Swastika masks worn at my hometown Walmart. What’s going on?

What is going on at my hometown Walmart? On Saturday, the first day of Minnesota’s mandatory mask mandate, a man and a woman went shopping at the Walmart in Marshall — population 15,000 — wearing masks with swastikas. 

In a video posted to Facebook, the man calmly pays for items — including toilet paper and a tub of cheese balls — while the woman responds to shoppers challenging her: “If you vote for Biden you’re gonna be living in Nazi Germany, that’s what it’s going to be like. Socialism is gonna happen here in America!” She gestured with both middle fingers and later blew an air kiss from behind her mask.

The video was posted by Raphaela Mueller, a 24-year-old local Lutheran vicar. “I audibly gasped,” Mueller said in a phone interview with CBS News, explaining she first saw the pair with the swastika masks in the kitchen section. She proceeded to the customer service desk to inform management and by then, the couple was nearby checking out.

Mueller’s partner, Benjamin Ruesch, yelled at the pair. “You’re sick! Yeah, you’re sick. You can’t be American and wear that mask…we literally had a war about this.”

The woman said, “You’re not getting it, I’m not a Nazi.”

“Then why are you wearing the f**king mask?” Mueller asked. 

“Because I’m trying to tell you if you vote for Biden this is what you are going to have, socialism!”

The local police were called and a police department official told CBS News the 59-year-old man and 64-year-old woman were issued “trespass notices,” which Walmart confirmed means they are not allowed in any Walmart facility for at least one year.

CBS News has not been able to identify the pair and their names were not shared by the police department.

Walmart said in a statement provided to CBS News, “What happened today at our store in Marshall, MN is unacceptable. We strive to provide a safe and comfortable shopping environment for all our customers and will not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment in any aspect of our business. We are asking everyone to wear face coverings when they enter our stores for their safety and the safety of others and it’s unfortunate that some individuals have taken this pandemic as an opportunity to create a distressing situation for customers and associates in our store.”

Walmart told CBS News a local manager tried to offer the couple disposable face masks but they declined.

Mueller said the history of the swastika and Nazi Germany is personal to her. She said she is a German citizen currently on visa to study seminary in the United States, and that she grew up hearing stories about her great-grandmother, Magdalena, a member of an underground Nazi-resistance organization called “The Red Chapel.”

In an American Walmart 75 years after the end of World War II, Mueller said she “was not prepared for seeing something like this with my own eyes” and said she only watched her recording once as it was too painful.

Marshall, a predominantly White town, has diversified in the past 40 years as home to growing Latino, east African, and Asian immigrants, but the Jewish community is very small.

Nonna Gutman, my high school math teacher who immigrated to America in 1991 with her family from the Soviet Union as a Jewish refugee, said her family accounts for “half of the Jewish population” in town.

Gutman said her first reaction to the video was “shock” but stated she thought the two were trying to drum up attention by incorrectly using the swastika to represent socialism, which Gutman argued must also be condemned.

“They used the Nazi swastika to bring attention to what they believe is bad. Do I approve swastika use for any reason? Absolutely not,” Gutman added. “It was somewhat comforting to me to see people objecting.”

The woman in the store said they are not Nazis, but the brazenness of the symbol’s public display comes at a time when anti-Semitic incidents of assault, vandalism and harassment are at the highest rate in the U.S. since 1979, the Anti-Defamation League noted in May. There were more than 2,000 such incidents in 2019, the ADL said. 

Joe Biden says  he decided to run for president after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where neo-Nazi and white supremacists killed one woman and injured dozens others after driving into the crowd of counter-protesters I had been following. 

With 100 days to go until the presidential election, the country is debating proper pandemic policies and how to move forward.

In the meantime, the message from local officials in Marshall is clear: Requiring that you wear a mask is not Nazism.

“This is a health issue, not a political issue,” said Bob Byrnes, the mayor of Marshall, Minnesota. “I think the vast majority of the people recognize that wearing a mask is the best way of controlling the spread of the virus.”

The display of racism will also continue to be investigated, the mayor said. 

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