Primary Day in Leesburg will feature two events in the downtown with decidedly different ways of promoting understanding.
Gene Stilip, an activist who splits his time between Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia, is planning a flag-burning demonstration at noon Tuesday, June 12, on the grounds of the Loudoun County Courthouse. Near the statue of the Confederate soldier, Stilip is planning to light a two-sided flag bearing Nazi and Confederate insignias.
Stilip has received the necessary code modification for the Loudoun County Fire Prevention Code from the Loudoun County Fire Marshal’s Office. A code modification is needed, Fire Marshal Linda Hale explained, because open burning is banned in Loudoun from May 1 to Sept. 30.
Stilip must also still be issued a burn permit, which will not be given until just before the time of the noon event. Hale said the issuance of the permit depends on if Stilip has complied with the conditions of the code modification, including establishing a safety area with on-site trained safety personnel, as well as if weather conditions are suitable for the open burn. If, for example, winds are in excess of 10 miles per hour or weather conditions are especially dry, the permit would not be issued and the demonstration would not be allowed to happen.
Hale said she will be on site for the demonstration Tuesday, along with members of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office.
Stilip said the goal of the demonstration is to educate and “make people think.”
“It’s a way of making people reflect on their behaviors,” he said. “As we saw in Charlottesville, you had people there with Nazi and Confederate flags. I thought by joining the two flags together we could equate them because both flags have a history of racism, bigotry, hatred, and intimidation. By joining them into one symbol we could make that connection.”
Stilip acknowledged that some will have a strong reaction to the image of a flag burning, particularly, in the instance of the Confederate flag, one that some see as a symbol of heritage and not racism. But he counters that there is “no pride” people should take in flying the Confederate flag.
“The history of the Confederate flag is a history of hate. We have to start a new era and realize that the people using this flag are white supremacists, and people who stand for hate and bigotry,” he said.
Although the decision to hold the demonstration on the day of both the Democratic and Republican primaries was purely coincidental—the demonstration had to take place 30 days out from the permit request, Stilip said—the choice of doing the demonstration near the Confederate statue was not. While Stilip said he does not advocate taking the statue down, he believes the gun the soldier is holding should be replaced with a rake or garden hoe to “let him return to what he was doing before the Civil War.”
He said he asks spectators to come with “peaceful intentions” and does not believe the demonstration will incite any violence.
“I do not advocate harming anyone,” he emphasized.
Hours following his demonstration, the Loudoun chapter of the NAACP is planning its own demonstration, in the form of a 7 p.m. unity rally on the Town Green in front of Leesburg Town Hall. The NAACP requested, and was granted, a permit by the Town of Leesburg for the event.
Phillip Thompson, president of the Loudoun County NAACP, said he agrees with the message of Stilip’s demonstration, but he disagrees with the method. He hopes the unity rally will allow for a more peaceful setting for the community to come together.
“We believe we’ve got a better idea,” he said. “Burning flags is just going to get people pissed.”
Although the full line-up for the unity rally has not been finalized, Thompson said it will feature prayers, and speakers representing various faiths, with a focus on the community.
“It’s an opportunity to come out and say we don’t like the message of Nazis and white supremacists but we can’t support that type of demonstration,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to let out pent-up energy.”