The gesture — which Mayor William R. Hollaway called “a first step” to beginning discussions of racial equity — drew mostly positive responses, according to the town clerk. But it prompted outrage from some residents of Fairfax County and nearby towns. Hollaway called the banner “the biggest controversy we’ve seen in many years.”
One critical email, which was shared with The Washington Post, was sent from the email account of Ginni Thomas, an outspoken conservative whose consulting company is based in Burke and who is married to Clarence Thomas, the only black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“BLM is a bit of a dangerous Trojan Horse and they are catching well-meaning people into dangerous posturing that can invite mob rule and property looting,” Ginni Thomas, who is white, wrote on June 24. “Let’s not be tricked into joining cause with radical extremists seeking to foment a cultural revolution because they hate America.”
Ginni Thomas did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. Her Facebook page is full of similar sentiments, quoting the same sources as in the email.
An email to the Town Council from Lin-Dai Kendall, a tea party Republican who once ran for Fairfax County School Board, said the sign appears to welcome “rioters who have vandalized entire zones in multiple American cities across the United States for the past three weeks.”
“You are affirming a misnomer that threatens to send us all into a cultural revolution pitting Marxists against freedom-loving Americans,” Kendall’s email said.
Critics also posted comments on Clifton’s Facebook page and anonymously mailed fliers to residents that try to tie the Black Lives Matter movement to international conspiracies.
In response to the uproar, the council set aside half of its regular meeting Tuesday night to hear feedback about the banner.
Nearly all of the 16 people who spoke at the meeting said they supported it. Several described their relief and thankfulness that the overwhelmingly white town of about 300 residents had taken an anti-racist stance.
“As an African American, I never would have guessed that this community would come together . . . to make such a clear message of welcome and openness,” said Mark Cherry.
Another speaker, Tony DiBari, posed a challenge to the assembled council members. “You guys already made the right decision; you put up the banner,” he said. “Now do you have the willingness, the wherewithal, the fight to stand behind the people of this community?”
Hollaway — who works as a lawyer in downtown Washington in addition to serving as mayor — said the council called an emergency session June 11 to discuss possible responses to the national reckoning on race that has been amplified by Floyd’s death.
He was acutely aware of the sizable protests sweeping downtown Washington. While generally peaceful, the protests early on included some property damage and looting, and Hollaway’s legal office “had all of its windows smashed out of it,” he said.
“We couldn’t go to work there. It was a volatile time,” the mayor said. He believed the Town Council needed to make a statement right away.
While some residents wanted to organize a demonstration in solidarity with those seeking racial justice, council members suggested the banner as an alternative, noting that Black Lives Matter is a movement that goes far beyond the advocacy organization with that name. The council said June 11 that it did not support the group’s goals of defunding police, decriminalizing prostitution and other “radical” aims.
“We took action because we believed it was urgent, and we had a crisis before us,” Hollaway said.
After the banner was stretched across Main Street, someone complained to the Virginia Department of Transportation. Town Council members said the state agency has never expressed concern about banners erected in that space for the past three or four decades, advertising pancake breakfasts and the like.
The council decided Tuesday night that it would not remove the welcome sign until another organization requests the space to advertise a civic event, most of which have been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We knew we had a 60-day maximum,” said Steve Effros, Clifton’s vice mayor. “What happens after that is, we may finally have a pancake breakfast.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Clifton's mayor. It is William R. Hollaway.