has nothing to fear.
His statement, which seems designed to say that hey, this one supervisor speaks Spanish!, comes after hours and hours of testimony from angry, mostly white people who talk about how much they hate hearing Spanish spoken, how much they hate that the school system needs an ESL program, how much they hate salsa music, how much they hate crowded housing, etc. — and from angry, mostly Latino people, including a bunch of little kids speaking for their parents, about how terrified they are.
That county supervisor still plans to vote for the resolution that asks Prince William County police to use “probable cause” as a reason to ask for immigration status of people they pull over or question. The mostly brown crowd mutters, and a woman stands up and replies angrily in English: “Thank you for nothing!”
When the resolution passes, the anti-immigrant forces celebrate. But because Prince William County has a large number of Latino immigrants, with both legal and illegal status, unintended consequences hit the county quickly. The housing market flips out even more than in the rest of the state. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights gets involved; and when Linda Chavez, a conservative powerhouse, starts to assertively question the motives of the county supervisors, you know they’ve gotten themselves into a heap of trouble.
The film’s fascinating from a transparency and new media angle: The main antagonist, Greg Letiecq, runs a blog (Black Velvet Bruce Li, or www.bvbl.net) that concentrates on “driving liberals … and illegal alien apologists absolutely insane.” He’s the main force behind “Help Save Manassas,” which is a group dedicated to reporting on and driving out undocumented workers.
After some months, during which a lot of Latino homeowners and families leave the area, white folks start to respond more aggressively to Letiecq and Help Save Manassas. Two women, both formerly staunch Republicans, one of whom was a fundraiser for the most virulently anti-immigrant county supervisor, start a blog called AntiBVBL.net, and they gather their forces to get the supervisors to reconsider.
And as for transparency, the entire process of the film was documented by the filmmakers even as they started working on the piece. They put up footage on YouTube early on, and both the videos that were already on YouTube and other footage, plus commentary on their growing fame, make up the final movie.
The film’s not coherent, really; when the first resolution passes and the Latino community essentially leaves the debate, much of the energy goes out of the film. Then Letiecq attacks the police chief … and that is a step too far for many people who didn’t actually bother to protest the resolution or even those who supported it.
For those who have a sense of social justice, watching some of the footage — especially of Letiecq as he talks about the Bible and slavery, not to mention the part about organizing Army veterans into his campaign — will be both creepy and painful. But even though it’s not a perfect documentary, and even though the resolution remains, with a slight but important change, 9500 Liberty demands an audience. The issue’s not going away, not anywhere in the country. How will Lane County respond to a proposed law like this? Though I’d hope we never have to find out, the reality is that without immigration reform on the federal level, ugly local fights simmer below the surface every day.
9500 Liberty opens Friday, July 16, at the Bijou.