A candlelight vigil arranged on only two days’ notice in Sterling brought out close to 500 people on Wednesday, as mourning and protests around racial inequality and violence have continued across Loudoun and the country.
The vigil was organized by Stephane Longchamp, a coach and teacher at Potomac Falls High School, and his wife Bronwyn. According to Supervisor Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling), there more than 460 people estimated to be in attendance.
The vigil began with a social media post by Stephane—he is black, Bronwyn is white—with his thoughts after seeing the video of Amy Cooper, a woman in New York who called police on a black man who was birdwatching in a park after he asked her to leash her dog. The video became emblematic of white privilege and unequal policing in the days that followed—until video emerged of another incident on the same day in which George Floyd, a black man, was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck in Minneapolis.
“Watching the Amy Cooper video, and watching her reaction and watching how she felt like she could tap into a privilege that would kind of allow her to put this man in harm’s way, it kind of brought back up some of those things that I had been feeling,” Stephane said. Despite his positions—coach, teacher, father—that have made him well-known in the community, he said he worries.
“People know me, so even people who don’t know me personally, they see me, and being 6’3” I kind of stand out,” Stephane said. “So, there was just a notion, a feeling that despite all that, there are people who only see me, or when they see me, the first thing they see is that I’m black.”
And he worried about what could happen if somebody sees him and get uncomfortable.
“If somebody sees me and thinks I don’t belong in either in my neighborhood or I don’t belong in their neighborhood or in this community, if somebody feels that I’m out of place, that could escalate, and there’s no telling what the ramifications could be,” Stephane said.
The couple began spreading the word about a vigil on Facebook and through word of mouth—but Bronwyn said the turnout was beyond anything they expected. Although they started just by sharing their plans for the vigil among their friends, Bronwyn said, “there were faces I’ve never seen before.”
“For me, as the white person, the one to show solidarity, it meant the world, because it shows me there are people in our community who are at least, at a minimum, willing to stand in solidarity,” Bronwyn said.
The vigil began at a bus stop at the intersection of Palisades Parkway that last year was vandalized with swastikas. From there, they proceeded to the nearby Stephen Frazier Community Center, or “The Stone House,” a popular gathering spot with a pools and sports. It was a symbolic route.
“We wanted to start at a place where we were specifically saying no to racism, bigotry and hatred, but end in a place that was a centralized community area, and where we could all come together, and I think that was really the gist of the message,” Stephane said.
Having seen protests in other areas get violent time and again, the Longchamps worried about their own vigil. But the vigil, like other protest in Loudoun, stayed peaceful. Sheriff’s Office deputies and Sheriff Michael L. Chapman showed up to escort the participants along their walk.
“I am thankful and proud of Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office’s response to what we were doing, and I appreciate their support as we exercised our First Amendment rights,” Bronwyn said.
“Despite seeing those things on TV, people still came out, because they thought it was more important to lend their voice, to show themselves, and people realize that this was more than a social media movement,” Stephane said. “They have to get from behind their keyboards and show that they are ready to do the work.”
That work, Stephane said, includes listening, being uncomfortable, staying engaged, and voting.
“We have to listen to each other, and sometimes listening means that you don’t have a response,” Stephane said. “Listening means that people have to be ready to be uncomfortable.” He said sometimes, as a man, “I have to be okay with being uncomfortable if my wife is sharing an experience.”
He said all people have to use their voices against racism and bigotry. And: “I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, but you’ve got to be part of the process. That is a right and a privilege that you have, and you have to be part of the process. If you’re in there and you’re voting, that tells me that you take this seriously.”
Additional events are scheduled across Loudoun over the weekend. Demonstrations are scheduled at the corner of Rt. 7 and City Center Boulevard in Sterling this afternoon at 5 p.m., in Sterling and Leesburg at 2 p.m. Saturday, and on Main Street in Purcellville at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“I don’t know what’s the longer term, what’s next per se, but it has stirred,” Stephane said. “We’ve got some kind of motion going.”