PHOENIX — A man waving a Nazi flag and shouting “Heil Hitler” was kicked out of a rally for Bernie Sanders on Thursday, a shocking incident targeting the man running to be the first Jewish president.
The flag, styled professionally in the actual designs of Nazi Germany, hung prominently over a banister at the 7,000-person Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the start of Sanders’ speech. The person stationed himself in the upper deck of the arena, behind where Sanders was speaking.
The man was shouting anti-Jewish slurs at Sanders and performing the Nazi salute, said Ron Mack, 40, an attendee at the rally who was sitting nearby. “He never put his arm down,” Mack said. “Everybody was in disbelief.”
Security removed the man from the event several seconds after he unfurled the flag. Mack, who spoke to BuzzFeed News the day after the rally, followed him outside to make sure he was removed, and the man shouted racial slurs at him, an incident that was captured on video.
On Friday morning, taking questions at the Phoenix airport, Sanders told reporters that he was “shocked” to learn about the flag from his staff.
“I speak not only as a Jewish American — I think I can speak for the families of some 400,000 American troops who died fighting Nazism, fighting fascism — that it is horrific," he said. “It is beyond disgusting to see that, in the United States of America, there are people who would show the emblem of Hitler and Nazism.”
Sanders said that he has seen plenty of protesters at his events over the years — many of them Trump supporters — “but this was something different,” he said, describing the swastika as “unspeakable” and the “most detestable symbol in modern history.”
On Friday afternoon, in a tweet, Biden wrote of the display at the Friday rally, "I don't care who you're supporting, attacks like this against a man who could be the first Jewish president are disgusting and beyond the pale."
The Anti-Defamation League identified the man as Robert Sterkeson, a white supremacist who has "harassed a range of Jewish and Muslim organizations and events," often posting the stunts on YouTube.
Sanders appeared to hear the commotion, turning to his right to look to the stands, but the flag had already been taken down. Aides told him about the incident after the rally.
Multiple protesters caused disruptions at the rally, including one who unfurled a “TRUMP” banner.
Video and pictures of the incident spread on Instagram and Twitter.
The incident comes at a time of increasing concern about the rise of white nationalism in the country and a rise in anti-Semitic incidents, including deadly synagogue shootings. For Sanders and his team, it also comes weeks after prominent media figures described his rise in terms the candidate and his supporters have found to be anti-Semitic.
Last month on MSNBC, Chris Matthews compared Sanders to the German occupation of France in World War II, and left the channel this week after a string of missteps. Last week, in graphics on a segment put together by CNN’s Michael Smerconish, the host asked: “Can Either Coronavirus or Bernie Sanders Be Stopped?”
At the urging of his advisers, Sanders has spoken more openly this year about his background as the son of a struggling working-class Jewish family in Brooklyn much more explicitly than when he ran for the Democratic nomination four years ago. Earlier Thursday, his campaign released its latest video highlighting that. “I would be very proud to be the first Jewish president,” Sanders tweeted. He has spoken about how his Jewish heritage affects him “profoundly” and of visiting Poland, where much of his father’s family was murdered in the Holocaust.
Sanders’ father came to the US from Poland at the age of 17 to “to escape widespread anti-Semitism,” as Sanders put it during his campaign launch speech in March. The Vermont senator, born in 1941, has described growing up with an acute awareness that his father’s immediate family “was wiped out by Hitler and Nazi barbarism” during the Holocaust.
Over the last month, as he’s traveled across the county, Sanders has been preoccupied with and deeply angered by the media comparisons to the Nazi army and coronavirus, raising the issue publicly with reporters and privately with his advisers.
Before taking off for Arizona for his first rally since a disappointing finish on Super Tuesday, Sanders spoke to reporters at the airport in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont, describing the comparisons by the “corporate media” as “unprincipled” and “terrible.”
“You’re talking about a candidate who had to listen to somebody say that our supporters are brown shirts — that’s Nazi supporters. What a disgrace,” he told reporters. “A candidate who described a victory that we had as Nazis invading France.”
“You had on one of the TV stations the question, which is what the media is preoccupied with, ’How do we stop Bernie Sanders! We gotta stop the coronavirus and we gotta stop Bernie Sanders,” he said, feigning panic and alarm. “What a terrible thing.”
Sanders, who now faces a two-person race against Joe Biden after a stunningly fast turn of events in the Democratic primary over the last two weeks, has spent the days since his losses in 10 states in Super Tuesday airing grievances about the corporate media, appealing to reporters to cover the race as a debate of ideas.
“That’s the frame,” he said of the “Stop Sanders” coverage Thursday morning. “Not, my god, ‘You have a candidate who’s trying to bring working people [into] the political process.’”
Neither Sanders nor Biden is traveling with the protection of the US Secret Service — a somewhat atypical setup at this point in the primary for two major political figures. (During his first presidential run four year ago, Sanders received Secret Service protection at the start of voting in the Democratic primary, around the time of the Iowa caucus in February.)
Sanders said on Friday that he isn’t sure when or if his campaign will receive USSS protection, but that he did not feel “unsafe” at the Phoenix rally.
In response to a question about their plans for the Sanders and Biden campaigns, a Secret Service spokesperson pointed to a Thursday statement that from communications director Cathy Milhoan who called the idea that the agency is "unprepared for candidate protection" is "categorically false."
The statement outlines the process by which candidates receive protection, beginning with their formal request. "To date, the Department has not received a request for protection," the statement concludes.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Sanders said he believed his staff had been in contact with the Department of Homeland Security about receiving protection.
On Wednesday, the day after protesters rushed the stage at Biden’s Super Tuesday event in Los Angeles, House Homeland Security Committee Chair Rep. Bennie Thompson asked the Department of Homeland Security to add both candidates to the USSS roster. “I think it’s an unfortunate sign of the times in 2020 — a white supremacist showing up at a public event with a swastika,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League. “They need to make sure they have adequate security at their campaign events.”
“I don't agree with all Bernie's ideas, for sure, but he's the highest-profile Jewish candidate running for the presidency and it's, albeit unsurprising, it's alarming to see the anti-Semitism being directed at him," he said.