War Protest Has Captive Audience
Morning begins on Marty Way. Sprinklers slap across crew-cut lawns, and the rising sun angles through a thick canopy of trees. As neighbors head to work, they hardly glance anymore at the block’s oddest sight.
The soldier is still there.
Affixed under the gingerbread eaves of Stephen and Virginia Pearcy’s place is the figure of a U.S. serviceman in desert camouflage and helmet. A balled-up American flag forms the head. A noose is cinched around the neck, just above the sign reading, “Bush Lied. I Died.”
Early on, TV news cameras caught young vandals tearing down the effigy. Talk radio buzzed over a clash of free speech and neighborhood norms. Internet blogs called the Pearcys seditious creeps.
Their persistent stand never attracted the media horde that chronicled Cindy Sheehan’s summertime vigil in Crawford, Texas. But the Pearcys’ home-front display, which first appeared in January, has proved an improbably enduring presence on Marty Way.
Whether they loved, hated or merely tolerated the display, most neighbors figured the couple would exhaust their 15 minutes of fame and the soldier would disappear.
They underestimated the Pearcys’ stubbornness.
Steve Pearcy explains, “We wanted something more striking than the ordinary bumper sticker.”
For that they’ve endured death threats. Their house has been pelted with eggs and, a few weeks ago, by a 2 a.m. paint-ball attack. The couple have jousted with law enforcement over policing of vandals but also with the liberal Craigslist website.
The passage of 10 months on Marty Way has yielded scant unanimity. Rifts remain. Sort of like the war. Sort of like the rest of America.
“I’m OK with it,” said Carol Taylor, who lives a couple doors away. “The original spin was that the neighbors were against them, but there are plenty of people who feel they have a right to say what they think.”
Others resent that the Pearcys, who moved a year ago to Berkeley, where they spend weekdays, still use the Sacramento house as a political stage on weekends. In addition to the soldier, an Iraqi flag hangs in one window, a Palestinian flag in another.
Al Jennings, a 76-year-old retiree, strolls by the effigy most days, not bothering to look. He is all for freedom of speech, Jennings said, but “they’ve pushed it too far.”
Neighborhood disputes over the war aren’t limited to Marty Way.
In Pasadena, city officials ordered Patrick Briggs and his wife, Mary, to yank an antiwar sign from their frontyard, citing its size. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit and announced late last month that the city had backed down.
The Sacramento dispute has proved far more pyrotechnic and long-lived.
Its roots stretch back nearly to when Virginia and Steve Pearcy moved in five years ago. The two attorneys grew up in Sacramento, and the neighborhood’s characteristics -- cozy bungalows, well-educated professionals, Democrats outnumbering Republicans nearly 3 to 1 -- seemed to make it a match.
Clean-cut and trim, the couple mostly fit in at first. Steve, 45, is 17 years older than Virginia, a wunderkind who graduated from Boalt Hall, UC Berkeley’s law school, at 20.
Relations with their neighbors soured in 2003 when the Pearcys began posting signs.
An anti-SUV placard caused chuckles, but that was followed by a succession of escalating political pronouncements that some neighbors considered provocative pokes.
The Pearcys once stuffed the U.S. flag in a trash can and another day hung the Stars and Stripes in a noose from a tree. One afternoon, Pearcy’s Porsche bore an F-word rant against Bush, the police and Israel (he says it was meant as a joke for friends stopping by).
“Only an idiot will vote for the idiot,” mocked a sign before the presidential election. After Bush’s victory, the sign was reworked: “Only idiots voted for the idiot.”
In recent years, they celebrated the Fourth of July by hauling out a rudimentary painting by Steve Pearcy depicting America being flushed down a toilet. (The painting prompted a downtown Sacramento demonstration this summer when it was included in an art exhibit at the state Justice Department.)
Neighbors Feel Trapped
A few neighbors counterattacked with signs supporting President Bush. One displayed the flag of a U.S. Marine division.
But mostly they just fretted.
“We are a trapped and unwilling audience,” said neighbor Pete Miles, in an essay he wrote after the dispute erupted.
Then in January, Pearcy pulled out his ladder and hung up what his foes considered the final insult.
The soldier was intended to prompt neighborhood discussion, Pearcy said.
“I thought the noose was a good, strong image,” he said, calling it a message that U.S. troops were being hung out by the Bush administration.
But the sight of a lynched soldier floored several folks already weary of the Pearcys’ protests.
“The question here is what is free speech,” Miles wrote, “and what is hate speech.”
City officials said they could do nothing. Although offensive to many, the officials said, the effigy (Pearcy prefers it be called a “display”) was within the couple’s rights.
Next came the media. In a Feb. 9 report, a local TV station played up the angle of patriotic neighborhood outraged. The next morning, almost every news crew in the city bivouacked on Marty Way. Conservative talk radio egged on opposition.
A Bold Move
Vandals appeared in broad daylight. News crews zoomed in as Bryan O’Malley, 24, climbed a roof edge to grab the effigy before toppling into some bushes.
Not long after Steve Pearcy stapled up the soldier anew, another young vandal yanked it down. Calling himself “Mike,” he paused long enough to tell Sacramento’s KXTV news what he thought of the Pearcys.
“These guys just won’t learn their lesson,” he said, adding that they should “stay in Berkeley.”
Although the effigy was gone, scores of flag-waving members of the pro-Bush group Move America Forward gathered for a candlelight vigil Feb. 15 across the street from the house. A pack of antiwar protesters stood guard on the couple’s lawn.
Under TV lights and a driving rain, the warring camps shouted chants across Marty Way.
Everyone went home exhausted, throats raw. The dispute seemed ready to die down.
But a week later, Pearcy climbed his ladder again.
Waking to the sight of another soldier effigy, foes took a new course. They lay low.
Meanwhile, the Pearcys had other battles.
Although police made a case against O’Malley for misdemeanor vandalism, Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Jan Scully opted not to prosecute, citing the absence of any damage to the Pearcy property and the de minimus, or insubstantial, nature of the trespass.
“To just call this a mere vandalism ignores the context,” argued Virginia Pearcy. Selective prosecution, she said, would only embolden vigilantes.
So the Pearcys sued O’Malley in Small Claims Court, winning a $5,000 award.
An assistant golf pro, O’Malley “regrets he did it,” said his lawyer, O.J. Simpson “dream team” attorney Robert Blasier. But the display seemed intended more to incite than inform, Blasier added. “It was pretty much like ‘come and get it.’ ”
Meanwhile, the Pearcys’ attempts to find “Mike,” the second vandal, thudded to earth in an unlikely forum.
Steve Pearcy posted Mike’s picture and license plate number as a sort of cyber “wanted” poster on Craigslist, a classified ads Internet site. But over several hours, the posting was repeatedly yanked off the site.
Pearcy eventually learned that site users flagged the posting for removal because it listed personal information without consent. He called Craigslist to complain.
The couple tracked down the vandal -- whom they’ve threatened to sue -- through DMV records. But not before Steve Pearcy alienated just about everyone at the San Francisco-based website with lectures, said Jim Buckmaster, Craigslist chief executive. “If he’s treated the police with one-tenth the indignation we’ve seen, I can’t wonder how they’ve dealt with him.”
Police have experienced an increasingly strained relationship with the Pearcys, who need law enforcement now as much as ever.
On a hot night in August, vandals again tore down the display. This time, the couple were in the Sacramento house and gave chase, Steve Pearcy on foot, his wife in her car, jotting down a license plate number.
An officer nabbed one of the perpetrators but didn’t make an arrest. Instead, three men in their 20s showed up on the Pearcy doorstep the next day to offer varying degrees of apology and amends.
Initially appeased, Steve Pearcy now wonders why officers failed to make any arrests.
Sgt. Justin Risley, a Sacramento police spokesman, said the department has expended considerable effort policing Marty Way.
“Whether you agree or disagree,” he said, “it’s illegal to tear that down, and we can’t condone it.” But there’s a difference between the spirit and letter of the law, and an officer’s discretion often comes into play, he said. He also noted that police rejected a hate-crime complaint filed over the display.
Neighborhood foes, meanwhile, “want the Pearcys gone,” said Melanie Morgan, a conservative talk radio host at KSFO-AM in San Francisco and Move America Forward leader. “This isn’t about free speech. It’s about shameful behavior by two narcissists who crave camera time.”
On Marty Way, folks don’t talk much about it anymore. But fault lines remain.
“They have to be kind of screwballs to carry things that far,” said Lou Bordisso, 91, who calls himself “the mayor of Marty Way” after half a century on the block.
“I’m proud of them for their bravery,” countered longtime resident Shelly Keller. “I wouldn’t have used a noose, but it’s their voice.”
On Sept. 21, the camouflage effigy was ripped down a fourth time, right in the middle of the day. No witnesses stepped forward.
Steve Pearcy once again climbed his ladder.
Saying the soldier stays until U.S. troops come home, he draped the uniform over a sheet of plywood and screwed it tight under the eaves. At midriff now is an upside-down American flag.
“Good luck,” he said almost to himself, “getting that down.”