Loudoun County Epilogue: A Worsening Culture War, and the False Hope of "Decorum"
As the wealthiest county in America found out, difficult political problems can't just be swept under a rug, or into a parking lot
November 9th, Ashburn, Virginia. A hundred or so protesting parents are gathered in a parking lot at 21000 Education Court, a large, expensive-looking brick building complex inside which the Loudoun School Board is meeting, behind a series of security checkpoints.
A cursory glance is enough to reveal deep weirdness. These are corporate lawyers, defense contractors, consultants, and financiers, nearly all payers of some of the highest property tax rates in the state; people with supervisory titles, law partners and bosses, accustomed to running meetings. They also recently won a series of huge political victories, with the Virginia Supreme Court upholding the reinstatement of a Loudoun teacher named Tanner Cross, hated Loudoun School Board member Beth Barts resigning after a judge denied a motion to dismiss her recall petition, Glenn Youngkin winning the governorship in a race that rocked the national Democratic Party, and newcomer Jason Miyares defeating Mark Herring, the locally educated Attorney General whose office imposed a controversial settlement on Loudoun’s school system.
Despite all those wins, or perhaps because of them, the parents in this parking lot are no longer allowed into their own school administration buildings. They’ve been consigned instead to a roped-off pen that recalls the infamous “free speech zones” at political conventions, once decried most of all by liberals in the Bush years, behind signs reading, “Public Assembly Area… Decorum is Expected.” Some hovering in the “parent pen” are scheduled to address the board later and are rehearsing, but they sound like people warming up for a speed-reading contest, as venting time has been capped at sixty seconds.
“I don’t have enough time during my sixty seconds inside,” says Patti Mendes, one of the parents’ main organizers, “so I’m going to read to you what I really wrote.” She ends up being the first of a series of speakers reading statements of dissatisfaction toward the Board. One is aforementioned State Senator Richard Black, who goes on a tirade against the media narrative that “Critical Race Theory” isn’t being taught here.
“When General Mark Milley testified before Congress, he said, ‘I’ve got to study critical race theory so that I’ll understand white rage,’” says Black. “I’m going to tell you what, he needs to come to these rallies…”
I look up from my notebook. Is an elected official really going to say, He should come to Loudoun County if he wants to see white rage?
“If he wants to understand the rage of parents,” Black says, eyeing some of the cameras present. “And some of it’s white, some of it’s black, some of it’s brown. It’s all of us, but there is sure rage.”
Anyone who thinks the conflict in Loudoun was exaggerated in the press never visited. If anything, the level of vitriol was undersold. There is real fury here, on a level normally reserved for places like picket lines. Moreover, the situation is deteriorating.
These Moms and Dads have the privilege of paying for a team of private ALLIED SECURITY guards who are minding the “assembly area” and wanding entrants to the meeting. The rent-a-police are present among other things because the School Board and county sheriff Michael Chapman have been beefing since Loudoun became the hub of a national media frenzy after local father Scott Smith’s arrest on June 22nd.
After that fiasco, Chapman refused a lengthy request from the Board for extra security measures, including a “five-person Quick Reaction Force (QRF)” and “undercover LCSO deputies” who’d ostensibly be inserted in the crowd. (It’s a safe guess that no School Board in American history has ever dreamed up a more varied and earnest list of spying ideas). Chapman apparently didn’t like that the board “unilaterally decided to limit public comment” on June 22nd, and complained the “optics are the [sheriff’s office] deprived citizens of their right to speak.” As a result, Loudoun County’s school bureaucracy is now essentially being policed by Pinkertons, a situation that’s bizarre no matter whom you choose to blame.
An army veteran named Joe Mobley, a podcast host and well-known locally as one of the leaders among the parental opposition, nods in the direction of the security guards. “It used to be the Loudoun County Sheriff’s office would just be inside, not wanding people. You used to just walk in,” he says. “There’s a sign that says you can’t carry weapons in this government building, and you went by an honor system that people are going to do the right thing.”
He shakes his head. “Now they deem that we’re too much of a threat, that they’ve got to call in armed security.”
This scene ends up being the chronological end of Loudoun’s run at the center of the American culture war: the county government held together with duct tape, with taxpayers paying for two security forces, one for each “side.” The building-out of separate security institutions is an ominous sign, what the first stages of a far more serious social fissure might look like.
Yet to some, this is progress.