LEXINGTON, Va. — America broke out in this small Shenandoah Valley town on Tuesday evening.
Four days after the owner of the Red Hen restaurant stirred national debate by asking White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her establishment, all the fire and ire of social media was made flesh at the corners of Washington and Randolph streets.
The quaint red restaurant, its dirty green awnings made famous by a disapproving tweet Monday from President Trump, was scheduled to open for dinner service at 5 p.m. Protesters began showing up around 3.
At first, it was just two guys holding Trump banners, a Confederate flag and a Corey Stewart for U.S. Senate sign. Standing in a steady rain, mobbed by three or four TV crews who had been stationed across from the darkened restaurant since morning, the pair said they were there to call for civility.
“Just to let these people know that we don’t appreciate their communism and their kicking out our public servant,” said Chris Wayne, 35, of Monterey, a mountain hamlet about an hour north of Lexington.
Wayne gave his occupation as “vigilante” — he pointed to the “VGL-NTE” license plates of his red Ford Super Duty pickup — and said that “politics shouldn’t decide whether you can eat dinner or not.”
It’s a shame what’s happened to Lexington, said his companion, Grayson Jennings, 66, a retired contractor and member of the Virginia Flaggers Confederate heritage group. “It’s lost its way. There are too many come-heres and transplants and carpetbaggers,” he said.
Lexington is home to two universities — Washington & Lee and the Virginia Military Institute — and has long been more liberal than surrounding Rockbridge County. Lexington went for Hillary Clinton in 2016; Rockbridge went for Trump.
But with its handsome brick shops on hilly streets, wine shops and preppy clothiers, the town of 7,000 is usually too buttoned-down to air those differences so publicly. “We’ve all learned to get along...One thing this town is, it’s always been polite and nice,” said Doug Harwood, 65, publisher of the Rockbridge Advocate, a monthly magazine whose slogan is “Independent as a Hog on Ice.”
Not since the city eliminated Confederate flags from municipal poles in 2011 has it seen anything stir public passion like the Red Hen incident. As Tuesday afternoon wore on, though, the flagpole issue began to seem tame.
More protesters joined the Confederate guys, who had moved onto the sidewalk in front of the still-dark Red Hen restaurant. “Don’t eat at the commie cluck,” read one woman’s hand-lettered poster.
A couple of passing motorists honked or yelled “Trump!” A Volvo driver shouted “Booo!” One guy offered a heartfelt, “Who cares?”
Merchants from surrounding shops wandered over toward the commotion — unusual for Lexington in the summer, when college is out. Many had spent the past few days fielding hostile phone calls from all over the country.
“We’ve had to unplug the phone,” said Rae Stephens, 60, who works in a gift shop. “It’s horrible, rude, horrific things they’re saying,” she said.
Not all the responses were angry. Carolyn Tolley, 62, the owner of University Florist, was swamped with orders for bouquets from people who wanted to thank Red Hen owner Stephanie Wilkinson for refusing to serve Sanders.
“We have flowers going to her from all over the country and from foreign countries,” she said, then picked up a handful of order sheets. “Congratulations on taking a stand — London, England,” she read. “Thank you for taking a stand, from another patriot in Texas.”
As the streetcorner crowd grew, a man in a green hat and black shirt went up to the Confederate guys and yelled in their faces: “Trump is a chump!” Asked by a reporter to identify himself, the man declined — and offered a business card for the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Two women and a man showed up with a bullhorn, holding signs with harsh anti-gay messages. The Red Hen’s owner, Wilkinson, in her only interview over the weekend, had told The Washington Post that several of her staffers were gay and were uncomfortable serving Sanders because she defended Trump’s desire to ban transgender people from the military. The group with the bullhorn seized on that.
“This town is full of people who don’t know Jesus Christ and rebel against Jesus Christ through their sins,” shouted Dianna Orea, 50. Saying she was from Michigan but traveled the country preaching, she held a sign that said “LGBT — Let God Burn Them.” Her companion, Edgar Orea, began railing against “Sodomites.”
Wayne and Jennings, the Confederate flaggers, quickly crossed the street to get away from the anti-gay sloganeers. “We don’t want anything to do with that crazy religious bigot stuff,” Wayne said.
Nearby, in front of the house where Stonewall Jackson once lived, postal worker Jamie Nuckols began shouting back at Edgar Orea. “I support homosexuals! I support gay people!” she said.
“Homosexuals are destroying America!” Edgar Orea bellowed back on the bullhorn.
Soon, the police showed up to tell Orea he could yell, but he was going to have to put down the bullhorn. A ponytailed man came up with a bucket of chicken manure and dumped it on the corner in front of the Red Hen and was promptly arrested. More patrol cars arrived and blocked off the street.
By now several would-be diners had arrived, hoping to eat in the restaurant, which was still dark. Several local merchants said they hadn’t spoken with Wilkinson since the weekend. By midafternoon, Wilkinson sent notice that she was resigning her position as executive director of the downtown business association. Word spread that the restaurant might not reopen for another couple of weeks.
Kim Pettus, 55, of Richmond, stood in front of the door grinning in amazement at the spectacle of protest unfolding around him. He and his wife had driven nearly two hours to have dinner in a show of support for Wilkinson and the restaurant, he said. As an African American, Pettus said he was proud of her defiance. He was not pleased as 5 o’clock came and went.
“So all these Confederates got them to close till July 5?” he said.
Dianna Orea turned toward him. “America is going to hell,” she said, “and we need people to repent and follow Jesus Christ.”
On Pettus’s other side, Carolyn Eliott, 77, looked a bit bewildered. A lifelong Lexington resident, she said she was offended that the Red Hen would turn away anyone. “There’s no reason they couldn’t have been served,” the retired schoolteacher said. “I’m so sorry that we’ve gotten such bad publicity. We’ve been a very quiet little country town until this happened.”
Next to her, Pettus and Dianna Orea were still going at it. “All you guys are frauds,” Pettus said. “You’re a liar,” Orea shot back.
The rain had stopped, half a dozen police cars sat at either end of the block and some 75 people stood in a broad circle, facing each other between the restaurant and the Stonewall Jackson house. No one seemed to know what to do next.
Off to the side, Jim Belcher, 61, stood watching in a U.S. Air Force Veteran cap. He shook his head.
“It’s kind of like this country right now, when you think about it,” he said. “I look at this whole thing and I think, where are the manners? Where is the respect? . . . It’s sad.”
A few blocks away, Tracy Parker was gathering parts in his auto shop. The front of his Ballard & Parker Service Center was festooned with Trump banners, but Parker laughed when asked about the Red Hen incident. He didn’t much care about the restaurant owner’s politics, he said. It just didn’t make sense to him to turn away a paying customer.
“I have people come in here all the time with Obama stickers on their cars and I wouldn’t turn them away,” he said. “The lady next door” — he gestured over at the Rockbridge Music shop — “she’s all about Hillary Clinton.... But I’ve worked on her car for years. What can I say? It’s just a difference of opinion.”
Diana Schofield, the owner of the music shop, laughed when told of Parker’s comment. “I give him hell all the time about those signs,” she said. “But those are great guys over there. They work hard all the time.”
People need to learn how to talk about politics without being uncivil, she said. She plays in bands with conservatives, she said; she had dinner just the other night with a hardcore Republican friend.
Still, she wasn’t prepared to condemn Wilkinson and what she did at the Red Hen last Friday night. “It’s not really live and let live,” she said. “I feel our current administration has really crossed lines on a lot of our rights as citizens.”
And all the attention that’s been focused on Lexington? Maybe that’s not all bad.
“People sure know about us now,” she said. “A small town in America.”
By Wednesday, the crowds of protesters were gone. At least one GoFundMe campaign that had raised more than $6,000 in support of Wilkinson and the Red Hen Restaurant had shut itself down. The founder said he received “threats of violence and an unrelenting stream of harassment on social media.”