LEXINGTON — A man drove past The Red Hen in Lexington on Tuesday afternoon and tossed a bucket of chicken manure on the sidewalk beside the restaurant and shouted “make America great again,” according to police.
He was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, the only arrest that day outside the still-closed restaurant. A few dozen protesters, onlookers and police gathered outside the restaurant, which has been closed since Friday, when the owner Stephanie Wilkinson declined to serve White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The episode triggered a sharp divide in reactions in the country, from people praising Wilkinson for standing up to the Trump administration to criticism over a lack of civility toward someone with opposing political opinions.
“I think by [Wilkinson] making the choice to do this, she opened herself up to a fired-up country,” Paulette DelCasale, from Georgia, said while protesting outside the restaurant.
The Lexington Red Hen has been blasted on social media with negative reviews and calls for boycotts. The Republican Party of Virginia urged people to sign its boycott petition.
By Tuesday, Wilkinson stepped down as director of Main Street Lexington, which works to improve the city’s downtown.
“Considering the events of the past weekend, Stephanie felt it best that for the continued success of Main Street Lexington, she should step aside,” said Elizabeth Branner, president of the Main Street Lexington Board of Directors.
The restaurant is expected to remain closed until the middle of next week, Wilkinson’s friends said.
Outside the restaurant at 11 E. Washington St. Tuesday evening, protesters waved flags bearing the message “TRUMP Make America Great Again” and stood with a campaign sign for U.S. Senate Republican candidate Corey Stewart. One man carried two anti-gay signs, one saying, “Homos are full of demons.”
Wilkinson has only talked to The Washington Post, telling the newspaper that several restaurant employees are gay and knew Sanders had defended Trump’s desire to ban transgender people from the military. She told the Post that Sanders worked for an “inhumane and unethical” administration.
“This feels like a moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals,” Wilkinson said.
President Donald Trump pounced on The Red Hen on Monday, posting on Twitter about the “filthy canopies, doors and windows” of the restaurant, saying, “if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!”
The restaurant does not appear to be either dirty or in any state of disrepair, and its most recent health inspection shows no violations.
Police shut down the street for about two hours. Once they reopened the block, people began to disperse.
“People have the right to exercise free speech, and we’re just here to make sure it doesn’t go beyond that,” Lexington Police Chief Sam Roman said.
Lexington is a politically blue spot surrounded by a sea of red. It went with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the 2016 president election by a 2-1 margin. As the burial site of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Lee-Jackson Day festivities stoke strong emotions and debate.
“I believe this city is losing its identity,” said Simon Islam, a senior at Washington and Lee University, which is in Lexington. “It’s become too liberal, and it’s had a negative impact.”
John Findlay, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, showed up with a roll of Trump 2020 stickers.
Not aware the restaurant was still closed, he said he was going to try and get a table and see if he’d be kicked out of the restaurant.
Throughout downtown Lexington, employees at businesses said they didn’t want to comment on the controversy for fear of widespread backlash, including potentially from Trump.
The nearby Blue Phoenix Cafe & Market posted on Facebook on Monday that it supports The Red Hen.
“The hateful speech, threats, and actions that have been perpetrated against our community are the sole responsibility of the perpetrators themselves,” the post read. “That burden does not belong to the staff or owners of The Red Hen. If you believe in personal responsibility as firmly as I do, then it is up to all of us to respond with integrity to this toxic outpouring and hold these individuals accountable for the harm that they deliberately inflict on our neighbors and community.”
Friends said the attacks on The Red Hen and Wilkinson have been unfair and not an accurate depiction of who she is.
“She’s an amazing person with a big heart,” said Michelle Watkins, chairwoman of the Rockbridge County Democratic Committee.