It’s only been five days since the Red Hen’s owner Stephanie Wilkinson refused service to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family in quiet Lexington, Virginia. What followed next was five days of raucous outroar of epic, nay, biblical proportions.
Not wanting to miss the action, RVA Magazine arrived in Lexington on Wednesday morning to dig the vibe. Tempers were running hot and expectations were looking grim–a certain sting was in the air. The protests the day before saw one arrest and a hot mess of chicken shit (yes, actual chicken feces) splashed across the restaurant doors. Outside the Red Hen early Wednesday afternoon, there was already a group standing outside its doors.
When asked if they knew anything about the protests, they turned heads in silence. Their neck-bearded honcho stepped up aggressively, saying, “We’re out for a walk, and our business is our own.”
One teen sporting a puke red MAGA hat, unable to hold in his excitement, chimed in. Calling the actions of the restaurant a disgrace, he was hopeful for a reckoning to come. He alluded to “tonight’s festivities.”
Wilkinson was very open about her reasons for denying service to Huckabee-Sanders, including criticisms of Trump administration’s “inhumane and unethical” actions over the transgender military ban and separating children from their families at the border. She was not alone in her decision making, however; many of her employees and surrounding business owners shared her sentiment. Yet standing up in a sea of red can incentivize the most radical among them, and although her intentions were well-meaning, her actions brought a financial plague to a town that can’t afford it.
We focus on credible threats,” said Lexington Chief of Police Samuel Roman. “We are keeping in contact with the restaurant on when they plan on opening up again so we may coordinate a proper strategy.
The Red Hen has not reopened since the fiasco started last Friday. The small town of maybe 7,000, known primarily for the Virginia Military Institute, was eerily quiet. Everyone was preparing for the protest, which would start at 5 p.m. in front of the restaurant.
“I will not commend the actions taken by the protestors nor do I agree with what they stood by, but it was their First Amendment right to be there,” Roman said when asked if the town had tried to block the protests. “All we can really only try to keep a pulse on what is going on, as to keep citizens informed.” Roman said that many of the calls received were not threats, but concerns. “Most just want to know what’s going on.”
Roman said the police department is keeping in contact with the restaurant, but indicated that the establishment would be closed “indefinitely”, at least until the issue died down.
While Wilkinson had refused the service in a respectful manner, Sanders took to social media as a personal offense, inciting Trump and far-right proponents to call for the indefinite boycott of the Red Hen restaurant and resignation of Wilkinson.
As of yesterday, the president’s supporters got their wish. According to NBC 10 in Lexington, Wilkinson resigned from the ownership of the Red Hen, as well as her position as director of Main Street Lexington, a community-based civic organization.
National news loves a good story, especially when Trump’s Twitter account is involved. But what being in Lexington proved was that for the most part, the community supported her actions.
When asked by RVA Mag for comment, a passerby at Main Street Lexington declined to comment, saying they had received hate mail and threats. Yet Diana Scofield, owner of local business Rockbridge Music, was certain Wilkinson was pressured to resign. “The people next door said as long as she was the director of downtown, they were going to boycott downtown Lexington, but do you think they really would?” said Scofield.
Many supporters of Huckabee-Sanders and Trump have credited this incident to be an egregious display of hatred and discrimination but also hypocritical of the opposition, with citations to the recent Supreme Court ruling favoring the Colorado baker who refused service to a gay couple.
This outrage was on display outside the Red Hen when a gaggle of MAGA hat-wearing teens informed me about “tonight’s festivities.”
Lexington is a blue city in a red county, situated in the center of Virginia’s conservative heartland. Some residents were quick to discredit the protests of the Red Hen, yet there was a pervasive and underlying concern when discussing the very real issues of hate mail and threats to other business owners in the area – no doubt exacerbated by Trump’s very public condemnation.
Regardless of their respective politics, businesses owners have all felt an unnerving anticipation of what might happen next. Scofield, from Rockbridge Music, has been met with mixed responses since the start of this, her quotes blasted on national headlines by the Washington Post less than a day ago. “I expected a lot of hate mail, but there was surprisingly a lot of people supporting me and what I said,” she said.
Scofield played an encouraging voicemail she received shortly after her statements appeared in the Washington Post. The message, intended for Wilkinson, was not what they expected.
A chef based out of Oxford, Mississippi, inspired by Wilkinson’s stance, said he would help cover her operating costs since the restaurant’s closure, and offered to send staff and produce to make up for any losses. The message said, “I could put together a group of folks to maybe pitch in and help offset the costs of payroll for the employees that are affected, we’re more than happy to help.”
Many business owners and clerks that were approached in Lexington refused to be interviewed. They continue to receive calls and emails from people across the country–a consistent theme with most business owners.
Siobhan Bezza, a store clerk who works adjacent to Red Hen, witnessed the protestors narrative quickly digress into nonsense, far removed from the original issue.
“What happened there is its own separate issue, but its become this magnet for hate,” said Bezza. “[They are saying] I love Trump, I hate gays, abortions are bad. They’re just going on this extended rant of hate. Because of that one incident, they get to use [it] as a catalyst for hate.”
When asked if she knew the employees at the Red Hen, she was quick to respond. “I love them, I run into them in the back all the time, and they are the kindest–pretty much my coworkers,” she said. “I think [Wilkinson] had every right to take a stand like that.”
With a long history of run-ins with confederate revivalists like the Virginia Flaggers, Lexington has seen a lot of public outrage in recent years. Scofield believes these protests are trivial, but thinks the real issues are getting lost in the melee.
“It is pretty cruel to separate children from their families, but I have talked to people who defend that, say that it’s a deterrent,” she said. “It’s a deterrent at the hands of people who are too little to defend themselves and that is not the kind of country we want to be.”
Despite the city’s unusual political juxtaposition, Scofield believes civil disagreement is an inevitable part of life.
“I’m really good friends with the guys next door. They’re Trump supporters, they’re country boys,” she said. When asked if they planned on going to the protest, she quickly said no.
“They race trucks and cars, they’re nice guys but also the kind that gets taken advantage of by Trump and his administration.” said Scofield. She said the same of the few other Trump supporters in the town, carrying an opinion for them–they’re into race cars, not race wars.
According to Roman, the protests have been an outsourced problem, as those protesting are not locals. “The guy who threw the vat of chicken manure onto the restaurant wasn’t even from here, he was from West Virginia.”
The number of protesters yesterday were fewer than the day before, yet the honcho protesting the Red Hen, spitting nonsensical bible verses, was from West Virginia as well. No matter what level he took his damnations, the community just laughed and endured–the genteel Virginia character on full display.
Ultimately, the community made their decision, and while many avoided the drama of the national spotlight, there was a consensus that hate speech, threats, and intimidation do not demonstrate their personal values. Small towns are not like cities, disagreements and opposition do not go unnoticed. Many do not take to the internet to spill their woes, they settle differences in person. Maybe as a nation we could learn from Lexington’s stint of fame, where even under the national spotlight, residents separate civil disagreement from bigotry and see it as a necessary means to achieve harmony.