The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Black, more than anyone else, should have been the one to wind up The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Too bad he doesn't…
When Prince William experienced a major building boom in the 1990s, a shortage of labor created a demand for workers, which led to an increase in the Latino population. Some of the newcomers were legal immigrants. Some were not. A blogger named Greg Letiecq began to write about his unhappiness with hearing Spanish spoken in public places. Finding an audience, he fomented about rising crime rates, rising taxes to pay for services for the newcomers, overcrowded dwellings, music played too loud, fast driving, and so on. He included Latino crime reports from the local police blotter. He even claimed armed members of the Mexican revolutionary group Zapatistas were moving to Prince William County.
His organization, “Help Save Manassas,” issued saucer-sized red lapel stickers, and soon they were seen around the town. He and Board of Supervisors president Corey A. Stewart created a law that would require local police to stop people for "probable cause" and ask them to show their proof of citizenship. At the time, this measure seemed to have popular support, and there was resentment against a Mexican-American citizen who erected a large sign on his property (at 9500 Liberty St.) to object to it.
About this time, filmmakers Eric Byler and Annabel Park (a Chinese-American and a Korean-American) began to post videos on YouTube that weren't so much political as the raw material for a documentary. They showed discussions and arguments among local residents, testimony before the county board, Stewart, Letiecq and other pro-law figures and ordinary citizens. As the videos went viral, they inspired another local blog to counter Letiecq and a growing community discussion about the law.
Among the law's opponents was Charlie T. Deane, the long-serving, widely respected local police chief, who testified the law would cost about $14 million over five years to enforce, who said his officers had more important things to do and who said (along with the county attorney) that without video cameras in every police car, the officers and the county would be open to lawsuits. Cameras would cost another $3.1 million.
Ironically,the law was partly to blame for a tax rate increase of 25% a year. There was another problem. Latinos began to move out of Prince William County or take their business to nearby friendlier areas. There was a retail slump, badly timed to coincide with the collapse of the housing market. As tax-paying “legals” left, the county tax base dropped. Restaurants and shops closed. Prince William County and Virginia have sales taxes, income taxes and other taxes that even non-citizens pay.
Chief Dean met with a Mexican government official, and was incredibly accused of treason by right-wingers (for “negotiating with a foreign power”). This did not go over well. The Republican woman who had hosted a fund-raiser for board president Stewart testified against him at a board meeting. Then came a rising tide of opposition to the law and the negative image it gave to the area. A motion to raise taxes to keep the law and pay for the cameras drew a tie 4-4 vote, Stewart recessed for a caucus and returned with a new "compromise" motion ending the "probable cause" mandate, which resulted in an 8-0 vote. On the board at that time were six Republicans and two Democrats.
The most rewarding element of this deeply involved documentary involves the board meetings. Local citizens stand up to speak their minds, and we hear a great many of them. Some board meetings lasted until well past midnight. They were in the great tradition of New England town meetings.
Latinos were united in opposing the law. Many were longtime, well-known American citizens. But the balance was finally tipped by the voices of thoughtful Republicans and their distaste for the hate stirred up by Letiecq and his group. Calling Chief Deane a traitor was the last straw.
Park and Byler began as objective documentarians who found this story being pressed upon them. They become advocates and are clear about that. They try to show both sides of the debate, but (inevitably, perhaps?) the anti-law faction comes across more positively.
The outcome: Passing the law led to higher taxes, not lower ones. And as for the crime rate? Chief Deane has charts showing that crime dropped every single year over the past decade.
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