The streets of downtown Leesburg, which for months have been all but deserted, were instead packed shoulder-to-shoulder for the “I Can’t Breathe Walk Through Leesburg” Sunday afternoon.
What was originally planned as a quiet, socially-distant walk through the town green turned instead into one of the biggest demonstrations Leesburg has ever seen, with a line of marchers circling King Street, Loudoun Street, Church Street and back up Edwards Ferry Road. The line was so long, chanting marchers caught up to the rear of the march as they walked back up Edwards Ferry Road. There they turned to pack the courthouse lawn, spilling onto the surrounding streets.
And what had been planned as an event without any speeches instead brought speeches from the steps of the courthouse by the Loudoun NAACP President Michelle Thomas, county Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), Rep. Jennifer T. Wexton (D-VA-10), and Leesburg Town Council member Ron Campbell, whose new group “Citizen for a Better Leesburg” first planned the event.
“If your presence means anything, it’s no more rhetoric about what we need to do,” Campbell said. “We know the changes. We’ve been fighting for them long enough. We either need to have the courage to do what we say we’re going to do, or move those aside who don’t.”
The protest came in the wake of the latest series of high-profile police killings of black people including Breonna Taylor in Lousville, KY, and most recently George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN. It was named after some of Floyd’s last words, as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, and the phrase “I can’t breathe” became rallying cry for protesters again. The phrase was also prominent in previous protests following the death of another black man, Eric Garner, who said the same thing shortly before he died after being arrested in New York City.
It was also a fervent but peaceful reflection of the protests that have gripped communities across the nation, leading in some cases to riots and violent clashes with police.
“There’s one thing I know for sure: George Floyd was a tipping point, he was a tipping point, but there were so many that came before,” Randall said. She and Thomas also urged protesters to take their energy to the ballot box in November.
“Chanting, speaking, is the easy part,” Thomas said. “The harder part comes in the weeks to come, when it’s time to vote up.”
Ali, one protester, said he was brought to the protest by “a sense of being.”
“This is definitely a time when we need to stand together,” Ali said. “When I say that, I mean everyone, everyone of all colors. We have to show that what’s going on is unacceptable as a society to everyone, that we notice it, we acknowledge it and we have a problem with it.”
He said he will continue to find other rallies and protests, and said others should join.
“It’s not enough to say you support from your couch, or from your Instagram or your Twitter, it’s not enough,” he said. “This is important. Being out here is important, because the people who don’t agree with what we’re doing, people who aren’t supporting, are disturbed by our presence right now, and that’s the point.”
Other attendees said their next step will be to cast their votes.
“We need to start voting in ways that can make a difference,” said Abby, another protester. “…Everyone can come together and support a cause.”
“What we want you to do is to stay engaged,” Thomas said. “What we want you to do is to find somebody that does not look like you, that does not speak like you, and does not always think like you and make a neighbor, make a friend, make an ally. This issue is an American issue, not just a black issue.”