LEXINGTON, Va. — A quiet Tuesday afternoon here transformed into a raucous demonstration when people gathered outside the Red Hen to protest the restaurant's treatment of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Some carried enormous President Donald Trump flags and donned red "Make America Great Again" hats. Others carried signs asking for tolerance and civility. And as the action escalated, many just turned up to watch.
Lexington, a small town tucked in the Shenandoah Mountains, earned national attention when Stephanie Wilkinson, the owner of the Red Hen, asked Sanders to leave the restaurant last Friday night.
"I’m appalled at the way they treated the press secretary, and I think if people don’t make a stand, that kind of stuff will continue around the state and around the country," said Ian McDonald, 34, of Accomack County. "So we've got to send a message that it’s not acceptable."
MacDonald was one of the first to set up shop outside the Red Hen on Tuesday. Protests had been planned for that afternoon in advance of the restaurant's usual opening at 5:00 p.m. on Tuesdays.
But soon, word spread that the restaurant would stay closed. Justin Peery, the owner of Good Place Farms Bed & Breakfast — which hosted the Sanders family last week — said Wilkinson will not reopen the restaurant until July 5.
That didn't dampen the protests, which grew increasingly contentious when a handful of Westboro Baptist Church-style preachers arrrived with megaphones and signs bearing slogans like "Unless They Repent, Let God Burn Them."
The preachers sparked multiple shouting matches and the arrival of the police. Original protesters actively tried to distance themselves from the preachers, crossing the street when one preacher began shouting into his microphone. Bystanders commented that Lexington had never seen anything like it.
"They [the preachers] get painted as the Trump supporters, and the far left, who do they hate? They hate us," said Paulette Delcasale, of Georgia, who had traveled to Lexington to protest the restaurant's treatment of Sanders.
Though the crowd outside the restaurant overwhelmingly leaned Trump, a few people were there for different reasons. Anthony Warn, who voted against Trump and believes his administration is based on "exclusion and demeaning other people," brought his sons Nicholas and Owen, ages 7 and 9, to the protest to teach them a lesson about free speech.
"We like this town and this is an interesting exercise in what makes our country great," he said.
Eventually, protesters gathered so thickly that police blocked off a section of the road. Some had carefully planned for the event — Mary Harvey-Halseth, 64, carried a sign that read "Red Hen Needs Diversity Training" that she'd made after buying craft materials at CVS.
"It’s a shame that Lexington has to be put on the map like this, it’s not us," she said. "We want you to come here and eat in our restaurants."
But others seemed to trickle in casually, just looking for the spectacle. Lisa Krepalka and her husband, James, of Charlotte, had wanted to eat at the Red Hen, but settled for a picture outside after learning it was closed.
"It’s gonna be a landmark," Krepelka said. "It’s on the news, and everyone’s talking about it."