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In nation at war with itself, one town tries cup of civility

January 1, 2022 GMT
Cafe owner Maureen Donnelly Morris is shown behind the counter at Back Street Brews, on Dec. 16, 2021, in Lovettsville, Va., a gathering spot where neighbors of all political persuasions come together for coffee and civil chat. In the neighborhood, the mix of pro-Trump signs, gay-pride rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter banners speaks to a striking diversity in political views and an undercurrent of tension that plays out unfiltered on Facebook. But in this "coffee bubble," left, right, red and blue get along. (AP Photo/Cal Woodward)
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Cafe owner Maureen Donnelly Morris is shown behind the counter at Back Street Brews, on Dec. 16, 2021, in Lovettsville, Va., a gathering spot where neighbors of all political persuasions come together for coffee and civil chat. In the neighborhood, the mix of pro-Trump signs, gay-pride rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter banners speaks to a striking diversity in political views and an undercurrent of tension that plays out unfiltered on Facebook. But in this "coffee bubble," left, right, red and blue get along. (AP Photo/Cal Woodward)
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Cafe owner Maureen Donnelly Morris is shown behind the counter at Back Street Brews, on Dec. 16, 2021, in Lovettsville, Va., a gathering spot where neighbors of all political persuasions come together for coffee and civil chat. In the neighborhood, the mix of pro-Trump signs, gay-pride rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter banners speaks to a striking diversity in political views and an undercurrent of tension that plays out unfiltered on Facebook. But in this "coffee bubble," left, right, red and blue get along. (AP Photo/Cal Woodward)

LOVETTSVILLE, Va. (AP) — When Maureen Donnelly Morris came from nearby Leesburg to open her café in Lovettsville, neighbors rallied to her aid. Divisions ripping at their town and their country were set aside. America’s thunderous rage felt distant.

People she didn’t know sank posts for her parking signs. They brought lights for the cheery space outdoors, sharpened her bagel-slicing blades and contributed plants, all to herald what would become the town’s civil common ground, Back Street Brews.

Forget, at least for one split second, red, blue, left, right, pro-Trump, anti-Trump. No one asked the woman from Leesburg: Which side are you on?

In this northern Virginia community of some 2,200 and others like it across the United States, neighborly ways and social ties persist, even in a country that seems to be at war with itself.

It’s a quieter force than all the yelling that is driving Americans apart. But the redemption of a nation and future of its democracy may depend on it as the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol approaches.

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At least in the café, says Moe, as she’s known, “You’re allowed to be a Republican and I don’t hate your guts. And you’re allowed to be a Democrat and hopefully you like me if I’m not.”

That sentiment can no longer be taken for granted.

The U.S. is split in nearly every way. Shared sacrifice seems to be an artifact. Americans are conspicuously not “all in this together,” as the pandemic cliché claims. There’s no common set of facts.

Politics has become “Mortal Kombat, the video game,” said Fiona Hill, who served three presidents as a Russia analyst. “You have to kind of slay your enemy,” she said. “It’s all basically framed as win-loss, victory-defeat, red versus blue, different factions and shades of blue fighting with themselves.”

That’s the warring America.

There’s another, quieter, America, too. It asks about the family. It commiserates about the water bill and shoots the breeze. It’s a place where people who can be Facebook-nasty are face-to-face polite. Often it meets over coffee.

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‘BLESS YOU’

There’s no question that Donald Trump drove people farther into their corners and that the one-two punch of political distancing and social distancing has taken a toll.

Trump and the pandemic “pretty much ripped a hole through the center of town,” says Kris Consaul, a left-leaning activist and a former Lovettsville planning commissioner.

Into the breach came Back Street Brews, which set up in a building shared with a craft store in late 2017, then expanded in 2021 to fill the space. It became the town’s social hub.

Worship groups, a new-moms’ group and other coffee klatches took root. Political discussions pop up, though rarely a heated argument. When you sneeze in one cubbyhole, a stranger in another calls out, “Bless you.”

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“It’s not really a pot-stirrer kind of place,” said Moe, who turns a brilliant smile on everyone. “I just don’t invite it. And if it comes up, you know, as long as it’s respectful, you can talk about whatever your beliefs are. I don’t care. If you are a staunch this or staunch that, I always say, keep that out of here.”

John Ferguson, a retired foreign service officer, contributed flags and solar lights to Back Street on Lovettsville’s Pennsylvania Avenue, a lane barely wide enough for two cars. He was massively relieved when Trump vacated the white house on that other Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington.

When it comes to defending the integrity of elections and guarding against more insurrections, he said, “I don’t think you can pussyfoot around right now and certainly not for as long as Trump is on the scene.”

But what of the Democrats?

“They are treating Trump voters as if they’re stupid,” Ferguson said. “That’s a huge mistake. It’s tremendously dangerous to alienate them.”

Consultant Erik Necciai once worked as an aide to Democrats and Republicans on a Senate committee. He knows about bipartisanship. He’s also handy with a shovel.

So when another neighbor made wooden posts for Back Street’s parking, Necciai bought the concrete, dug the holes and poured the footings.

“It’s very hard to have conversations nowadays in public spaces,” he said. But he said café patrons recently fell into a discussion about U.S. relations with Russia and China. “Everybody’s opinion was greatly accepted,” he said. “I think we need a little bit more of that.”

Jessica Sullivan, a tarot-card reader who also works at Back Street, agrees: “I don’t need anybody to think the same things that I think in order for them to be a good person to me.”

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PERILS OF ‘MASKBOOK’

Still, Sullivan said, “we do have a kind of dark undercurrent at times” in the town.

In one provocation, a pro-Trump parade that came through town during the 2020 campaign diverted off the main street and stopped outside the home of Consaul and her wife, blaring horns to intimidate them.

The parade was an overt sign of friction. But behind the shield of social media, where you can spout an opinion and not have to look someone in the eye, the tone has been rabid.

In exchanges on the local Facebook group, a downtown home and family displaying multiple pro-Trump banners were denounced as a “Trump dump.” From the other side, vile insults have been flung at gay people and anyone on the left.

In that forum, “people feel more free to just say whatever they want and attack,” said the woman whose yard displays the pro-Trump sentiments of her husband and herself. “I’ve heard it all.” She asked not to be identified because of local tensions.

Off Facebook, the Trump supporter doesn’t hesitate to visit Back Street, sizing up Moe as “definitely down the middle.”

“We take our little one for milkshakes and things like that,” she said.

So do the radical lefties. So do the just plain people.

They’ll all shoot the breeze, ask about family, complain about the water bill or something.

Then it’s back to the ramparts. That’s America for you.

“It’s affecting people,” Moe said of the perils of this era. “Not me. Not in my bubble. We’re going to be fine, everyone! We’re going to land on our feet in my coffee bubble.”