A week after Ku Klux Klan recruitment pamphlets were left in driveways in Leesburg and Purcellville, a couple hundred people crowded into First Mount Olive Baptist Church in Leesburg on Monday to accuse law enforcement officers of not doing enough to find and charge the people behind the racist propaganda.
The meeting, called for by the Loudoun County NAACP, started off with measured comments and explanations from a panel of law enforcement administrators, but got heated when the microphone was passed around to audience members. Several, including Rabbi David Greenspoon of Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg and Bishop Shawn Stephens of IGNITE Kingdom Church International in Leesburg, accused the officers of shrugging the distribution of the fliers off as simply a nuisance.
The panel included FBI Special Agent Keith Palli, Virginia State Police Cpt. James DeFord, Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman, Loudoun Sheriff Mike Chapman, Leesburg Police Chief Gregory Brown and Purcellville Police Department Acting Chief Joe Schroeck, and each took turns at the microphone.
Plowman, the county’s head prosecutor, called the fliers distasteful, repugnant and disgusting, and those who distributed them ignorant. He added that, unfortunately, on its face, there’s nothing criminal about them.
“Now that could change. But the same constitution that lets people spread filth like this is also the same constitution that allows us to gather together like this,” he said.
Palli, from the FBI, encouraged people to report any incident, even if they’re not sure if it qualifies as a criminal action. But, he added, hate speech is unfortunately allowed. “It’s one of the things that makes our country great. It is protected by the First Amendment,” he said. “People are allowed to say what they want to say, it doesn’t have to be pleasant, you don’t have to like it.”
Chief Brown told the audience that he was woken up at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 13, with information from his officers about the incident, and he got to work right away. He alluded to the fact that hundreds of fliers had been dropped in Leesburg driveways, but that many of them had been picked up by his officers before residents saw them.
“My officers worked tirelessly to get those fliers off of people’s driveways … so they would make as little impact as possible,” Brown said. “The perception is that we don’t take this seriously. We do, but we operate within the confines of the law. Believe me, being a black man myself, I can understand wholeheartedly and I take this very seriously.”
The officers’ comments and explanations were mostly met with frustration and disbelief from audience members. Loudoun County NAACP President Phillip Thompson invited people to the microphone to ask the officers questions. Several accused the police chiefs, sheriff, FBI agent, and commonwealth’s attorney of approaching this incident more lightly than they would had it been committed by black residents or by the MS-13 gang members.
A visibly upset Rabbi Greenspoon had sharp words for members of the panel.
“When I hear someone saying they’re just ignorant, and I look at their website and it says ‘we got 6 million last time, 11 million this time is not beyond the count,’ that’s not ignorance, that’s hate,” he said. “When I hear somebody say that it’s simply nonsense, I hear the privilege of somebody who did not have family members tattooed on their arms or shuffled into gas chambers. … That’s privilege to say anti-Semitism is nonsense. I’m sorry.”
Greenspoon threw his yarmulke toward the heads of the law enforcement officers and challenged them, “Take a week, wear my skull cap. It will change your perspective.”
Stephens, a black man, spoke about the fear and anger that came over him when he discovered the fliers in his Potomac Station driveway. He had noticed a car driving down his street just before 11 p.m. Friday, Jan. 12, tossing something out of the window into each driveway.
“I opened it and saw that this information was from the Royal White Knights,” he said. After he called Leesburg Police to report the incident, his daughter asked him whether it was safe to walk the dog.
He told her, yes, she should take the dog out, and he stayed on the porch to keep watch. That night, he slept armed on the first floor where he could see out the window, because he felt like he needed to protect his family.
“The fact that my daughter is fearful in Loudoun County, Virginia, the wealthiest county in American, where she’s supposed to be safe, is a problem,” he said. “There’s a big pink elephant in the room. Before crime is committed, most of the time there is a warning. Here’s our warning. … We can pray, we can hold hands, but something needs to be done.”
Asked later at Monday’s meeting whether he was able to get a license plate number, Stephens said no, he hadn’t realized the letter had a hateful message until the car had already left the neighborhood.
DeFord said that license plates numbers, description of vehicles, or any information about suspicious activity are the keys to leading investigators to the people behind the fliers. “I am offended by the same things you are offended by, but there are limitations to what we can do,” he said.
Reggie Simms, a longtime Loudoun resident, said it’s shameful that he’s afraid in his own home. “You come here with these platitudes making it sound nice, but I don’t feel good. I don’t feel safe. We got a long fight.”
Sheriff Chapman said that Loudoun County has one of the lowest crime rates in the region, and he credited much of that to the law enforcement departments partnering with a variety of community groups, including churches, synagogues and mosques.
“The actions we’re doing in law enforcement here are successful, and the reason is that is because we are proactive,” he said. “If we didn’t take this seriously we wouldn’t be here. We are doing everything we can to find out who’s behind this and do everything that we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Several audience members suggested ways that people can get involved to combat racism locally. A woman and her daughter who were appalled to find a KKK pamphlet in their driveway is encouraging her neighbors to display orange ribbons on their homes as a sign of racial tolerance and solidarity. She’s also working to organize a meeting Jan. 29 at the Purcellville Library. “We hope to discuss how to spread the word and share ideas for future orange ribbon events,” she said.
Kofi Annan of the Fairfax County NAACP mentioned a bill (HB 1601) recently introduced in the General Assembly that would make domestic terrorism a criminal charge in Virginia and make it illegal in certain cases for people associated with domestic terrorist groups to have a meeting.
Rizwan Jaka, of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, said he is joining faith leaders in Richmond to support that bill and other laws aimed at combating divisiveness. He also recommended a website called lifeafterhate.org, run by former white supremacists and other extremists that offers people caught in that cycle of hate a way out.
“We must reach these folks who are in the margins,” Jaka said. “We have to stand up against radicalism. We have to respond to bad with good.”