Like almost every non-racist person in America, the sight of a group of young white men wearing MAGA hats mocking an elderly native American war veteran made me sick to my stomach. I shared my disgust on social media, and condemned the display of what I thought was brazen racism by Trump supporting students.
The sneering, condescending face of the young man staring down an indigenous person enough to be his great grand father represented everything wrong with Donald Trump's America -- ignorance, hatred, and unearned confidence. The Native American elder represented everything the resistance to Trumpism is fighting for -- dignity, respect for others, and a return to an older, kinder wisdom. Except that is not what happened during the confrontation near the Lincoln Memorial between the Native Americans from the Indigenous Peoples March and the students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky.
After watching the entire video of the confrontation, a completely different picture emerges. Contrary to the short clip shared by most people on social media, it becomes clear that the boys from Covington did not start the conflict, but were in fact targeted by the Black Hebrew Israelites, a radical black religious group known for their rabid homophobia, racism and bigotry. The boys were called "crackers", "faggots" and pedophiles, and told they were potential school shooters. The Israelites threatened them physically repeatedly, and also singled out one of the black students at the high school, calling him a "nigger" and "Uncle Tom". From the longer video, it appears the students are confused by the verbal abuse and don't really know how to respond. "You give faggots rights," said one of the Israelites at one point, sparing boos from the students. Some of the students try to argue with the Israelites, but are shouted down by the person holding the camera and other members of the group.
Later, the Covington students, who were there for the anti-abortion 'March For Life' demonstration, gather together and begin singing school chants. It's a little rowdy, but there are no "Build The Wall" chants that can be heard or anything political or racist. As the tension mounts, the Native American man, Nathan Phillips, 64, walks over to the high school students, singing, and banging his ceremonial drum. He later said that he had “I "stepped in between to pray,” to calm tensions between the group. Phillips apparently believed the students were harassing the Black Israelites, but the footage conclusively shows that this is false. At first, the students do not seem to understand who Phillips is or what he is doing there. They continue singing, then start joining in with his chants. It is unclear whether they are mocking him, but it does not look like it. To the contrary, they seem like they are enjoying his music and are trying to keep in rhythm.
One student, Nick Sandmann, stands in front of Phillips. He seems confused, and it isn't clear why he decided to stand and stare him down, but there is no way to tell whether he is attempting to mock Phillips or not. In my opinion, he just looks confused and is trying to mask his fear in front of his friends. The boys are in a hostile environment and are being verbally abused by several grown men. They are trying their best to show they are unafraid and stand their ground. I was once a teenage boy, and I recognize the behavior all too well.
“I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation,” Sandmann said in a statement. “I am a faithful Christian and practicing Catholic, and I always try to live up to the ideals my faith teaches me — to remain respectful of others, and to take no action that would lead to conflict or violence."
“I harbor no ill will for this person,” he continued. “I respect this person’s right to protest and engage in free speech activities, and I support his chanting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial any day of the week. I believe he should re-think his tactics of invading the personal space of others, but that is his choice to make.”
It should also be noted that Sandmann attempts to calm one of his friends down who is arguing with another Native American man about immigration and Trump's wall. The footage from another angle also highlights just how young Sandmann is, and how unsure he is of what is happening:
It should also be remembered that these are children -- all under the age of 18 -- from a small town in Kentucky. Even if they did behave badly at points (and I can't see anything particularly offensive in the almost two hour long footage), it does not justify harassing or shaming them them on social media now that the full story has emerged. The fact that many of them are Trump supporters is also out of bounds. They are children and don't have a particularly deep grasp of the issues they are protesting for or against. I had many strong convictions as a 17 year old, and 20 years later I can safely say I had no idea what I was talking about. And while I despise Trump and think his supporters are mostly racist and ignorant, from the footage available, it appears the kids are actually pretty polite and respectful.
I should have known better before leaping to judgment, and many in the media, including myself, owe these boys an apology.