Thursday, February 11, 2010

9500 LIBERTY—Q&A With Annabel Park and Eric Byler

"We inhabit a worldwide crisis of belonging, a population crisis of who, what, when and where. More and more people feel as though they do not belong; more and more people are applying to belong; and more and more people are not counted as belonging."—Toby Miller, "A Provocation" in Diasporas of Australian Cinema (Intellect Books,2009:9).

Last October I was fortunate to attend the Bay Area benefit premiere of
9500 Liberty by Annabel Park and Eric Byler held at the Sundance Kabuki, San Francisco. Having just won the Indie Truth Award for Best Documentary at the Charlotte Film Festival and having opened to a sold-out audience in Washington DC, 9500 Liberty came to San Francisco to raise vital completion funds to enable the film's broader distribution. No less than a month later, 9500 Liberty won Best Documentary at the St. Louis International Film Festival. The film is now on its way this coming weekend to the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana so—as a belated (yet timely) gesture of support—I thought now would be the perfect time to transcribe the Sundance Kabuki Q&A session, which provided a fruitful discussion of the film's subject themes.

As Park and Byler have synopsized at the film's website, Prince William County, Virginia became ground zero in America's explosive battle over immigration policy when elected officials adopted a mandate requiring police officers to question anyone they had "probable cause" to suspect as an undocumented immigrant.

9500 Liberty reveals the startling vulnerability of a local government, targeted by national anti-immigration networks using the Internet to frighten and intimidate lawmakers and citizens. Alarmed by a climate of fear and racial division, residents formed a
resistance using YouTube videos and virtual townhalls, setting up a real-life showdown in the seat of county government.

How the devastating social and economic impact of the "Immigration Resolution" was felt in the lives of real people in their homes and local businesses is chillingly documented in 9500 Liberty, which provides a front row seat to the ferocious fight to adopt and then reverse this policy as it unfolded within government chambers, the streets, and the Internet.

The Sundance Kabuki benefit premiere received powerful community support. The audience was visibly impacted by what was revealed in the documentary: the painful truth of an ongoing rift in the American fabric of racism fueled by fear; a rift that reflects similar conflicts worldwide.

As Toby Miller has further enunciated in his above-quoted provocation: "There are simultaneous tendencies towards both open and closed borders in response to [immigration] trends. Opinion polling suggests sizeable majorities across the globe believe their national ways of life are threatened by global flows of people and things. In other words, their cultures are under threat. At the same time, they feel unable to control their individual destinies. In other words, their subjectivities are under threat. Majorities around the world oppose immigration, largely because of fear." (2009:11)

9500 Liberty provides a fulcrum by which the fears fueling anti-immigration policies in the United States can be better understood and, hopefully, negotiated and transformed into appropriate resolution. Park and Byler's powerful documentary registers what Toby Miller has written of "the development of civil-rights and social-movement discourses and institutions, extending cultural difference from tolerating the aberrant to querying the normal and commodifying the result." (2009:10)

It's also a shining example of solidarity: with Asian American filmmakers supporting the plight of Latino immigrants. Racism against one is racism against all. Further, its usage of social networking tools to investigate new strategies of resistance is an effective primer for a new generation of activism.

* * *
The Sundance Kabuki benefit screening of 9500 Liberty was introduced by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga who—though born in Chicago—spent his formative years in El Salvador until the age of 14, when he and his family immigrated to the United States. "It was a difficult experience for me culturally," he offered, "but legally, it was a much different time. I don't know how many of you remember; but, Ronald Reagan pushed the amnesty for undocumented immigrants early in his presidency. Think about it: the patron saint of the conservative movement pushed through amnesty! Fast forward to [2008] when John McCain at a debate was forced to admit that he would vote against his own bill providing immigration reform because—if he didn't—it would anger his conservative base. So, we've moved to a much different time.

"What I experienced was a cultural difficulty immigrating into this country and is nothing like what immigrants face today. As you watch this movie—and I'm going to do a little spoiler here so cover your ears if you don't want to hear it—but, the good guys win! What's amazing to me about this movie is that it goes beyond caricatures from the left and the right; from the xenophobic right, the minutemen, and the diverse, tolerant left. It goes beyond that because, really, the story isn't that simple. You're going to see a battle played out in this county in suburban Virginia and you'll see how people realize the impact of what a xenophobic policy does to their community, their city, their neighborhoods. A lot of them switch positions. For me, 9500 Liberty is a hopeful movie because it shows that we are not really locked in to these positions. It's easy to demonize brown people and black people or people who don't look like us and eat different food and smell different, and they talk a different language, and their music is weird, so that we hate those people and become afraid of them. But what happens is that people realize that—when you take these people out of the community—it becomes a much poorer place. We are a nation of immigrants. To me that's what this movie is about: it's not just about winning a battle against bad immigration policy; it's about realizing that [immigrants are] an integral part of the fabric of this nation."

To prolonged applause and a standing ovation, Annabel Park and Eric Byler took to the stage to field questions from their audience.

On How the Manassas Community Reacted
After the "Probable Cause" Mandate Was Rescinded
Eric Byler: In order to present a story that was not a defeat—according to Corey Stewart and Greg Letiecq—there were some theatrics that we didn't bother to show in the film because they were intended to mislead the public. They basically attempted to present that Frank J. Principi had lost. Corey Stewart went to The Washington Post and The Washington Times and all the local newspapers and said that the ordinance had been made better by a vote of 7 to 1 and that they had won again. Greg Letiecq put that on his blog. Annabel and I were encouraged to stand down on this one—even though we had information and footage that contradicted that narrative—because there was an impression that there could be violence if people understood what actually had happened. That confusion persists to this day about what happened on that day because both The Washington Post and The Washington Times got it wrong. [In their defense], journalists in general don't have time to check if things that they're reporting are factual, especially if they're on a tight cycle. They just report what people say and—if someone's willing to say something else—they'll report that as well.

A lot of Greg Letiecq's followers and supporters are not necessarily on his leash and so on his blog some of them started to say, "This isn't better. This isn't going to scare more Latinos away. They're going to start coming back. I saw a Latino moving onto my street today!" There was a lot of grumbling and eventually they understood, people who are close to the issue understand, but the general public—until they see this movie—are just not going to know what really happened.

Annabel Park: That's one of the reasons we worked so hard on this film. We wanted to set the record straight. We needed to present the whole story and not just come out on the video saying, "Corey Stewart is wrong or he's lying." That would have been too easy. 9500 Liberty is definitive. This is really what happened. It's going to be hard for Corey Stewart to say we're wrong and he's right. We haven't heard a statement from him that he's actually seen the film. That's going to be an interesting part of our journey.

On Police Chief Charlie T. Deane's Official Position
Park: He's one of the most—if not the most—well-respected citizens in the county. He's been serving in the police department for over 40 years. We know him quite well at this point. He's an incredible person. We've seen him in different situations and we believe that he's unimpeachable in some ways. When he started getting attacked, that's when a lot of citizens said, "Enough is enough. If you're going to start attacking Chief Deane, there is something completely wrong." That was a big turning point; but, he—like many police chiefs across the country—don't want to do immigration enforcement at all. It affects and impedes their work. He explains that in our film. They're reluctant most of the time—unless they're elected sheriffs—to be in that business; but, they get caught up in that political situation, just as you saw with Chief Deane. As we said in the film, he got caught. His job was to enforce a policy that he didn't agree with; but, he's not someone who makes the policies. He was in a different position. But he's a real hero and I admire him greatly.

On Whether the Filmmakers
Ever Felt In Personal Danger
Park: Let me just say that there were a few weeks when Eric carried a baseball bat in his tripod bag—just in case—because we did receive some threatening messages on YouTube; but, they were anonymous so we didn't know if they were real or if they were just trying to scare us. In the end we felt it was a tactic to scare us and not a real threat; but, the problem is that you don't know when you're receiving the messages if they're real or not. That's the power of the politics of fear. That's what consumed Prince William County. People were afraid—not just the immigrants—but the residents of Manassus who were made to be afraid by this campaign designed to scare them into thinking they were being invaded by Zapatistas.

They're ordinary people. They're not gullible, stupid people. They're ordinary people who were made to become afraid. I feel compassion for them. It's not that they're racists necessarily; they just believed what they heard without bothering to check it. That was the lesson for us: this could happen in any county. It's not just in Virginia that a county can become consumed by fear, people become paralyzed, and they don't do the right thing. When the board members voted, they were terrified. They were receiving all kinds of threats. But this could happen anywhere and it's something we all have to face together.

Byler: People like Greg Letiecq exist everywhere and the people who follow them exist everywhere. The floodgates open when you have leadership willing to exploit that kind of fear. What makes it seem okay to organize around hatred is if you see your elected official on television recognizing people who organize around hatred as good ol' American values, or if you see something on the "news" that justifies that kind of position. It makes it seem okay. That's what was most disturbing to us, living through that, was that it really did seem like all of the taboos and social censure that comes with racism, bigotry and hatred had basically been passed aside with regard to one immigrant community.

On What the Latino Immigrants Learned
Park: Many of the immigrants felt hurt and wounded after all this. They felt defeated, such that many of them left the county. They refused to participate in a process that was prejudiced against them. They thought, "Why should I participate in this? This is not fair. It's not effective." They walked away from the process. But the fact that many of them voted in the 2008 election speaks to their realization that this was how they could flex their muscle as a community. They knew they had to go out and vote. They knew they couldn't just wait around and let something bad happen. Latinos worked really hard in the 2008 election. The rally that we filmed at the end of the film, it wasn't like we were looking for Latinos, they were everywhere. The county is extremely diverse. The election was their moment and they came out in numbers, right? That's political power. I think Latinos learned that they have to be engaged in the process all the time and not just when something bad happens.

Byler: And maybe they learned not to go at it alone.

On Using Technology to Shift
From Objective Documentary to Engaged Activism
Byler: Our participation was not inspired by professional concerns. We had already worked on several issues using YouTube and social networking on the Internet. I think it would be fair to say that, in some way, we admired what Greg Letiecq was doing, which was giving people a sense of empowerment that was causing people to participate and pay attention, to watch Channel 23 and see what was happening with the Board of Supervisors. But it did seem like an unfair fight. He didn't allow comments that dissented to appear on his blog, for example. The Board of Supervisors would tune in to his blog like some kind of virtual town hall—thinking, "Okay, this is what my community thinks"—but, it was highly manipulated.

We had this urge to do something. Many of the people you see in the movie—both Republicans and Democrats; people of color and Caucasians—all wanted to do something; but, there's always that fear that someone will come after you and say mean things, or come to your house at night, or whatever. We dealt with that cautiously. We were under a lot of stress. We didn't want to share our footage on YouTube because we didn't want to fear that some of the people in our videos might be attacked, and we didn't want to be attacked. We waded into the conflict cautiously. We took a stance of being right down the middle. My voice or Annabel's voice never took precedence. We never narrated anything. We never took a position in our videos.

A lot of people were upset that we were giving such a platform to Greg Letiecq and Corey Stewart; but then—as the movie explains—after October 16 the resolution was funded, then there was the election three weeks later, everybody was re-elected, and we thought the story was over. We didn't have any fear of impacting things, as documentarians are often afraid of doing. At that point, we felt it was okay to give our perspective. The Washington Post gave us the opportunity to both write essays. We also filmed video essays. The civil rights hearing was actually the Friday before the Sunday that our essays were published. That represented a definite break. It was a big decision we had made. Because we could no longer go to Help Save Manassus and get interviews, for instance. There's footage of Greg screaming at me after that hearing.

At that point, everyone began coming to us. In some ways, we were the first ones—other than Chief Deane—who stood up and didn't back down. Annabel became like the county therapist, drawing people out, getting them to express how they felt, sorting it out, and gathering the courage over a period of months to speak out. In fact, we probably know more about what really happened than anyone else because everyone confided in us: the Board of Supervisors, the other county staff, the Police Department. We had the opportunity to connect all these people and influence the outcome. It's not fully depicted in the film—we tried to acknowledge it as much as we could without getting in the way of our own story—but, we were right there when the planning and organizing took place to repeal the mandate.

Park: Technology is a powerful tool but I think it's more a matter of telling the truth. We had impact because we were able to tell the truth. We held up a mirror and we weren't afraid to get hit from illegal alien apologists. Some tried to call me a Zapatista. It got ridiculous.

On How the "Help Save America" Campaign Organizes Itself On the Internet
Park: The Help Save America website has a drop-menu with different resolutions to drive out Latinos from your town. There's a whole list of counties that they have infiltrated. What they do is find someone like Greg Letiecq in each county to toxify the environment so that people become afraid to speak. They generate a lot of misinformation and an illusion of spontaneity when, in fact, it's being coordinated.

Byler: One of the reasons we want to bring the film to cities like San Francisco—which has immigration issues at hand—or to towns that have suffered what we've suffered in Prince William, is to emphasize that wherever they go to toxify the community and recruit, we can go to recruit. Moreso than the people who have never really been touched by this issue, the ones who have seen their communities ripped apart and their local economies damaged, who have seen their police force no longer being able to protect them because they can't communicate with communities of color at any level of trust, those are the people who are ready to go. We're going to try to bring this film everywhere we can to reach out to those people and use tools such as YouTube and Facebook to create our own network. These guys have a 30-year headstart. They started on this as soon as we passed the Civil Rights legislation that did away with racial quotas.

Park: But they especially seized an opportunity after 9/11 to connect national security with immigration. This was a boon for them. That's why it's so easy for them to get people going with the fear that illegals are invading us and national security is at stake. That trumps civil rights.

Byler: That's why 9/12 is now their holiday.

On How Much the Economic Impact
Affected the Rescinding of the Mandate
Byler: The business community came out because of that economic downturn, and that definitely got the attention of the Board of Supervisors, many of who are pro-business Republicans. The Hispanic business community also spoke out; but, not only the Hispanic community. For example, the guy who owns Mailboxes, Etc. explained to the Board of Supervisors what had happened to his business. The Board would not say that they changed the law because of what happened specifically to the economy in the county and there are some good reasons for that—I live in that county now and my family is invested in that county's success—but, to the degree that you admit what you have done has created a downward spiral, forces you to reinvest in your own safety, in your schools, in your roads, because you've decimated the tax base by declining property taxes. People become less inclined to move there and it generates a vicious cycle. My friends on the Board of Supervisors let me know that the videos we were making were hurting the reputation of the County even more.

But it wasn't really the economic downturn that decimated the county; it was the threat of lawsuits. We didn't spend much time on that in our film; but, the Justice Department under President Bush let Prince William County know that they were going to be sued and that—if they wanted to keep spending millions of dollars of taxpayers' money to go to the top court—it was going to be the United States vs. Pennsylvania County over this issue of racial profiling. The Board of Supervisors didn't want to go there. Some did. Certainly the anti-immigration lobbies in Washington, DC loved the idea of going to the Supreme Court on the taxpayer's dollar; but—if you want to talk economics—honestly, I think that's what influenced the supervisors.

Park: But I do think many of the residents started feeling it in their pockets because their property values started to plummet. In some cases—like Greg Letiecq's house—his property went down 60% in two years. The one message I would really like everyone to take away from this film is that immigration is not a Latino issue. It affects many people in the Latino community, yes, but it's an American issue. Honestly, the economy does not discriminate between legal and illegal. These people own homes. They're fully integrated into the economy and—when you try to drive them away—your economy goes into freefall. We all need to become involved in this issue and not allow individuals like Greg Letiecq to take over and dominate the discussion and create the illusion that most people do not want to support comprehensive immigration reform. They've hijacked the health care debate so we can't afford to have them hijack the immigration debate with misinformation.

Byler: And with just 10% of the population.

Park: Exactly. We've got to get in there, all of us, and not continue to think this is just a Latino issue.

Byler: With regard to the economics on the national level, many baby boomers will be retiring in the next 10-15 years and, therefore—in order for our economy to continue to grow—we need this immigrant work force. We need to legalize the status of people who are here so that we don't have this continued chaos at the local level. We need to make it possible to have legal immigrants come here and fill our labor demand that—I hope—will continue to grow as—I hope—our economy continues to grow. If we hope for anything other than that, that's basically anti-American. I want to second that we do need to take part in this issue and—though this might not be something that affects San Franciscans—the Federal government is your government and these things are happening on the Federal level right now. The most radical extreme minorities are working with lobbyists in Washington, DC right now to drown out your voice. How many people have written a letter to their senator or their congressman about health reform? You know what? I bet those conservative bigots that you saw in the first half of this movie have written five or six letters. It takes a lot to get the silent majority—people in the middle who live in diverse communities who feel safe from this—to get active; but, on a national level, communities like San Francisco or Honolulu or San Diego who have already embraced the 21st century America of diversity and tolerance, of a dynamic culture and economy, we especially need to set an example and force our elected officials to set an example to say: Americans don't have to be afraid of the future. Embrace that future. We have a history of being a nation of immigrants and—if we don't embrace our future as a nation of immigrants—then we have no future.