The letters have been a regular sight in front of the White House for exactly one year, one month, and seven days.
There were initially only four letters, large block characters embedded with strings of light that protestors arranged to spell “LIAR.” As the number of letters grew, that single word blossomed into a variety of words and phrases, including “TREASON,” “VOTE OUT HATE,” and “TAKE BACK POWER.”
Herndon-Reston Indivisible co-founder Heidi Zollo participated in the first Kremlin Annex protest that coalesced outside the White House on July 16, 2018 at the suggestion of longtime Hillary Clinton spokesperson Philippe Reines.
President Donald Trump was scheduled to return to the U.S. from a summit in Helsinki, Finland, that day. During the summit, Trump held a press conference with Vladimir Putin where the Russian president denied accusations that his country interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Trump did not challenge Putin’s denial despite reports from American intelligence agencies concluding that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election.
Zollo decided to go to the White House in the hopes of finding a way to express her frustration, and there, she met graphic designer Nan Dearborn, who brought the lighted letters that they then held up to spell “LIAR.”
“It was not anything that was planned or coordinated,” Zollo said. “It just kind of happened, and it snowballed, and it really took on a life of its own.”
The Kremlin Annex occupied the sidewalk in front of the White House every day until Election Day on Nov. 6, and it continues to draw volunteer protestors to Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
Herndon-Reston Indivisible shows up to the White House with its lighted letters every Saturday. Led by Dearborn and Ginny Reed, the initiative has accumulated about 50 letters, and it also mobilizes on days when there is a particularly urgent issue and at other locations, including the Capitol and the Supreme Court.
When gun violence prevention groups held a vigil to honor the victims of recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, outside the National Rifle Association headquarters in Fairfax on Aug. 5, the letters were there to spell out a call for “gun reform now.”
While the lighted letters are perhaps its most recognizable contribution, Herndon-Reston Indivisible has gotten involved in local progressive activism in other ways as well, including election canvassing, voter registration drives, and legislative policy advocacy.
“Democracy is an active sport,” Zollo said. “You definitely have to stay engaged at different levels and at all times. So, if you want your interests to be represented and your interests to take hold and be reflected in your government, you’re just going to stay on top of things.”
Part of a nationwide network of Indivisible chapters, Herndon-Reston Indivisible formed in the wake of the 2016 presidential election as local Democratic activists sought ways to fight an incoming administration expected to implement policies that they oppose.
A Herndon resident for 20 years, Zollo had been active in Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012 as well as Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. Through that work, she befriended Carrie Bruns, a Reston resident and fellow Clinton supporter.
Despondent after Clinton’s loss, the two women felt an urge to rally their communities to take action, so they decided to bring together the volunteers who had worked on Clinton’s campaign in both Reston and Herndon to organize opposition to Trump’s political agenda.
Zollo says now that if they attracted 50 people to their first meeting, she would have considered it a good turnout. Instead, they got hundreds of people.
Given the background of its leaders, a lineup that includes Herndon resident Anne Alston and Reston’s Joanne Collins, Herndon-Reston Indivisible naturally gravitated toward a focus on elections and campaign work.
While it is not officially affiliated with the Democratic Party and does not endorse candidates, the organization’s mission calls for getting candidates in office that share its stated values of “transparency, inclusion, tolerance, and fairness.”
“Right now, it’s the Democratic Party for us,” said Collins, who initially led Herndon-Reston Indivisible’s elections group with Bruns. “We’re not going to say that’s going to be true totally in the future, but it’s not the Republican Party right now.”
Along with working to get candidates elected, Herndon-Reston Indivisible engages on specific policies through issue groups concentrated on different topics, an approach that lets individual members focus their energy on their area of expertise or passion.
There are currently 10 issue groups: defending American institutions, which includes holding media accountable, the economy, education, elections, women’s issues and the Equal Rights Amendment, federal employees, gun violence prevention, immigration, voting rights, science and the environment, and resistance writing, which organizes letter-writing campaigns to elected officials.
Herndon-Reston Indivisible often appeals directly to legislators through written letters, phone calls, community meetings, or lobbying trips, such as the one that some members took to Richmond on July 9 to observe the Virginia General Assembly’s scheduled special session on gun violence prevention bills.
The group’s advocacy also takes the form of public protests.
In addition to regularly participating in the Kremlin Annex, Herndon-Reston Indivisible joined the Centreville Immigration Forum, the Legal Aid Justice Center, and other immigrant rights groups on Aug. 16 for a rally at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in D.C.
The Rally to End ICE Raids was organized in response to a raid of seven Mississippi food processing plants on Aug. 8 that led federal authorities to arrest 680 undocumented immigrants in the country’s largest-ever single-state workplace immigration enforcement action.
Herndon-Reston Indivisible’s resistance writers and immigration issues committees made an earlier statement of opposition to the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants with a trio of protests outside the Caliburn International headquarters in Reston.
A private contractor with several federal government agencies, Caliburn International operates the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Located in southern Florida, Homestead serves as a temporary detention facility for migrant children. Lawyers have reported in court and through the media that children held there suffer from trauma, abuse, and neglect, conditions that Amnesty International called human rights violations in a report released in July.
“It’s just terrible that we are separating families, separating children from their parents, housing children in detention centers that are overcrowded and inhumane conditions,” Collins said. “We’re sort of responding to the anger and the aggravation that’s out there.”
Herndon-Reston Indivisible’s most recent protest at Caliburn occurred on Aug. 2.
On Aug. 3, all children at the Homestead facility were either united with a sponsor or transferred to another ORR facility, a development first reported by the Miami Herald and confirmed by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.
Approximately 14,300 unaccompanied adult children have been sheltered at the Homestead site since it opened in March 2018 with no new children placed there since July 3, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“HHS plans to retain but reduce bed capacity at the Homestead facility from 2,700 beds to 1,200 beds for future access in the event of increased referrals or an emergency situation,” the department told the Fairfax County Times in a statement on Monday.
The decrease in shelter capacity is a response to lower levels of referrals to the Homestead facility as well as “historically high” levels of discharges of children to vetted sponsors, but HHS anticipates an uptick of referrals in the fall “based on historical trends.”
As Election Day nears on Nov. 5, Herndon-Reston Indivisible is starting to turn its attention to local and state elections.
The group’s focus is currently on candidates in competitive races, such as Linda Sperling, the Democratic nominee challenging Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, and the Fairfax County at-large school board contests, but as fall approaches, members plan to focus on getting out the vote in Herndon and Reston specifically.
While the 2020 presidential election has already started to dominate news headlines thanks to the crowded Democratic primary field, Collins says Herndon-Reston Indivisible makes a concerted effort not to look at the following year’s races until November is in the rearview mirror.
“Next year, we’ll be focused on the presidential election, but one election at a time,” Zollo said. “…There’s only so much manpower, right?”