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War Protest Has Captive Audience

No matter how much neighbors may try to ignore it, effigy gives display a high profile.

October 24, 2005|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — 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."

Pasadena Dispute

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."

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