As the wealthiest county in America found out, difficult political problems can’t just be swept under a rug, or into a parking lot
Matt Taibbi, 12/22/21
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.
After the June 22nd disaster, the New Republic had this to say:
In one especially rowdy episode on June 22, the board meeting had to be adjourned. Clearing the room led to a melee between Trumpist protesters and the county sheriff’s deputies. At the next meeting, the school board arranged tight security. There was no repeat of the disruption that broke up the previous meeting. It turns out that decorum is the antidote to Trumpist agitation. A gentleman arrested in the previous fracas has now been convicted of disorderly conduct.
First of all, the magazine’s cheerful update about the “gentleman” who’d by then been happily convicted referred to Smith, the father of a sex-assault victim who did indeed get a suspended sentence of ten days in jail for disorderly conduct. According to Smith, a plumber, the “fracas” happened when he showed up at the meeting on a whim — “I went at the spur of the moment after I finished up a work job down the street, to go see the circus I’ve been seeing on the news. We weren’t going to protest or anything,” he said — and after the meeting, got into a conversation with a woman his wife knew through her involvement with Girl Scouts. Smith says he tried to explain that his daughter had been sexually assaulted, got a reply, “That’s not what happened” from the other woman, and lost it, at which point deputies intervened and the viral battle with which the country soon became familiar took place.
The offhand press descriptions of Smith as part of the “unruly” crowd that was acting out at the School Board over the county’s trans and equity policies were constant. In sentencing Smith, the judge in the case even chastised him: “I look at that and I go, why would anybody want to be on a School Board?” Commonwealth Attorney Buta Biberaj, a member of the Antiracist Facebook Group who would later have to be recused from the Beth Barts petition case, wanted a heavier punishment for Smith that included a fine and anger management training.
It seems no one was interested in the context of his case, until the 15-year-old boy in question was convicted in both the incident involving Smith’s daughter and a second sexual assault case at a different school. There were extenuating circumstances; Smith’s daughter did know the boy and agreed to meet him in the school bathroom. Still, despite a court agreeing that she never consented to being sodomized on the bathroom floor, the incident was downplayed in the press, seemingly for the inexcusable reason that Smith had been made an involuntary culture war combatant. The New York Times in describing his daughter’s ordeal referenced a “false story” regarding something that was “not a random assault,” “something atrocious” but still mere “relationship violence,” what columnist Michelle Goldberg called part of “The Right’s Big Lie About a Sexual Assault.”
For sure, there was misreporting about the case. A much-read Daily Wire story seized on Smith’s account that he was told by school officials they would handle the case “in house.” As Substack’s own Jesse Singal reported, this appeared in part to be a misunderstanding about the enforcement role of a “School Resource Officer,” with police reports appearing to show the school acting more or less by the book. Moreover, reporters on both sides seized with varying degrees of irrelevance upon the issue that the boy in question wore a skirt. To some conservatives, this was an argument against the trans bathroom policy. Meanwhile, papers like the Times harped on the fact that the assault took place two months before the “trans-inclusive bathroom policies were approved,” and therefore was irrelevant to the policy, or something.
None of this should have mattered. The central issue was that this was a father whose daughter was assaulted, and therefore should have been an object of compassion, especially after the assailant’s conviction. The New Republic’s casual gloating took place before the court ruling, but still typified the disinterest in details that marked this sorry episode.
Worse, however, was the line about how “it turns out that decorum is the antidote to Trumpist agitation.” Leaving aside the continually infuriating detail that many of the angry parents in Loudoun were not Trump supporters, the observation that, yes, there will be fewer disruptions in a public hearing if you clear the room is not exactly incisive thinking.
From Internet censorship to increased surveillance to proposals about a new Domestic War on Terror, “tight security” has over and over again been the reflex response of the national intelligentsia to the “problem” of popular unrest. As the scene in the Loudoun parking lot shows, though, it doesn’t solve anything.
Even roped off and surrounded by private guards, the angry people are still out there, and being put out there, with time to stew over a long list of media slights, just makes them madder than before. Sticking people in a parking lot is particularly not likely to be a lasting solution when those folks just won a series of statewide elections. There’s a reason we have that expression about the unwisdom of sweeping problems under rugs.
One of the last, bitterest ironies of the Loudoun story is that the affluence of places like this helped birth the Trump phenomenon in the first place. When Trump bashed “elites” in his first run in 2016, he was pointing here. “Mr. Trump is running against the political establishment – the very livelihood of the people who live in Bethesda and Chevy Chase and Potomac,” is how a Trump supporter named Victor Williams put it in 2016, in an article for Capital News about people like him who were afraid to reveal their affiliations. These ultra-wealthy suburbs were and are the home to creatures of the “Swamp” Trump denounced: blue-leaning, college-educated professionals living off the mysteriously booming business of government.
Trump not only capitalized on the unpopularity of these wealthy Washingtonians, he prospered every time DC-based national journalists or Washington insiders like Hillary Clinton caricatured his supporters as “deplorable” hayseeds, when sometimes they were merely protest voters left behind by decades of neoliberal misrule. In this way, the national political establishment was crucial in helping stoke Trumpism as a phenomenon. This time, both national reporters and politicians ranging from Barack Obama to Terry McAuliffe repeated the self-defeating error closer to home.
As Ryan Grim of The Intercept noted, Democrats in Virginia lost ground across the board in places like Loudoun, Arlington, and Fairfax counties, not just with white voters, and not just with Republicans. In particular, in debates over issues like school closures or the vagaries of “equity” theory, “Democrats have seen a steady erosion in support among working-class voters of all races.” The core misread of the national press is an idea the Equity Collaborative essentially labeled taboo. “The culture war is not a proxy for race,” is how Grim put it. “It’s a proxy for class.”
The people in the Loudoun parent pen mostly aren’t “working class,” of course. They may lean Republican, but are more what political strategist Andrew Levison calls “cultural traditionalists,” i.e. people who “believe in patriotism and the ‘American way of life’ but also believe that diversity, pluralism, and tolerance are essential characteristics of that American way of life.” As Grim puts it, these are voters who should be “gettable” for Democrats. But after being denounced as Trump-loving neo-Confederates who are the “same type of voices” as 1950s segregationists, that’s much more of a long shot going forward.
From the beginning of the Trump years, the operating premise of the culture war from the Democratic point of view has been the essential irrationality, unreasonableness, and threatening nature of the other side. These voters are crazy, evil, or both, and therefore unreachable by normal political means. This is why the Trump movement is universally described now as a security problem.
Loudoun revealed a multi-layered conflict over complex issues, inspiring legitimate differences of opinion among a variety of groups, with nearly everyone involved being college-educated and affluent relative to the rest of the country. Many of the political combatants are neighbors who when not talking politics take care of each other’s kids, share dinners, do favors for one another. Disputes between such people can’t and shouldn’t be dealt with as security problems. They have to and can be worked out. The idea that this is impossible is our culture’s central political myth. “Decorum,” code for authoritarianism, doesn’t work. When you decide to stick people in parking lots for disagreeing in places like this, you’re not finding the “antidote” for populist anger. You’re breeding it.