The contradictory narratives of the Jan. 18 confrontation in Washington, D.C., between a teen in a Make America Great Again hat and an indigenous rights activist led to a week of fury and misunderstanding. The images were instantly iconic, and the many divergent views on the incident had commentators likening it to a political Rorschach test.
A number of clips surfaced of the tense moments when students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky met a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites and a larger group of Native Americans at the Indigenous Peoples March.
Many of the videographers promised that their clips leading to the clash would show the “whole story” of what happened before the smirk seen round the world. Like most people, at first I only saw the brief footage of 16-year-old Nick Sandmann standing impassively, inches from Nathan Phillips, a 60-year-old military veteran from the Omaha Nation.
I was nauseated and heartbroken. It wasn’t the red MAGA hat as much as it was Sandmann’s grin, which appeared to embody privilege and willful ignorance. To me, Sandmann didn’t seem to understand — or care about — the issues that Phillips, who has done decades of work on behalf of indigenous people, was there to highlight. Sandmann, it appeared, found the whole thing funny.
Worse, Phillips was surrounded by whooping teenaged yahoos jeering at the situation. A number of onlookers said they saw the teens pantomime “tomahawk chops” and chant “Build the wall” — but I didn’t. Still, what I saw irked me throughout the next day, when the inevitable right-wing pushback on the near-universal condemnation of the MAGA teens came.
The wisdom of brutal “owns” and “hot takes” on Twitter, particularly before all the facts are in, is questionable, and certainly worth exploring. Twitter, however, is the ecosystem and language in which we must examine this stuff, for better or worse.
The right-wing media pointed out that before the viral clip, the teens were harassed by the Black Hebrew Israelites, who were hurling racial and homophobic slurs at them. Their language is unappetizing, but many people who live in or near a major city are familiar with it. Members of this group are a nuisance that is best avoided, but they are hard to ignore.
The MAGA teens surely were unprepared for what the Black Hebrew Israelites were spewing. And, it seemed, they directed their fear and disgust at Phillips when he drummed his way into the middle of the fray in an attempt, he said, to defuse the situation.
The MAGA media then pounced on Phillips, filing Freedom of Information Act requests and alleging that he had misrepresented his military service record. That such media felt the need to probe Phillips’s history did not inspire confidence in their open-and-shut-case narrative, in which the teens, they contended, were the latest conservative victims of what they refer to as liberal fascism.
The insistence that there were two sides to the story, and more footage to be seen, softened me. Then, when a friend, whom I’d describe as a progressive libertarian and no Trump supporter, said he believed there was more, I listened. Phillips had approached the teens, my friend noted, invading their personal space. “I think we got duped,” he said. “[In my opinion], this was a big misunderstanding that triggered the f--- out of everyone due to the potency of the symbols and images involved.”
So I watched two hours of footage, looking for evidence that might vindicate the teens. I was baffled. Though video can be taken out of context, it does not lie, and I was hard-pressed to find footage that absolved the teens of responsibility. They taunted, and Sandmann smirked. These are facts. A photo later emerged of Covington Catholic students in blackface at a basketball game. That certainly did not inspire confidence in the culture of this all-boys school. If I were an administrator there, or a Kentucky education official, I would ask tough questions.
The students’ noxious behavior, however, was not tantamount to a hate crime, nor an indicator of how society has degraded during the Trump presidency, as many outraged liberals charged online. These kids, with their insular backgrounds and limited world experience, appeared ignorant of indigenous cultures, and would have demonstrated the same behavior regardless of who was president.
The incident was ugly, but indicative of neither Trump’s America nor the tyranny of the liberal thought police. Rather, it reminded us how a candidate like Trump, with his clear prejudices and proud ignorance of history, was elected president. It also speaks to how, in our hunger for catharsis, we marshal our odium behind the latest bit of “proof” against our political opponents and dance upon their graves, while the next narrative lies in wait.
Erik Hawkins is the senior editor of the Bellmore and Merrick Heralds. Comments about this column? EHawkins@liherald.com.