I went to visit the man who hoisted a Nazi flag above his SF mansion
San Francisco, yesterday afternoon.
They came in cars and trucks, by bike and on foot to ask the the owner of a stately restored Tudor home in San Francisco why he decided to mark the election of Donald Trump by flying a Nazi flag from his rooftop.
I was one of the homely few who came by foot. Standing in front of an iron gate before an impressive hilltop home, I pressed a doorbell button set in an intercom beneath a fisheye camera. I was sweating from the climb up one of those San Francisco hills that normally defies all through traffic. Today it had already seen an inordinate number of visitors.
Photographs of the flag had been tearing up Twitter for a couple of hours by the time I made my pilgrimage to ground zero of the meme. By that time, at the request of his neighbor, the owner of the house had already crossed the leather floors of his second floor “grand hall” and lowered the fluttering Swastika. In its place he hoisted the cheerful bear and rainbow of the California Pride flag (below).
The encounter with the neighbor had been filmed by at least one local news outlet, which was about to hit publish just as the man emerged from his home to speak with me. The homeowner is in his forties with straggly long gray hair, dressed casually all in black. He doesn’t speak as he walks the red brick path under the blue atlas cedar to his front gate. I introduce myself as a reporter and he nods, stands in the open gateway, just beside the Snowden/Manning 2016 sign staked in his yard.
He declines to give his name and gives his occupation as “retired.” In this neighborhood, a stone’s throw down a steep hill from Mark Zuckerberg’s San Francisco residence, that can only mean just about one thing. And it does. He’s a tech guy. Specifically, a privacy conscious former technician for a privacy avenging stock market darling. “I don’t want to give my name, but it’s all over, you can Google it,” he says. As it happens I did: his name is Frederick Roeber, and it turns out he has worked for Google. Perhaps more interestingly, he is also one of the earliest developers of the World Wide Web.
And he has a very German name, which hasn’t been much of a problem in America for about 70 years, at least for those who don’t fly Nazi flags from their historic mansions.
The idea, Roeber told me, was to make a statement about the similarity between this historical moment and that of mid-twentieth century Europe.
“I wanted to compare the president elect to other leaders from Europe, mostly to Il Duce, but they didn’t have a very good flag.” He’d used the same line on other reporters earlier in the afternoon, workshopping it, and by now had settled on the delivery. “It was satire that got taken out of context. What is it they say, bad news travels around the world before good news gets its boots on?” He added that he collects flags, and uses them for events that he puts on.
There was bad news coming his way. Soon after we spoke, a 2008 San Francisco Examiner story began to circulate reporting that the fountain in Roeber’s “entry courtyard” had been a gift of that very same Il Duce to one of the house’s former owners, at one time an eye doctor for the Mussolini’s. (A deeper dive into the Examiner archives reminds us that the paper's previous owner, Hearst newspapers, published a series of editorials by Herman Goering starting in 1933.)
The Examiner doesn't appear to have covered the Nazi flag story at all. But even many of the local outlets that did report it, stopped short of digging into the significance of the house being originally built for the mistress of then-mayor “Sunny” Jim Rolph. That’s a shame, because it’s an interesting story:
Rolph was a Republican former shipping magnate and director of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the city’s longest running mayor, who presided over the massive build-out of the Panama Pacific Exhibition and died in the office of California governor in the summer of 1934. A month later his successor ordered the national guard to collaborate with Pinkerton types to round up striking longshoremen and suppress the city’s general strike with federal issue truck-mounted machine guns.
Given all this pedigree, Roeber’s decision to fly a Nazi flag on Wednesday morning above this particular house belies the wisdom of Rolph’s predecessor as mayor, James Phelan, who said “Fools build houses for wise men to live in” (and went on to win a U.S. Senate seat under the campaign slogan “Keep California White”).
Local news outlets continued to chase the story that had broken hours earlier on social media, chasing it to its slightly more nuanced death. Roeber mentioned that he’d already been visited by several news vans and even the KPIX “Chopper Five”. Another helicopter flew into range as we spoke. As I walked back down the hill, it hovered into position, and another news van lurched up the incline.
The case of the vexing vexillologist in posh San Francisco microhood was social media dynamite, his choice of the morning’s flag like an IED precisely placed on this day of days to blow up Twitter feeds and the lumbering treads of the legacy news vehicles.
The last remains of local newspapers and TV affiliates burned fuel and money to chase an inflammatory meme which originated on the social platforms responsible for their death. The virality of the story assured a steady stream of reporters and angry citizens trudging up the hill for answers from a man who worked at CERN and then Netscape in the early years of the web.
The undebunked image of the waving swastika continued to circulate online into the evening, delivering ad impressions at the pace of conversations that grew tangentially more toxic. Twitter’s stock price continued to inch up from its most recent crater, a climb that began right around the time of Donald Trump’s acceptance speech.