By Johanna Gusman
I attended Sunday’s student-led march for Black lives in Purcellville. Hundreds of people attended to peacefully protest by marching down Main Street to the Town Hall. It was a beautifully diverse, intergenerational show of unity declaring what should never be considered controversial: Black lives matter. At the same time, counter-protesters also showed up—with guns, flags, and posters of their own—heckling marchers and declaring the misguided (put nicely) response that “all lives matter.”
Fortunately, with the community leadership of Chair Phyllis Randall and Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj working alongside the Purcellville Police, tensions were de-escalated, and the march continued peacefully without detracting from the focus of the moment. Marchers simply passed by ignoring the racist remarks and pathetic display of white supremacy/toxic masculinity, shouting, “No justice! No peace!” What I found paradoxical about this interaction is that the men yelling at the marchers and singling out the black participants were demonstrating precisely why so many of us were marching.
Black Lives Matter started as a call to action in response to state-sanctioned violence and anti-black racism and has continued its movement-building and organizing to liberate black people and end white supremacy forever. In a world where (white) people are beginning to recognize that black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise, it is important to highlight that part of dismantling racism and racist systems requires recognition that these ongoing battles and incidents like the one on Sunday are directly tied to our history. That action now is partly evoked by our collective inaction in the past.
Loudoun’s history in enabling racism is robust. It was one of the last counties in the nation to desegregate its schools. It wasn’t until 1968, a full 14 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that “separate but equal” schooling was unconstitutional, that Loudoun complied. It wasn’t until 2019 that Loudoun, through the tireless work of its NAACP Branch, finally dedicated a memorial site to honor Orion Anderson, a 14-year-old child who was lynched by a group of more than two dozen vigilantes in 1889—an incident that was suppressed by the county for years. It also cannot go unrecognized that our state was both the site where slaves entered our country in 1619 and the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
As we all reckon with our complicit or active participation in systems that perpetuate racial injustice—policing and police brutality, the criminal justice system, economic inequality, environmental racism, inequity in education, voter suppression and the plethora of other structures that have disproportionately and adversely impacted the Black community—we have to confront this past. It is important to not only ask yourself, but to challenge our collective community, to do the hard work that is far overdue. In navigating this history, we can begin to answer directly why all lives can’t matter until black ones do.
Johanna Gusman is a human rights lawyer, Fulbright Scholar, and a public interest law specialist on critical race theory. She is also the NAACP Loudoun Political Action Chair.