The other inmates at the Ventura County jail had a hard time understanding the situation in which Steven Showers had found himself. "They couldn't believe it," Showers tells Daily Intelligencer. "They would say, 'Why are you here?' and I’d say, 'Well, I refused to turn off my neon sign.' Their jaws sort of dropped to the ground."
Showers's saga began last August, when he erected a large sign in his front yard that towered fourteen feet into the air. From around eight o'clock each morning to about ten o'clock each night, the sign (along with a smaller one in a front window and four rotating emergency lights) flashed a message to the world in neon lettering: "Save the GOP. Romneys Racist Heart Dotcom."
Showers, you see, is absolutely convinced that Mormons believe in a "white supremacist/anti-black" doctrine, and that Mitt Romney, even if he's never uttered a racist word in his life, is a closet racist. You can read all about it on his website, if you are so inclined.
"If you’re a Mormon, you have to be a racist," Showers, a surprisingly soft-spoken 60-year-old white Christian Republican, argues to me. "I mean, how can you adhere to a religion with such horrible racist baggage if you have any sensitivity at all to the issue of racism?"
The same goes for the tens of millions of Americans who voted for Romney. "What I'm doing is pointing to Republicans, and I'm saying, 'If you don't oppose Romney, that means you have racism in your heart."
It wasn't long after the sign went live that officials, citing local ordinances, ordered Showers to shut that whole thing down, as Todd Akin might say. Showers repeatedly refused, and the case eventually went to trial, where Showers represented himself while wearing a monk's robe. He lost. On July 1 — eight months after President Obama defeated Mitt Romney — Showers went to jail for his giant neon anti-Romney sign.
He was released last Thursday night, but his freedom may prove to be fleeting: If Showers turns the sign back on, he faces up to another eighteen months in jail. And ... he might turn it back on.
"I’m thinking about it," he said when we spoke to him on Sunday. "I haven't decided that."
To be clear, Showers is well aware that the election is over and that Romney lost. But he's also convinced, despite conventional wisdom, that Romney hasn't given up his White House dreams. "Mitt Romney isn’t gone; he’s going to come back," Showers says. "This guy wants to get a Mormon in the White House. You think he’s gone? No way."
But this (frankly delusional) fear of a future Romney presidency isn't really what has Showers digging in his heels against the courts and his neighbors. To him, the dispute comes down to a basic question of constitutional rights. Showers believes that he's being targeted not because of the lights, but for promoting an unwelcome message in a Republican-leaning area. His neighbors across the street had Romney signs — normal small ones — in their front yard during the campaign season.
"I mean, the last bastion of freedom of speech is private property in a residential area," he says. "If you can't speak freely on your own property, where are you gonna go? There’s no place to go."
We ask Showers if he believes there should be any limits to what one can put in one's own yard. What if it was a giant, flashing, neon penis?
"I get the idea of ordered liberty," he insists, chuckling. "I get the idea that you can't shout 'Fire!' in a crowded theater. I get the idea that somebody has a party across the street that sends sound waves rocking through all the houses in the neighborhood." But there's "a dividing line," he says, and he's certain that the anti-Romney sign is on the lawful side of that line.
"I can't bend before an unlawful order," he says. "My conscience won't allow that."
Even if he manages, against every fiber of his being, to keep the lights unplugged, the terms of his probation also require Showers to bring the sign into compliance by moving it further back from the street, lowering its height, and securing permits for its existence and operation. But Showers says he isn't even eligible to receive any permits from the county until he pays off the $88,000 worth of liens on his home. And after spending all of his money on his legal battle, he's broke. "I have spent every last dime on this thing, and no income for the last eleven months," he says. "So I have no money."
There is one surefire way for Showers to avoid jail, though: He could simply dismantle the sign. But he won't.
"I wouldn't have any inclination to go to all that effort to basically destroy what I see as my child, a child of my heart and my soul and my mind," he tells us. "Lots of hopes and dreams in this child, and I'm going to destroy it? No way. That’s impossible. That’s not within the realm of the possible."
Which means that, unless Showers is granted an emergency stay on the terms of his probation while he makes his appeal, he's probably headed back to jail by August 22, the date of his next court hearing.
"I know what jail is like," he says. "I've been there for three weeks. You learn to cope. There's good people there, and everybody learns to cope."