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Swastika mask incident turns spotlight on Marshall

MARSHALL — The past couple of days had been busy, Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes said Monday. By his count, he had been contacted by three different TV stations from Minnesota, and one national network. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for positive reasons.

Starting on Saturday night, Marshall was suddenly getting national scrutiny after video of a man and a woman wearing swastika face masks at the Marshall Walmart location went viral on social media. In the video, the couple was confronted by other shoppers. Marshall Police said the two were issued trespassing notices banning them from coming back to Walmart for a year, but no criminal charges were filed.

Police said the people in the swastika masks were Marshall residents, but their names were not released. Police said they wanted to avoid possible incidents of retaliation against the couple.

“In one sense, this is an important issue,” Byrnes said of the incident. Two people exercising their freedom of expression came into conflict with the need for the Marshall community to be a welcoming place for everyone. But at the same time, Byrnes said, it was a local issue that probably didn’t need prolonged national attention.

Byrnes said it was also important to remember that Minnesota’s order to wear face masks in public places like stores was a public health issue, and not a political one.

Earlier this year, the city of Marshall unveiled a new branding effort for the city, with the statement “Cultivating the Best In Us.” In March, city representatives said local residents wanted to highlight factors like the Marshall community’s willingness to work together to grow and improve.

Byrnes said the city would continue to work to represent those values. But Byrnes said the mask incident highlighted the need to balance the community’s values and goals — like respecting different viewpoints, but also including and welcoming people.

“That’s really the challenge,” Byrnes said. The city’s ability to grow and thrive is tied to being a welcoming community, he said.

Byrnes said he thought the actions taken by Walmart and local law enforcement on Saturday were appropriate.

“The fact is, two people did something most of us find disagreeable, but not illegal,” Byrnes said. The issue then escalated to the point where it caused a disruption in the store, he said.

Marshall City Administrator Sharon Hanson said she didn’t think the people in the swastika masks were representative of the Marshall community.

“I think they’re an outlier,” she said. While Marshall, like all communities, can grow and improve, the amount of attention the incident at Walmart received wasn’t really productive, Hanson said. “There’s a lot of wasted energy responding to the negative.” The extra attention could just end up amplifying the masked couple’s views, she said.

Byrnes said he had heard some concerns from local residents, partly because of the timing of the mask incident. The confrontation at Walmart happened on the same day that a second act of vandalism was reported at a community art display in memory of George Floyd. “The two incidents are not connected,” Byrnes said, but the concerns over both tie into people’s desire to stop intolerant actions in the community.

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