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Earlier this week restaurant owner Stephanie Wilkinson made national headlines after asking White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her establishment, the Red Hen, Friday night. Ms. Wilkinson’s staff – a number of whom are gay – had urged her to do so, saying they were uncomfortable serving the official spokeswoman of an administration that has enacted what are, in their view, unconscionable policies toward the LGBTQ and other minority communities. The resulting blowback has rocked the city of Lexington, Va. Protesters bearing Confederate flags have held rallies downtown. Shop owners have unplugged their phones and shunned social media amid a barrage of harassing calls and comments. The onslaught has fractured the community and turned the city into an example of what happens when the din and discord of national politics comes home to roost. “Lexington is symbolic,” says Chris Devine, a political science professor who studies political psychology at the University of Dayton in Ohio. “It’s about the nature of political divisions in the country right now.... Suddenly what is going on at the national level feels very local.”
Until about a week ago, a visit to the Blue Phoenix Cafe and Market’s Facebook and Yelp pages left a fine impression. Patrons raved about the tasty food, the vegetarian options, and the welcoming staff. The place had a nearly five-star grade.
Then, sometime last Saturday, bad reviews – punctuated by one-star ratings and angry memes – began to pour in.
“Bigots,” one commenter writes.
“Smells like an outhouse,” according to another.
“They are ridiculous hate-filled people. Do not go to this establishment,” warns a third.
The reason for the hostility sits a few blocks away on West Washington Street. The Red Hen and its owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, made national headlines after Ms. Wilkinson asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her restaurant Friday night. Ms. Wilkinson’s staff – a number of whom are gay – had urged her to do so, saying they were uncomfortable serving the official spokesperson for an administration that has, in their view, enacted unconscionable policies toward the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and other minority groups.
The resulting blowback has rocked the city of Lexington, Va., population about 7,000.
The Red Hen has not opened for business since the event. Earlier in the week, protesters arrived from out of town, some bearing Confederate battle flags and anti-gay posters reading “Let God Burn Them.” One man was arrested for dumping chicken dung in front of the restaurant.
Amenie Hopkins – co-owner and head chef at Blue Phoenix – expected she would take a hit, having publicly voiced support for Wilkinson almost as soon as the news broke.
Other businesses in town have also been left reeling. Shop owners, if they could, unplugged their phones after receiving a barrage of harassing calls. Others shunned social media, where nasty comments came unabated. Local leaders have had to check in on folks to see how they’re holding up.
It was guilt by association to a degree that no one – including Ms. Hopkins – saw coming. “This town is not a stranger to conflict,” she says. “But this is a new level. And certainly the level of attention it's garnered is new, as well.”
The onslaught, she and others say, has fractured the community. Residents have fallen onto one side or another of a familiar dividing line, turning the city into a parable of our time: an example of what happens when the din and discord of national politics comes home to roost.
“Lexington is symbolic,” says Chris Devine, a professor who studies political psychology at the University of Dayton in Ohio. “It isn’t about one issue. It’s about the nature of political divisions in the country right now. … Suddenly what is going on at the national level feels very local.”
A town divided
Hopkins, wearing a bright red dress and a colorful bandanna over her dark hair, smiled a lot when she spoke. But it was a tired smile. It was late afternoon on Wednesday, and by then Hopkins and her staff had been fielding angry and sometimes vulgar phone calls and online posts for five days.
Some callers would yell, she says. Others would demand to know whether she would serve a Republican or someone in a “MAGA” hat – shorthand for President Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” – at her establishment. “I’m like, ‘Of course we would,’ ” she says.
Still, Hopkins won’t budge on her decision to stick with Wilkinson, who has reportedly received death threats and did not respond to requests for an interview. Hopkins says she posted a supportive comment on the Red Hen’s Facebook page almost as soon as she’d heard about what happened. The bad reviews began materializing “literally two minutes later,” she says.
On Monday, Hopkins published a post on the Blue Phoenix’s page reiterating her support for the right of every small business “to protect their staff, customers, and the values that define those relationships.”
It’s not an unpopular stance. Lexington is home to Washington and Lee University, a private liberal arts school. Like most college towns, it leans Democrat: The city went to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections, while surrounding Rockbridge County voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump.
“This is definitely kind of a blue dot in a red state,” says Jake Sirota, a rising senior at Washington and Lee and editor-in-chief of The Vigil, a progressive student-run paper not associated with the university. He and another student, Dannick Kenon, say they were happy to hear about the exchange at the Red Hen.
“It was definitely a feeling of pride at the town ... that it actually stood up to an administration I’m not a fan of,” Mr. Kenon says.
Others were more cautious. One shop owner praised Wilkinson – “she’s just a wonderful person who’s helped this town so much,” he says – but asked that his name not be used because he wants to avoid further harassment.
As the surge of bad reviews continued, however, some business owners quickly took to Facebook to do damage control. Sweet Treats Bakery, also on West Washington Street, published a post on Monday dissociating itself from the Red Hen and its owner’s actions: “Sweet Treats Bakery DID NOT refuse to serve or turn any one away for any reason and will not be doing so in the future.” The Southern Inn and the Lexington Carriage Company, both Main Street institutions, posted similar disclaimers on their social media sites.
Mare Scott – who runs a skincare service, Skin Is In, just down the street from the Red Hen – doesn’t blame them. “Personally I think the owner of the Red Hen made a big mistake,” she says. Ms. Scott, who grew up in Washington, D.C., set up shop in Lexington about 17 years ago. She loves her business, is ambivalent about politics, and doesn’t think the two should mix.
“She has the right to refuse anybody … but to kind of think of it in the long term, you know, of how it might affect the rest of us,” Scott says.
To Hopkins at the Blue Phoenix, her fellow proprietors’ reactions are disheartening but understandable. In times of turmoil, she says, people tend to close ranks and protect their own. “It was like, ‘All right, hold on to what we have, and we’re going to be OK if we just hunker down.’ ”
Her own response just happened to go a different direction.
“My personal opinion is that if you don’t stand up to persecution, if you don’t stand next to your neighbor when they are being persecuted, you end up losing more than just business,” Hopkins says, her voice soft but firm. “You end up losing a part of yourself. And that’s irretrievable.”
Jennifer Brown is a slim, sharp woman with a dark bob and bright blue eyes. She speaks fast, with a big smile, but her sentences come out at rapid-fire pace when she’s on the subject she’s most passionate about: the conservative perspective.
“I don’t condone death threats at all. That’s just ridiculous,” Ms. Brown says of the treatment Wilkinson’s received since the Red Hen incident. “It’s shutting down the channels of communication and I would not say to anybody to do that.”
But, she says, she understands why so many people got so fired up after hearing that Ms. Sanders had been asked to leave the restaurant. Conservatives have been treated like outcasts since Trump’s election, “told to shut up, sit down, do nothing,” she says. “We’re frustrated. We’re the ones constantly being harassed.” She’s especially upset with California Rep. Maxine Waters (D), who this week publicly called on her supporters to heckle members of Trump’s Cabinet wherever they find them. (Other Democratic officials have since disagreed with Representative Waters.)
“That’s incredibly reckless,” says Brown, a staunch Trump supporter who chairs the Republican Committee of Virginia’s 6th District, which includes Rockbridge County.
So while she doesn’t approve of some of the tactics being used against the Red Hen, and certainly against other Lexington businesses, Brown says she’s hardly surprised. And folks do have a right to express their displeasure, as long as they keep it decent and legal – like with the Red Hen boycott that the state GOP has called for.
Does she see an end to all this?
“Either it’s going to come to a head, or we’re going to have to start saying, ‘OK, let’s sit down and talk again,’ ” Brown says between careful bites of her seared salmon sandwich. “All sides are going to have to be willing to have the conversation.
“But I think at this point, because everything is so heated, that people are going to draw the battle lines even deeper,” she says.
City folks, country neighbors
Lexington’s liberal-conservative divide neither begins nor ends with the incident at the Red Hen. Like in many former Confederate states, Civil War history comes alive in Virginia, and places like Lexington – blue islands in red seas – regularly become flashpoints for conflict. In 2011, protesters rallied at a park downtown against an ordinance that prohibited the official flying of the Confederate battle flag alongside the US, state, and city flags.
In January last year, tensions again boiled over when a local advocacy group organized a march to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on his birthday. The Community Anti-Racism Education, or CARE, initiative, held the march on a Saturday – the same day that the town traditionally holds a celebration for Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
“There are these touchstone days throughout the year where something always happens and you’re kind of expecting it,” says Mr. Sirota, the university student.
Despite that, city folks have managed, for the most part, to keep peace with their county neighbors. “We row the same direction for economic prosperity,” says city councilman David Sigler. “The jobs need to be filled, people need to shop, we work together, our kids all go to school together.”
But there’s a sense about town that the community isn’t going to emerge unscathed from this incident, that what’s been unearthed can’t be reburied.
“I think it will certainly leave a scar,” says Michelle Watkins, chair of the Rockbridge County Democratic Committee. “Once the wound heals a bit, I think people will be willing to put most of that behind them and say, ‘OK, let's move forward now.’ But that’s a lesson learned, and the goal will be to not repeat it.”
There’s also some bitterness. No one likes to be made an example of, residents say. And while the next big headline can’t come soon enough – everyone’s sure that it’s only a matter of time before America moves on to a new scandal – some are unhappy with the D.C. political and media machines.
“There’s this kind of constant stream of things coming out of Washington that lasts maybe a day or so that are creating the storms, but that have much more lasting effects in the places where the events actually happen,” Sirota says. “There's just a lack of regard for consequences in general.”
“When they say ‘boycott Lexington businesses,’ they’re not realizing who they’re hurting,” says Scott, who runs the skincare service.
Hopkins, for whom Lexington has always been home, views the days ahead with a blend of fear and hope. She worries that a rumored gathering of Bikers for Trump in Lexington on Saturday could turn violent, and is bracing for the long battle to reclaim the Blue Phoenix’s online presence.
At the same time, she’s heartened by the locals who are posting five-star reviews on the cafe’s pages in hopes of combating the slew of spiteful comments. And she recalls three instances – two on the phone and one online – where an exchange that started out hostile “ended up incredibly beautiful,” Hopkins says. “Those are the ones that I’m kind of holding on to, ’cause that’s what keeps me from completely losing all faith and hope in humanity.”
“I hope that this serves as an opportunity for all of us to reflect on what our first reactions were, what our solutions were, how we dealt with all of this,” she adds. “I have so much faith in this community and the people in it. We’re going to be fine.”
Staff writer Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report from Savannah, Ga.