Purcellville’s Loudoun Plaza shopping center parking lot became the rallying point for more than 1,000 participants in a peaceful protest for racial equality Sunday afternoon.
Attendees gathered around 3 p.m. at the edge of the parking lot and spilled onto Main Street, a large portion of which local law enforcement blocked off to allow protesters to parade to Purcellville Town Hall roughly three-quarters of a mile away.
While waiting for the procession to begin, participants took turns signing a large banner reading “Love & Unity Leads the Way,” mirroring a similar activity prior to last week’s march in Leesburg.
Purcellville resident Noah Franco, who assisted in organizing the event, then led a moment of silence in honor of George Floyd, an unarmed black man whose death two weeks ago sparked ongoing international outrage and a wave of support for the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
The silence endured for eight minutes and 46 seconds, roughly the amount of time a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck, leading to his death by asphyxiation.
“That was long, right?” Franco said after the moment of silence had been observed. “Now imagine if you couldn’t breathe that whole time.”
Purcellville Mayor Kwasi Fraser then led the crowd westward down Main Street, carrying the signed banner with the help of another demonstrator. Marchers hoisted signs and participated in chants while several locals stood on the sidewalks holding supportive signs of their own; one group of bystanders passed out drinks to protesters.
About halfway along the marching route, another group of roughly a dozen citizens gathered on the front lawn of the Purcell Store, a gun shop. Several of them wore garments or held signs bearing slogans such as “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter,” and a few carried semi-automatic rifles.
Numerous verbal confrontations between this group and the parading protesters ensued both during and after the event, though no physical altercations have yet been reported. When challenged, one rifle-carrying man said to a protester, “You’re exercising your First Amendment rights, we’re exercising our Second Amendment rights.”
“We all matter. That’s what we believe,” he later said.
Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D) spoke to the Times-Mirror later in the procession, commenting on the rhetoric and actions of those positioned in front of the Purcell Store.
“Obviously, all lives matter, but right now not everyone knows that all lives includes black lives,” she said. “When people are standing in front of a gun [shop], fully armed with semi-automatic weapons … they’re trying to incite, but it didn’t. They were not successful.”
Randall was one of several elected officials and public figures to address the crowd from the steps of Town Hall. These also included Fraser, Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton (D-10th), Purcellville Chief of Police Cynthia McAlister and former Loudoun NAACP President Phillip Thompson, who spoke in place of current president Michelle Thomas, whose 16-year-old son died Thursday.
Equally prominent during this segment of the protest were the voices of young Loudoun County citizens, including Franco and several fellow Loudoun Valley High School alumni who also assisted in organizing the event.
One of these, Joshua Fox of Middleburg, began his address by thanking McAlister and the Purcellville Police Department for helping facilitate the protest, all while acknowledging the sensitive relationship between protesters and law enforcement.
“I’ve said some awful things about police in the last week, and not all of them I regret, and not all of them are untrue … but I just want you guys to know that Police Chief McAlister is here today protecting us,” Fox said. “She went out of our way to help us organize it.”
He was followed by 15-year-old Woodgrove High School student Peyton Arnett, who acts as a student representative for the Loudoun NAACP. Despite her age, Arnett ardently challenged her adult peers to use whatever abilities and power they have to promote necessary change for racial equality and justice.
“A better future can’t and won’t happen if students don’t voice their opinions,” she said. “I’m tired of seeing police officers, who are supposed to protect all citizens, kill innocent black people. … We not only need to fix policy, but laws need to be rewritten, and the system needs to be changed.”
As an African American at a predominately white school, Arnett expressed her viewpoint that black students “are not afforded equal opportunities as compared to our white counterparts,” citing her and other students’ recent failure to secure a sponsor for a black student union at Woodgrove.
“This [issue] isn’t just in big cities or the federal and state governments, but it’s also here in our schools,” she said, further claiming that offensive, race-based comments in the halls and classrooms of her school often go unpunished.
Fraser was among the last to speak, celebrating the fact that an event with such large turnout began with a single email from a concerned citizen. He then addressed the many children, teens and young adults in the crowd.
“This righteous rage is for construction, not for destruction,” Fraser said. “Over 400 years in slavery and 100-plus years of apartheid, and we’re still fighting the same fight. So we’re looking to you as the new generation.”
Sunday’s event was one of several demonstrations that took place throughout the county over the weekend, including one each in Sterling and Leesburg.