By TJ Davis
During their lunchbreak Tuesday, a small crowd gathered on the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds—and peered out from office and restaurant windows—to witness the burning of a flag bearing Confederate and Nazi symbols.
As Gene Stilp, an attorney and activist who hails from both Loudoun County and Harrisonburg, PA, set up for his demonstration, a small crowd gradually formed. Stilp organized the flag-burning event to encourage residents to reflect on the history behind the flags. He has previously held similar flag-burning events in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania and at various NASCAR events.
“This is (an) educational event that asks the question: Is there racism, hatred and bigotry in Loudoun County and Northern Virginia?” Stilp said. “That is not a question I have to answer. The answer is up to each individual citizen.”
Several spectators talked over and heckled Stilp with comments such as, “I’ll give you $400 to set yourself on fire,” and “did you bring hotdogs?” One hung his own Confederate flag on the courthouse fence in protest. Others in the crowd cheered on the attorney and thanked Stilp for his efforts.
Stilp said he wanted to do a demonstration in Loudoun County because he believed that information regarding a recent arrest of a known white nationalist on a charge of drunk in public should have been announced by the police department.
Chris Cantwell, who is a self-described alt-right activist, was arrested on March 31 for public intoxication. Cantwell hosts a podcast titled “Radical Agenda,” which is self-described as “Common sense extremism.” The 37-year-old pundit was also notably in attendance during last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, and was later charged for illegally using tear gas at the rally.
“I said, ‘well maybe this is time to do what we’ve been doing across the country,” Stilp said.
Before burning the flag, Stilp explained the history of the Confederate and Nazi flags and how part of their history contains elements of racism.
“It’s a powerful symbol to join these two symbols of hate, racism, bigotry, white supremacy and intimidation and put them back to back in one flag. Part of our reason for being here today is because we look around, I’m an old guy, but people who are in grade school, people who are in high school don’t realize what the Confederate flag has meant for this country, and the racial divisions it stood for.”
“If we see racism, if we see hate, we aren’t there to make the judgement. All we’re doing is an educational demonstration and asking do you see hate, racism, or bigotry in your community?” Stilp said.
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.”
TJ Davis is a summer intern at Loudoun Now, studying journalism at Liberty University.