Introducing “9500 Liberty”–and the Power of Language

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By Seth Freed Wessler Nov 18, 2010

Towards the end of the new film "9500 Liberty," an aging white woman wearing a floral sweater stands up at a hearing to argue in favor of making it a crime to be an undocumented immigrant. "I would just like to say, and I mean this very sincerely, don’t ever forget 9/11 and who was responsible for 9/11. Illegals. God bless America."

The law she supported was passed in 2007, by the board of supervisors in Prince William County, Va. It required cops to check the immigration status of anyone suspected to be an undocumented immigrant. The ordinance was later scaled back so that simple suspicion no longer justified police action. But in many ways, the policy in Prince William County was less about Prince William County, and more about what it foreshadowed. This year, the movement to restrict immigration in the U.S. achieved a major victory when Arizona passed the now constitutionally embattled SB 1070. That law is, for all intents and purposes, a replica of the Prince William County ordinance. Another 107 anti-immigrant bills were passed in U.S. towns, cities, or counties between 2000 and 2009.

The Prince William County law, and the heart-wrenching controversy that erupted there, is the topic of "9500 Liberty."  The film, directed by Annabel Park and Eric Byler, follows the genesis of the campaign to pass the policy and probes into the motivating ideologies of the laws supporters. 

ColorLines is teaming up with the "9500 Liberty" crew and with Presente to make sure this film gets a wide viewing. It’s one more example of why we must all commit to Drop the I-Word and restore humanity to our debates about immigration. You can get a copy of the film AND sign the Drop the I-Word pledge here.

Throughout the film, it’s hard not to notice the power of language. Its title refers to the address 9500 Liberty St., the site in the Prince William town of Manassas where community members erected a massive roadside banner, on which they communicated their messages of unity against racial scapegoating. The words painted on the banner–sometimes angry, sometimes sobering, sometimes hopeful–became a key part of the debate.

But language was also, and in more discrete ways, at the core of the movement to pass the law. At the rhetorical center sits the word "illegal." The aging woman at the hearing provides a strikingly clear example of the insidious uses of that word. The law, she suggests, is needed, to stop terrorism. And terrorists, she submits, are "illegals." She and most of the anti-immigrant people portrayed in the film lump all the "others" together, call them "illegals," couple that with descriptions of and references to crime, terrorism, and social menace, and effectively paint immigrants and foreigners as something to be feared, to be repelled, to be hated.

This is what makes the movement against immigrants so powerful. It is the creation of an irreconcilable, dehumanized, faceless threat that gets blood boiling. And it’s most likely to work in places where immigrants are new, in places where the numbers of immigrants are growing rapidly. That is, it’s happening in cities and counties and states where immigrants do not yet have faces in the eyes of those anxious white community members who’ve lived there for a while.

According to new research by the Migration Policy Institute, the emergence of municipal laws intended to crack down on immigrants and restrict immigration follows a predictable pattern. When mostly homogeneous, white communities see the population of immigrants increase, those local governments are likely to pass anti-immigrant laws. It’s not a surprising finding, but it’s fresh evidence that demographic change is at the core of the deepening attacks on immigrants.

Yet the trend is not inevitable. Rather, the anxiety that drives these policy pursuits is drummed up and cultivated with language that strips immigrants of their humanity.

At an event in the lead up to local elections in Prince William, County Chair Corey Stewart–whose reelection campaign sign reads, "Fighting Illegal Immigration"–screams to his supporters, "People that are here illegally are illegal. And then when they come here into our community and commit a crime on top of that crime, how can you possibly have any sympathy for that individual?" No sympathy. They are beyond sympathy. Criminals, harmful criminal aliens. Illegal ones.

The rhetorical assault on the humanity of a whole population of people was transformed into a law that made suspects out of anyone believed to be an immigrant. As one woman asked at a hearing, as she held up a passport and pointed to her skin, "Do I have to carry this around because of the way that I look?" The process that led the community to that moment relied on language, on the way that immigrants were talked about, how immigrants were named.

And this is why the work of changing the story and the language used to tell that story is so important. 

"9500 Liberty" does a striking job of this. The film is a probing record of a fight in Prince William County. It’s also plainly instructive. It digs carefully and methodically into the core of the anti-immigrant movement, its psychology and its language. The film’s producers are offering free copies of the DVD to folks who organize watch parties.

9500 Liberty’s most powerful takeaway is that we could tell a new story about immigrants and community. At one of the local hearings, a black high school teacher named Patrick Garland approached a podium and said, "I stand before you today as what I was when I came into this world, and that’s a human being…all of these people here tonight are human beings." Human beings. Not aliens, invaders or anchors. Human beings.