Raphaela Mueller was strolling through Walmart on Saturday morning when a brief glimpse of two other shoppers in the Marshall, Minn., store stopped her dead in her tracks.
When the young couple again encountered the man and woman, who were indeed sporting bright red facial coverings that resembled the Nazi flag, Mueller had no trouble finding her voice.
Together with her partner, Benjamin Ruesch, Mueller confronted them, capturing the tense exchange in a now-viral video that has drawn widespread condemnation, including from prominent politicians such as Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D). The older pair, who were not formally identified, have since been banned from all Walmart stores for at least a year, the company confirmed to The Washington Post.
“Disgraceful, plain and simple,” Walz tweeted Sunday, sharing a news article about the clash. “Thank you to the bystanders who stood up to this unacceptable, hate-fueled behavior.”
Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) similarly denounced the pair for flaunting the hate symbol associated with the Nazis, tweeting, “This isn’t us. This isn’t the Minnesota I love.”
(The video below contains explicit language.)
Edit, since this is going much further than I thought it would (and the trolls and haters are starting to roll in): I was born and raised in Germany, and I grew up hearing about my great-grandmother who fought in the underground against the first wave of Nazis in the 1930s and 40s. Let me make this abundantly clear once and for all - THE SWASTIKA IS A HATE SYMBOL AND YOU DO NOT FLY THE FLAG, YOU DO NOT WEAR THE SYMBOL ANYWHERE ON YOUR BODY, YOU DO NOT USE OR DEFEND THIS SYMBOL, EVER. END OF STORY.Posted by Raphaela Mueller on Saturday, July 25, 2020
Saturday’s incident unfolded on the first day that Minnesota’s mask mandate took effect, requiring face coverings to be worn in businesses and indoor public spaces in an effort to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The start of statewide enforcement came more than a week after Walmart and several other large retailers announced masks would be mandatory in all U.S. stores.
As of early Monday, Minnesota had more than 51,000 reported coronavirus cases and 1,574 deaths, according to The Washington Post’s tracker.
Unlike in other cities, where explosive confrontations in stores or other businesses have stemmed from patrons refusing to wear masks, this time the fight centered on the message on the Minnesota couple’s face coverings, which Ruesch said created “an environment of terror for other citizens.”
“That this couple made it in [the Walmart] is appalling,” Ruesch, 29, told The Post late Sunday. “I identify as Christian, but if I were Jewish and I saw someone wearing a swastika, I can only surmise that I might feel that my life was in danger.”
When Ruesch and Mueller headed to Walmart in Marshall, a city of 13,500 in southwestern Minnesota, the last thing they expected to see was the man and woman shopping with large swastikas covering the lower half of their faces.
After recovering from the initial surprise, Mueller told The Post she and Ruesch swiftly abandoned their search for sparkling water and made a beeline for the store’s customer service desk hoping to find a manager.
“I was really agitated,” said Mueller, a vicar of a local parish.
Then, as Mueller paced angrily, waiting to express her concerns with Walmart management, she noticed the swastika-adorned couple had finished shopping — and had chosen the checkout station right in front of her.
In the moment, Mueller said she could only think of her great-grandmother, who had lived in Berlin during World War II and had been part of an underground resistance group.
“This is what my great-grandmother fought against,” she said. “If I don’t say something, what did she risk her life for?”
Mueller said she told the woman that she had been born and raised in Germany, and attempted to tell her why she shouldn’t display a swastika. When her comments appeared to have little effect, Mueller started recording.
In the roughly two-minute-long video, which was shared by Mueller to Facebook, a woman in a brown T-shirt raises both middle fingers at Mueller, Ruesch and another customer, who had joined the confrontation.
“You can’t be American and wear that mask,” Ruesch says in the background of the clip, calling the woman “sick.”
“You cannot,” he adds. “We literally had a war about this.”
The woman walks slowly toward the young couple, while her partner briefly lifts his arms in apparent defiance and keeps unloading items from their cart.
“I’m trying to tell people what’s going to happen in America,” the woman says. The man chimes in, “We’re living under a socialist state.”
“If you vote for Biden, you’re going to be living in Nazi Germany,” the woman continues, referring to former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. “That’s what it’s going to be like.”
Ignoring exclamations from Mueller and Ruesch, the woman keeps arguing, telling them that “socialism is going to happen here in America.”
“We don’t want you in our neighborhood,” the third customer tells the woman.
Raising her voice, the woman shouts back, “You’re not getting it, I’m not a Nazi.”
As the woman stalks away, Ruesch calls out, “It’s so incredibly offensive. You’re not an American if you wear that mask.”
Soon, police arrived at the Walmart and served the couple with trespass notices, the Star Tribune reported. The man and woman, who were only identified as being 59 and 64 years old respectively, were not cited or arrested and left the store without further incident, according to the Star Tribune.
A statement to The Post from Walmart called Saturday’s events “unacceptable.” The company added that store management had offered the man and woman disposable face masks, which they refused. The couple was then asked to leave after they “became belligerent,” the company said.
“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,” the statement said. “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.”
This month, there have been at least 20 reports of anti-Semitic incidents nationwide, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s online tracker. Swastikas have appeared in some form in a majority of the cases, which range from vandalism to “Zoom-bombing,” or the hacking of online gatherings taking place over video chats.
Despite some concerns that the man and woman wearing the swastika masks may have been looking to provoke reactions, Mueller and Ruesch said they stand by their decision to confront the couple, and hope their actions will inspire others who may find themselves in similar situations.
“It’s the job and the responsibility and the moral obligation of those who are able to speak up, to speak up when they see these types of flagrant displays of disrespect going on,” Ruesch said. “If we don’t speak up, who will?”