In Manassas, the Medium Is the Issue

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

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.

"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.

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