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The Washington Post

In Manassas, the Medium Is The Issue

Nick Miroff

In Manassas's quaint, red-brick Old Town neighborhood, a giant billboard greets visiting tourists and commuters, but it was not put there by the city or Chamber of Commerce.0702 08

"PWC and Manassas the National Capital of Intolerence," it declares, in hand-painted, none-too-subtle red and blue block lettering. The sign, 40 feet long and 12 feet high, sits on the property of Gaudencio Fernandez, 47, a contractor who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1979.

What follows is a rambling indictment of Prince William County and Manassas, likening efforts to target illegal immigrants in the jurisdictions with slavery, Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. "We demand equality and justice for all," Fernandez's broadside concludes. "We will not be your slaves of the 21st century."

Since it first appeared last fall, the billboard, called "The Liberty Wall" by Fernandez's supporters because of its address at 9500 Liberty St., has become a political symbol and a rallying point for those who see it as a truth-to-power act of defiance. The sign's text has changed a few times, but its message has essentially remained the same: Latino immigrants have been exploited by ungrateful, racist white residents who took advantage of their labor and now want them to leave.

To many residents and business owners, "The Sign," as they call it, is an ugly diatribe and galling eyesore. Comparing tougher immigration enforcement with genocide and slavery is offensive, insulting and wildly exaggerated, they said.

Local editorials and letters to Manassas officials have urged the city for months to remove the sign. Vandals with less patience have attacked the structure on several occasions, including one failed attempt to destroy it with a firebomb last year.

Despite the public pressure, Manassas officials have proceeded cautiously. With a Justice Department investigation into unfair housing practices pending against the city, as well as an unresolved lawsuit accusing the city of discrimination, Manassas officials are wary of further litigation and racial criticism. For the most part, city staff and council members have been silent or circumspect in discussing Fernandez and his sign, eager to avoid an escalation. Instead, they have prodded Fernandez to obtain a building permit for the sign or remove the billboard, but so far he has rebuffed them, citing the right to freedom of speech.

A standoff has set in, and next week, the city will take Fernandez to court. It recently sent police to his home to serve a summons to him and his wife, who is listed on the deed. City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes said Manassas is simply upholding city regulations, and that while Fernandez's billboard has offended many residents, its content is not the issue.

Fernandez could write anything he wanted on an existing, permitted structure because the city has no anti-sign ordinance, Hughes said. City officials said, however, that because the sign is mounted on the remaining wall of a house that burned down in 2006, and Fernandez reinforced the sign with a wooden base, he should have applied for a building permit.

"If anyone can build anything they want where they want, then we don't have a building code," Hughes said. "We've balanced the issue of free speech with the need to enforce the building code."

City zoning inspectors have also cited Fernandez for failing to keep the property in good order, accusing him of using it as a junkyard and providing a "habitat for undesirable wildlife," including rats and snakes.

Not true, Fernandez said.

Seeing the city's efforts as a ruse to silence him, Fernandez insists he will not remove the sign, nor allow it to be removed. Instead -- and this is where the standoff takes an especially strange twist-- Fernandez plans to enlarge the structure, having spent $1,500 on architectural drawings for a new, bigger, L-shaped wall, 140 feet by 61 feet, that would span the length of the property.

The new sign, Fernandez said, would feature painted murals and captions depicting the history of American racial injustice. "I really want the community to see what has been done to us people of color these last 500 years," said Fernandez, whose message to the "European Americans" of Manassas considers Latino immigrants to be "Native Americans" with a historical right to live in the United States.

To build such an installation on his property, Fernandez would need to apply to the city for a special-use permit because the property is zoned residential. Hughes said he considers the billboard a commercial use, even though its owner is trying to make a political statement, not a profit.

Fernandez said he bought the house and the property in 2003, and the original structure dates to the 1880s. Its location on Liberty Street puts it at the end of a block that is the last remnant of what was once Manassas's historically African American neighborhood. The house was not considered a historic property, Hughes said, because so many alterations and additions had been made to it over the decades.

In June 2006, the house was gutted in a fire that investigators traced to an improperly used extension cord. Fernandez was renting the house to tenants at the time, and a fire marshal's inquiry also found the house was in disrepair and in poor upkeep at the time of the blaze. The property remained in its damaged state until Fernandez began tearing it down last year.

It was about then that supervisors in Prince William County launched an enforcement campaign against illegal immigrants, sparking protests and unleashing the raw emotions of residents on both sides of the issue. Web sites and blogs erupted with angry comments and verbal attacks, and the county was thrust into the national spotlight.

That was when Fernandez launched his eye-catching, more old-fashioned kind of blog. Before then, Fernandez said, he was just a "regular person" who had not taken much interest in politics. He moved to the Manassas area seven years ago from the New York suburbs and enrolled his three children in Manassas public schools. With his centrally located, highly visible parcel as a soapbox, Fernandez left one wall of the ruined house intact and hung a banner from it that read: "Prince William Co. Stop Your Racism to Hispanics!"

The message quickly became a lightning rod. The banner was torn apart by vandals not long after it was put up, but Fernandez responded with a new message and sturdier materials. He also began hosting community cultural and political gatherings on his property.

"Mr. Fernandez's sign reflects the frustration he and others in the immigrant community have been feeling over the past year that their voices have not been heard," said Nancy Lyall, spokeswoman for the immigrant advocacy group Mexicans Without Borders, which has rallied behind Fernandez.

The group did not help Fernandez craft his politically charged statement, but Lyall said it supports his right to keep the sign because it does not use the language of "hate speech."

"We perhaps would have chosen some modification of the wording had it been a Mexicans Without Borders message," she said. "But the important thing is we understand Mr. Fernandez's heart. His sign represents the disappointment and pain that this country has inflicted on the immigrant community."

Many business owners and merchants in the Old Town district of Manassas say the sign is a disappointment. "It's like a dark cloud," said Joanne Wunderly, president of the Manassas Old Town Business Association. Her fine-arts and crafts store, "The Things I Love," is about 100 yards from Fernandez's billboard.

The structure has grown so notorious, Wunderly said, that when she explains her shop's location to visitors from other areas, they treat it like a city landmark and say, "Oh, that's where the sign is."

After spending millions of dollars trying to enhance the neighborhood's historic charm, it was not the kind of image the city bargained for, Wunderly said. "It's such a negative thing," she said. "When you see something calling you a racist, it takes away from the positive image you're trying to portray."

Lawrence "Buck" Buchanan, 82, sees Fernandez's sign every day from the house across the street where he has lived since 1947. He remembers when the city's African American community was much larger and when segregation was the reigning social order. Jim Crow laws in Manassas were not as rigid as they were in other parts of Northern Virginia, he said, recalling that his doctor had a common waiting room for patients.

The gatherings Fernandez has held around the sign do not bother him, Buchanan said, and there is a lot to the message that is true. Buchanan said, however, that he does not want to be confronted with the sign's loaded imagery every day.

"You put KKK up there and you bring blood up in my face," he said, shaking his head. "Why are you trying to bring that old stuff up again?"

© 2008 The Washington Post

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