The streets and sidewalks of historic downtown Leesburg were clogged Sunday afternoon with more than 1,500 people exercising their right to peacefully protest in honor of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer earlier this week.
Protesters of all ages and nationalities wrapped around the block comprising King, Loudoun, Wirt and Market streets beginning at roughly 3 p.m. Most wore personal face masks — in keeping with Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) recommendations for “Phase 1” reopening in northern Virginia — and many carried signs.
On the Leesburg Town Hall Green, participants signed a poster-sized version of a painting by local artist Gertrude Evans, which depicts three people protesting police brutality. From there, participants began a short marching route through town, ultimately arriving at the feet of the Loudoun County Courthouse.
Loudoun County NAACP President Michelle Thomas, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) and Leesburg Town Councilman Ron Campbell were among those who led the procession. Members of local law enforcement helped facilitate the event and kept the streets clear.
During the march, participants joined one another in songs and chants. Many of those chants, as well as many signs, referenced Floyd’s haunting last words, “I can’t breathe,” which he gasped as the attacking officer — who has since been charged with murder — kneeled on his neck for several minutes.
From the front steps of the courthouse, Thomas shouted an introductory speech to the masses who saturated the surrounding lawn.
“Thank you so much for coming out today, for standing in solidarity like we always do,” she said. “This is nothing new for us. This is what’s true for us.”
Campbell, who founded sponsoring organization Citizens for a Better Leesburg, followed Thomas. Though he and other planners had previously said there would be no speeches during the event, he told crowds that their love expressed through protest was a valuable form of speech on its own. “Your love allows us the air to breathe,” he said to rapturous applause.
“As a 68-year-old man with three black sons and five black grandsons, I grieve,” he added. “I hurt like you hurt. I hurt like families hurt that lose loved ones that are murdered in the streets. Daylight, darkness, it doesn’t matter. We can’t take this energy any longer and do nothing with it.”
His remarks were followed by a nearly minute-long chant of “Black lives matter,” to which Thomas responded, “Chanting is the easy part.”
“The harder part comes in the weeks to come, when it’s time to vote up, when it’s time to challenge elected officials who don’t vote in favor of race-based equality, when it’s time to look at yourself in the mirror and ask, 'Is there something else that you can do?” she continued.
She then went on to paraphrase the Apostle Paul’s words from the book of Romans.
“I am fully persuaded that neither life, nor death — good God almighty — nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come … [will separate me] from the love of God and the truth in which he’s made us free,” Thomas declared. “Fight on, my brothers and sisters. March on, my brothers and sisters, and let’s get it done.
Randall followed, beginning with an appeal to her own beliefs when she said she would “talk to [the crowd] as a person of faith, because before I was anything else, I was a person of faith.”
“George Floyd was the tipping point … but there were so many others who came before George Floyd,” she continued before listing the names of many high-profile black murder victims. These included examples as historic as Emmett Till and as recent as Ahmaud Arbery, whose February murder sparked international outrage when video footage of it spread via the Internet.
“We are talking about hundreds and hundred and hundreds of people whose names you might not know, who may be buried in graves that are not even marked,” Randall said. “We are talking about people who were hung from trees like so much strange fruit, for generations and generations.”
She commended participants for keeping the day’s events from devolving into violence — as several protests across the U.S. have since Floyd’s death — and echoed Thomas’ petition to express their hunger for change by voting.
“This is good. This is peaceful. This is how it should be. But this is where it starts, not where it ends,” Randall said. “We’re going to stand together. We’re going to fight together. We’re going to hang together. We’re going to pray together. We’re going to support each other. We’re going to be nonviolent. We’re going to do it with love and justice and kindness, because that’s who Loudoun County, Virginia, is.”
Randall then handed the megaphone to Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton (D-10th), who called the people filling the courthouse lawn “a beautiful sight.”
“I have two teenage boys, and when I think about the lessons that I have to give them when they learn how to drive, it’s very different from those that Phyllis had to teach her kids,” Wexton, who is white, said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”
She also encouraged attendees to vote for racial justice advocates this fall, saying “we can’t pretend that we elected a black president and everything is fine, because it’s not.”
Thomas and Campbell each gave concluding remarks, reiterating the importance of civil discourse between all Americans amid such tumult.
“This issue is an American issue, not just a black issue,” Thomas said.
“We ask you to go home in love and in peace. We ask you to stick around — we’ve got some pretty good restaurants as well,” Campbell joked. “Just give somebody some love on your way home. Stay safe, stay brave.”