My Heart is Where the Bottles Shatter

By Eric Byler
Sunday, December 16, 2007

The most powerful elected official in Prince William County is introduced to a standing ovation. The first time I see him is through a camera lens, entering like the hero of a movie I am watching rather than making.

My team and I are the only people of color in a large auditorium at Stonewall Middle School in Manassas. "People who come to this country illegally are illegal!" Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart thunders, jabbing his finger in the air.

The lens is a glass wall. I am focused but detached. I hear a woman cackling with joy as an officer from a group called Help Save Manassas takes credit for Latino parents' being afraid to send their children to school, for Latino families' abandoning their mortgages and fleeing the county. "This is our territory," he boasts. "And we're gonna take it back."

More clapping, more cheers. I process these moments like a child observing a bully from a distance. The victim is over there, not here, and I am just a witness. Zoom in. Zoom out.

Weeks later, it is a beautiful September afternoon. A canvas sign is tethered to the last remaining wall of the house at 9500 Liberty St. "When our brothers & sons are fighting & dying in Iraq, you are separating our families," part of the giant sign says. These and other words have enraged many of the town's Caucasian residents, but these Latino families are proud to stand in its shadow. They feel they are standing up to bullies.

Known as Liberty Wall, this sign has become the expression of protest for many in Prince William County. Even non-ethnic citizens are concerned about a new law that could lead to the racial profiling of people who "look illegal." The families around the wall look American to me, but maybe I'm not a proper judge. My mother is Chinese American and my father is white. I grew up in Virginia, in a time when Asians and Latinos were less common than Cowboys fans, but since then I've frequented more cosmopolitan places such as Los Angeles, Honolulu and New York, places like Virginia is becoming.

My headphones pick up a stray voice. I turn and see a man standing at the fence enclosing Liberty Wall. He screams at everyone he sees, accusing them of being "illegal," even though they are documented Americans. He points at a 12-year-old boy, suggesting that he is destined for "one of those gangs," and looms over the boy's younger sister, who defiantly says, "I speak English fine." Both children hold their ground, hardened perhaps by epithets, eggs and bottles that have been thrown at them, or by "messages" left on their property, riddled with profanity, obscene drawings and racial slurs, telling their community to "go home" and reminding them that America's founders were white.

The next night, a vandal tries to burn down Liberty Wall. Soon after, another will succeed in destroying the sign, ripping it to shreds.

These are the questions facing our society. Who is American? And who gets to speak? I am reintroduced to the Chinese American boy I was in 1981 at Kings Park Elementary. I hear the word "chink." I see my classmates tugging at their eyes.

The bullies are not as distant as I remembered them. I may see the world through a lens, but my eyes are open, and my heart is where the bottles shatter, on the Liberty side of the fence.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company