There’s a teaching moment in all the uproar over events at the Lincoln Memorial a week ago Friday. But what is it? The privilege and racism of white suburban Catholic boys? Trump-inspired disrespect of Native Americans and indigenous cultures? Confrontation and suppression of Free Speech? The polarization of politics? The power and danger of social media? The manipulations of Fake News? The tendency to judge and jump to conclusions?
Before answering this question I’ve been trying to figure out just WTF happened? I’ve read accounts of that day; read opinions, commentaries, Facebook discussions; listened to interviews; and looked at videos. I feel I have a sense now, but can’t be totally certain. There was a lot going on that day!
The story begins with students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School traveling to Washington D.C. where they participated in an anti-abortion rally. That afternoon they gathered at the Lincoln Memorial before returning home. A “confrontation” took place between the students and Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist and veteran of the Marine Corps Reserve. At one point Covington junior Nick Sandmann and Phillips stood facing each. Sandmann supposedly smirked at Phillips as he beat a drum. The image quickly went viral.
These are my observations and impressions as of this writing:
◼︎ Between the two, Sandmann gives the most consistent recounting of events. He issued a statement, albeit highly-polished with the assistance of a public relations firm, and was later interviewed personally by NBC (below).
◼︎ Phillips, on the other hand, has given varying and conflicting accounts. David Brooks pointed out that Phillips “told The Washington Post that he was singing a traditional song when the teenagers swarmed around him, some chanting, ‘Build that wall, build that wall.’ He decided the right thing to do was to get away. ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation.'” … and … “He told The Detroit Free Press that the incident started when the boys started attacking four African-Americans. So he decided to intervene. ‘There was that moment when I realized I’ve put myself between beast and prey. These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey.'” Looking at videos, it’s my perception that neither account is accurate. I wasn’t there, but I’ll explain.
◼︎ The videos appear to show Phillips approaching the students and walking right up to them. He told NBC that he was looking for a path out, found one, and then “from a clear space a person was there,” meaning Sandmann. The video shows a large clearing to the Lincoln Memorial which Phillips bypassed to instead walk up to the crowd of students.
◼︎ One account I read indicated that Sandmann wouldn’t budge from his position. If Phillips moved, Sandmann would move with him to block Phillips or at least stay in his face. I don’t see this in the videos. Once Phillips walked up to Sandmann they both appeared to remain planted.
◼︎ I never saw any physical action by Sandmann except to stand and smile. Was it a smile? A smirk? That’s left to the eye of the beholder, but I see it as a nervous smile.
◼︎ Eventually Sandmann stopped smiling. In a video seen less often (below), shot from Sandmann’s left, he appears to grow uncomfortable as Phillips goes on and on beating the drum. Still Sandmann just stood there, as if waiting it out.
◼︎ At one point, near the end of the drum beating, a kid or someone to Sandmann’s left said something about going back to Africa. I don’t know the context. Obviously it wouldn’t be good if one of the kids was advocating this. Sandmann seemed to have clearly heard. He looked in that direction, appeared concerned and seemed to gesture with some emphasis to “Shut up!” It appeared very much that he was trying to keep things contained and under control — not what I would expect if he was in a confrontation mode. [Follow-up: A reader, Julie, provides more information about this “back to Africa” discussion in the 3rd comment below following this post. I’ve added a video there as well.]
◼︎ Around this time kids were starting to ask, “What’s happening?” More than confronting Phillips they seem confused by it all, the drum beating, etc.
◼︎ The chanting and dancing the Covington High School students did, supposedly a school chant, could definitely feel intimidating with that many loud guys. I couldn’t actually make out the words, but I never heard anyone say or chant “Build the Wall!” That’s not to say it didn’t happen but I didn’t hear it in any video.
◼︎ As to Phillips’ claim in the Detroit Free Press about the students attacking four Blacks, the students supposedly started the chant to drown out the Black Hebrew Israelites, a group nearby who were yelling quite vile stuff which can be seen and heard in the videos below. They were calling the students “babies of incest” and “faggots.” They also harassed a Black student that was with Sandmann and the others.
◼︎ The Black Hebrew Israelites actuality directed much of their invective towards the Native Americans. WCPO-TV reported the “Black Hebrew Israelites [were] taunting everyone on the mall that day, calling the Native Americans who had gathered there for the Indigenous Peoples March ‘Uncle Tomahawks’ and ‘$5 Indians’…” The report continued, “‘Before you started worshipping totem poles, you was worshipping the true and living God,’ one Black Hebrew Israelite shouts to nearby natives in the video. ‘This is the reason why this land was taken away from you, because you worshipped everything except the Most High.’” All this can be seen in the videos posted below, including a few Native Americans asking the group to stop yelling insults.
◼︎ In his interview on NBC’s Today Show I thought Sandmann was a bit naive about the full nature of racism and such, but was pleased at least that he recognized some of the insults from the Black Hebrew Israelites as being “homophobic.”
◼︎ The event quickly exploded on social media. A Twitter account based in Brazil posted a video captioned “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protester at the Indigenous Peoples March.” “MAGA” stands for ‘Make America Great Again,’ Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan. CNN Business reported the video was viewed 2.5 million times and re-tweeted 14,400 times. Twitter shut down the account for violating its rules against “fake and misleading accounts,” but the tweet is considered largely responsible for the international reaction taking off like it did.
◼︎ Finally, in the course of my research I found reports online regarding events and conditions at Covington High School such as students wearing blackface and harassing Black players on opposing basketball teams. Snopes has confirmed the blackface but not necessarily a racial intent. Instead it’s said to be related to “black out games.” The jury is probably still out on this, but regardless my comments here are focused solely on events at the Lincoln Memorial on January 18th.
◼︎ I cannot see where the Covington High School students, on balance, did anything wrong. Yes, there were a lot of them, they were loud, they were adolescents clowning around, they had attended an anti-abortion rally and some wore MAGA hats. Not my politics — but last I checked, all of it legal.
◼︎ I can’t know what prejudice may lurk in Sandmann’s heart, if any, but I saw nothing wrong in his outward behavior that day, smile or not. He just stood there. Period. He smiled. For argument’s sake, we’ll say he even smirked. As a 65-year-old gay man, I wish I could say a smirking kid was my worst encounter with hatred.
◼︎ It appears that Phillips walked himself into the “confrontation,” such as it was. I saw no one lay a hand on him or his people. It seems a little difficult for Phillips to walk into a crowd and then complain they swarmed around him.
◼︎ My normal inclination would be to side with Phillips, if “side” is the right word. By this I mean I would assume first that he probably was a victim. I know from observation, of course, and as a gay person, that there’s ample hate out there. It pops up all the time. In this case, however, I don’t see it in the videos, and Phillips’ varying accounts weaken his credibility.
The NBC Interviews
Nick Sandmann was interviewed by Savannah Guthrie for the Today Show on Wednesday, January 23rd.
Already by that time heads had started to cool with both mainstream and social media stepping back from the initial outrage. Some, anyway. It was immediately clear that others were still very angry, seeing Sandmann as racist personally and a symbol of injustice generally. The Hill quoted some of the tweets posted in reaction:
Please send me the link to the shows where you sat down with the parents of #LaquanMcDonald, #TamirRice, #TrayvonMartin, and a host of other innocent Black boys who were killed & had their reputations smeared by bigoted wypipo to justify their murders. – Bishop Talbert Swan
Guthrie’s voice drips with white-on-white empathy. His with white smugness still. – Jeff Jarvis
Sounds awesome! Will you be digging up Hitler’s corpse for a fun dialogue on Thursday as well Savannah? – Tony Posnanski
Imagine if a black kid would have done something disrespectful to a white woman that went viral, I doubt they would be getting the Today Show love. This is white supremacy and media working together. – Robert Littal
Others took a different stance:
Why is the media STILL asking Nick Sandmann (MAGA smirk kid) to apologize? He did absolutely NOTHING wrong. – Paul Joseph Watson
“Apologize for WHAT!?!?!” – Larry O’Conner
Nathan Phillips was interviewed the next day, Thursday, January 24th.
I was disappointed that Phillips saw the Sandmann interview only because he was “made to sit down and watch it” and he felt he’d heard enough after just 30 or 40 seconds. Even in difficult situations we need to listen to each other.
The comments posted to YouTube covered a spectrum of opinions, but on quick scan it seems most were critical of Phillips.
A Teaching Moment
So what’s the takeaway here? What can we learn from this?
◼︎ Lesson 1: Sandmann was basically profiled: “Privileged white suburban Catholic boys are racist.” There was a rush to judgment based on his race, class, gender, religion and age. Thankfully he’s alive to tell the story. Were he Black he might not be so lucky. The tweet above that invoked the names of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice was on point at least in this respect. Profiling is wrong and we’ve seen its deadly consequences too many times — but the left and liberals also profile. They piled on against Sandmann in droves with little or no information beyond an inflammatory tweet. Too often we see each other as symbols and stereotypes, not as individual human beings.
◼︎ Lesson 2: Too many of us are too quick to assume that something is true if it conforms to our political views and preconceived notions. Social media can be terribly anti-social in this respect. Misinformation can spread like a virus, rendering us the Walking (Brain)Dead. That initial tweet reported above ignited a firestorm. Before retweeting or sharing something on Facebook, we would all do well to fact-check it first — especially if it’s dramatic or controversial. Just because our logic and world view says it’s true doesn’t mean it is. Check it out!
◼︎ Lesson 3: Not everyone who wears a MAGA hat and supports Trump is a racist or idiot. Workers in their vast majority are not racists and idiots, but a large segment of the liberal left thinks they are. Sandmann wore the red cap, therefore he’s a monster. There’s an awful lot of demonizing going on and not a lot of communication. Yes, a layer of Trump’s base is racist and white suprematist, and he plays to them. But the relatively small number of urban workers who tipped the Electoral College — some 80,000 — weren’t racists. Many had been two-time Obama voters. They voted for Trump because he promised radical change, and God knows they need it! I’m not sure they got the change they bargained for, but that’s a different discussion. (Back on Inauguration Day I published a lengthy conversation in my old blog. I spoke with a close friend and Trump supporter about our views and values, what we want in life, and how to get there. Obviously we differ on that last point. I think most people want the same things in life — a warm home, job, security, a good future for their children — but the question is how to get it. Read our conversation.)
◼︎ Lesson 4: Politics and society overall have become deeply polarized. It started long before Trump and in many ways it paved the way for Trump. It stems from a crisis of capitalism where the ceaseless drive for profit is hitting limits. There’s only so much pie to divvy up, only so many markets to exploit. Lacking other options to increase profits, employers squeeze it from workers through suppressed wages and speed-up. Sections of the working class are pitted against each other — Black/white, male/female, American/Mexican, gay/straight — in hopes we’ll fight each other and not them. We need to stop taking the bait. Indeed, the employers’ weakness opens up opportunities for workers.
I think the takeaways are…
- To give each other space and respect as individuals regardless of race, religion, nationality, citizen status, sexual orientation, gender identity, political perspective, etc.
- To respect the democratic right of all to be ourselves, to organize and to speak out.
- To recognize that we as working people are in this together regardless of our differences.
- To talk with each other, be civil and be willing to hear opposing views.
- To hang in through the conversation even if it’s difficult. We might find we have more in common than we expected.
- To advocate for each other and to organize with each other.
It may not be easy. Worthwhile things often aren’t. But the payoff is worth it — and ultimately vital for our survival.
Videos of the Day
These next videos are some of the ones I watched on YouTube and through which I drew the conclusions I’ve written here. I’m not endorsing any video or the perspective of the person who posted it. Instead I used these to see as much footage from the event as possible. This just a sampling. You’ll find more on YouTube directly.
You’ve heard my opinion. Now watch the videos and judge for yourself. I welcome all opinions in the Comments, as long as we are civil with each other.
Title image: Screenshots from MSNBC.
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9 thoughts on “A Teaching Moment”
Bob, this is by far the very best thing I have read on these matters and I want to thank you for it.
I don’t see that Nick did anything wrong, either and in fact, Nathan Phillips has lost some credibility with me, not least for how he has dismissed Nick but for how he has lied about his Vietnam service.
As you know, I was one of the many who jumped the gun on this incident and I don’t consider that to be a habit. I usually check at least two other news sources before forming an opinion and this time I failed miserably so the real question is why did I do that? I think it was because it seemed so plausible.
It was equally sad that after making an incorrect comment on another person’s FB feed and after apologising for it, I got pasted by people whose profile shows them to be Christian so where was the forgiveness? It points to the divisions on both sides, divisions that I think are the worst of my lifetime.
Interestingly, a friend of mine in KY has said that it is still a big conversation in KY and that even one of the bishops down there is still antagonising the boys even after seeing evidence to the contrary. That is insane! I have lefty friends who have called for violence against the boys. The level of hypocrisy everywhere is nuts.
Your thoughts deserve to go viral.
Superb analysis. Fair in every way to all involved. Many thanks.
Excellent essay, Bob!
I just wanted to provide clarification on the back to Africa comment you referenced. It’s included in some of the videos you posted here.
A Native American with Mr. Phillips is talking to a Covington student. The Native American starts to get louder and you can hear him tell the Covington student to go back to Europe where he came from. The Native American says that this is not his land since white people have been here 2 to 3 generations and Native Americans have been here for millions of years. He tells the student to shut the fuck up with that shit. The student calmly replies, “Let’s go all the way back to Africa.” He then starts to explain human migration from Asia to North American over a no longer existent land mass. The Native American keeps saying that’s bullshit theory. That’s the point at which Sandmann appears to tell his friend to knock it off since even though the student is calmly explaining what is a common scientific theory, the Native American is clearly only getting more agitated.
The go back to Africa phrase mentioned was not a racist taunt. It appeared to be part of a discussion on human migration from someone who apparently was taught and believes that all human beings originated in Africa and migrated from there. I would include it among the more progressive actions from the Covington students that day which also included defending their Black classmates and arguing against the homophobic taunts.
Thanks, Julie. I will go back and listen again but very much appreciate this clarification. I’ve inserted a note in my post alerting readers to your comment.
This is a link to a tweet containing video of the conversation in question. The Covington student was making an academic point as Julie explains. He was clearly not telling people to go back to Africa. https://twitter.com/hashtagified1/status/1088759567842975744
Spot on, I noticed that, too. Honestly, between that and how the students pushed back on The Black Hebrews for their anti-gay comments I am more and more stunned by the irony of how badly this was reported. Did you hear the part in one of the videos where one of the men from TBH shouted that Trump is a homosexual and one of the students shouts back, “So what?” I loved that.
There is a race to be first in the media, consequenses be damned. There are too many stories that were a rush to judgement just to be first. This has been a bad week for journalism. From the Mueller team refuting the Buzzfeed story to media still blaming 15 and 16 year old boys even after the longer videos surfaced. Too many rushes to judgement from “Hands up dont shoot” to every story about Trump collusion that “proves” he did it.
IMHO, there have been good and bad journalism weeks throughout my life and the older I get the more exhausting I find it to constantly be vigilant but it is the cost of active citizenship.
As I mentioned above, a Bishop in KY is STILL castigating the boys even after it has become clear that they did nothing wrong. How odd is that?
I think a collective cleansing breath is called for, not just in the USA but in many places around the world.