The month of October is notoriously famous for eliciting kitschy slogans and glossy advertising inspired by Halloween. So it might not be that peculiar for a New Jersey pizzeria owner to use a Halloween-inspired theme for a political event supporting Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders. While that “debate watch” party, titled “Bern the Witch,” was considered successful and well-received, the slogan itself has generated an entirely different, and perhaps unexpected, reaction.“As a witch, I find this form of supporting Bernie particularly outrageous. Do they not know the history of the witch killings? How is this remotely acceptable? […] This slogan promotes hatred and ignorance towards women and their history. As if women did not struggle enough with this already, ” wrote MysticRaven publicly on Facebook.
In a message to The Wild Hunt, pizzeria owner Joe Smith did confirm reports that it was his event that used the slogan first. As he explained to a Vocativ reporter,”I’m not criticizing [Hillary Clinton] because she’s a woman, her policies and her career are disastrous for working people. […] If people wanna look at it one way or another they can. I’m looking to win.[…] I think we need to be on the offensive.”
The debate watch party, held at Smith’s PieZano Pizza Kitchen, was to kick-off a “3 1/2 month victory effort to win the Iowa Caucus.” That party was advertised on the Bernie Sanders official website as an event, along with other independently-sponsored listings.
The slogan itself was first used on social media in relation to Sanders campaign on Oct 13.
BERN THE WITCH. Get her, Bernie! #bernthewitch
— Matt the Ape (@monkeymarv) October 14, 2015
The Thrill Society capitalized on Smith’s slogan by launching a corresponding line of products at Zazzle. The logo contains a witch flying across a yellow circle, or the moon, with Clinton’s face.
Protests and complaints were not published until nearly five months after the initial event. In early February, The Huffington Post published an article titled “Bern the Witch Hunters.” It reads: “Even the beloved chorus of ‘Feel the Bern’ has been warped and twisted from its original context, abrogated to the more violent and misogynistic chant of “Bern the witch!”
The first Twitter complaint did not appear until March 1.
@mistresscurvy I’d like to apply the joke “Bern the witch” somehow but feel it might be inflammatory.
— Ahab (@ahab99) March 2, 2016
A second complaint followed March 11, after which the proverbial flood gates opened. Most of those protests use words like misogynistic, misguided and viciously sexist. Some Clinton supporters are demanding an apology.
Kenya Coviak, a journalist and Witch living in Michigan, told The Wild Hunt:
The tone and historical bigotry, casually used as humor, show a callous and ignorant misogyny and pathology systemically present in the very fabric of the cloth of our electorate that his platform rallies against. I do not have any indication that [Sanders] endorsed this misguided fringe concept. I base this on the fact that many Pagans here in Michigan are very active in supporting him, and if it were part of the color of his campaign culture in truth, this would not be so. It also is drastically out of line with his track record of social justice for everyone, and acceptance of everyone as equal humanity.
Since the protests began, the Sanders campaign has officially disavowed the slogan and the event page was removed. Campaign managers have made it clear that the original event was created independently, and was not officially endorsed like many of those listed on that portion of his site. Nor does the Sanders campaign endorse the Zazzle products and the logo. According to Vortiv, campaign manager Mike Casca said, “We have a team of people who scan and delete any events that are deemed inappropriate.This event was removed immediately from our system after its discovery and the user has been banned.”
Smith did confirm that he was banned. However, maintaining his political position, he added, “The ban is a formality because Clinton folks are marshmallows. “Bern the Witch” as a theme in the Halloween spirit is nothing compared to here policy attacks on women. If voters are claiming they are standing for women’s rights, then they must align with the sanders campaign to defeat Clinton.”
Regardless of intention and endorsement, the very creation and existence of the logo and slogan have left many feeling uncomfortable. Questions linger, such as why it took so long for a Sanders representative to notice and respond. Coviak said, “… Sanders’ campaign should have caught this […] It is clear that the front line people who are in charge of oversight had a distinct moment of totally not getting it.”
The Sanders campaign has not yet responded to our request for a statement.
While there are various theories attributing the slogan’s creation to any one of the many political groups currently campaigning both Democrat and Republican, the issue does appear to rest squarely on the shoulders of exuberant Sanders supporters. And this is not the first time.
In preparation for the Mississippi primary on March 8, Sanders supporters began using the hashtag #MississippiBerning, and that slogan has generated its own protests and social media backlash. Like “Bern the Witch,” the Mississippi slogan has been lingering quietly for quite some time. It was first used in July 2015 by Josh Telson, and has appeared sporadically over the past 8 months. The first complaint didn’t show up until Mar 8, when one user said, “#MississippiBerning is perhaps not the best hashtag to use me thinks.”
Huffington Post writer David Trumble concluded, “The equation seems to be that the nicer Bernie Sanders is, the more his supporters feel entitled to be mean in his name.”
Telson has since had to defend his original usage. In a Tweet, he said that he was just “making a film reference.” He added that it is the Sanders people using the hashtag to support Sanders that are the problem. As for Joe Smith, he has not received any personal attacks over the “Bern the Witch” slogan. He said that he has only gotten a few press calls and “a few phone calls from confused voters.”
Despite any frustrations with the slogan or hashtag, some voters are keeping things in a broader perspective with respect to their own political beliefs. Dana D. Eilers, author of Pagans and the Law, told the The Wild Hunt, “The Sanders Campaign disavowed this attempt to hijack one of the Sanders campaign slogans. We are Democrats, not Republicans.”
Both slogans, “Bern the Witch” and “#MississippiBerning,” have received more attention over the past two weeks through the protests than they ever did in their original usage. Without social media, the slogans might have died out in the halls of obscurity. However, this fact does not erase or trivialize the larger concerns expressed by many voters, who, like Coviak, see this as an example of the “misogyny and pathology” underlying the “fabric of the system.”
Still others are left wondering how far Sanders’ supporters will push and play with the official “Feel the Bern” concept, before it’s all over. As for Joe Smith, he did not confirm or deny if he’d use the “Bern the Witch” slogan again for a local October event. However, he did say that he likes to be “creative,” but at that point he’ll be preparing to take on the Republican candidate.