Over the weekend a video filmed at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC went viral which appeared to show a rather smug looking teenage Trump-fan standing uncomfortably close to Native American activist Nathan Phillips in an apparent act of intimidation, whilst his large group of school friends danced around chanting and mocking Phillips’ display of tribal drumming.
This video first came to my attention courtesy of social justice activist Shaun King who posted it on Twitter accompanied by the following emotional commentary:
“I am so deeply grieved and angry by this as young kids in MAGA hats surrounded and mocked a beloved Native American elder yesterday. When your power is centred in your whiteness, mocking others who are unlike you makes you feel strong. But it’s weak and despicable.”
Like King, the mainstream media along with a great number of celebrities and other influential people, painted this episode as one in which sneering racists decked out in Trump-wear had descended upon the Indigenous Peoples March taking place nearby, and surrounded the helpless Phillips whilst jeering and taunting him with contemptuous chants of “build the wall”.
“White students in MAGA gear crashed the Indigenous Peoples March and harassed participants” was the headline Vox decided to run with.
According to BBC News “The teenagers… are seen mocking Omaha elder Nathan Phillips as he sings and drums”.
“Native American man mocked by schoolchildren in MAGA hats” claimed Sky News.
Similar headlines spread across the western media.
It then emerged that several of the other videos shot that day provided much needed context and revealed a rather different situation than was being reported. Statements made by two of the students present (one which essentially amounted to a begging letter sent to a local news channel pleading for them to correct the record) were largely corroborated by the additional footage which mirrored, point for point, their version of events. As such, it now appears that virtually everything reported about this incident in the media was false, and that Nathan Phillips had likely lied in his recounting of the episode in a CNN interview.
These ‘MAGA kids’, as they had been coined, were schoolchildren from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School, who’d been on a trip to Washington DC to attend the March for Life – an annual protest against abortion rights. They had reconvened at the designated muster point on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to await transportation back to school whereupon “a clash erupted” according to the CNN report, “between the teenage students and four African American young men preaching about the Bible and oppression.”
What CNN failed to mention is that the “African American young men” in question were a group of obscure Judaeo-Christian cultists/Black Supremacists known as the Black Hebrew Israelites, and that their “preaching about oppression” amounted to a diatribe in support of oppression towards sexual minorities in the form of a condemnation of the U.S government for “giving faggots rights”. This bigotry prompted audible gasps and boos from the MAGA kids who reacted to this hate group’s endorsement of biblical homophobia with protests that gay people are “still human”.
The “clash” referred to by the CNN reporter is a similar mischaracterisation and consisted of the same Black Nationalist group hurling bigoted and unreciprocated abuse towards these children. They were collectively referred to as “faggots”, “incest-babies”, and “crackers”, whilst the black students were singled out for particularly spiteful humiliation. One was referred to as “Coon-ye West”. Another was warned that his white friends planned to “steal his organs”. He was then called a “nigger” repeatedly, and told to “get out”, possibly in reference to a 2017 horror film of the same name depicting a white cult who befriend black people for nefarious purposes. The teenagers responded admirably and maturely, refusing to engage in a slanging match and instead embracing the target of this racist bile and reassuring him that he was well-loved by them. Not a shred of this information made its way into the original media reports.
According to their statements, the MAGA students then began chanting in support of their school in an attempt to drown out the abuse being thrown their way. This version of events is supported by video evidence. What isn’t supported by video evidence is the accusation that this student group chanted about building a wall, and nobody has yet been able to provide such evidence.
Phillips, apparently passing the scene and noticing this commotion, took it upon himself to wander into the middle of the group of schoolboys, banging his tribal drum and singing American Indian peace songs. Once again, contrary to the narrative of the news media, the students neither approached nor surrounded Phillips. Walking into the middle of an area surrounded by students, and then being surprised to find yourself surrounded by students strikes me as not dissimilar to jumping into a lake and then complaining that you’re surrounded by water.
When presented with Phillips unorthodox arrival, the students – possibly slightly bewildered as to what was occurring – soon began excitedly dancing to the beat of Phillips’ drum and joining him in song. In direct contradiction to Phillips’ own story, the video evidence shows that he then made a bee line directly towards one student wearing a Make America Great Again baseball cap, now identified as Nick Sandmann, and began banging his drum in the boy’s face for an uncomfortable length of time. The bemused Sandmann reacted to this mild and eccentric act of confrontation with an equally mild act of defiance – he simply stood motionless and smiled.
On the single occasion that Sandman did open his mouth during this relatively minor and peculiar incident was to warn a friend not to respond to one of Phillips’ associates who was accusing the boys of being on stolen land and demanding that “white people go back to Europe where you came from” – again, information apparently not deemed newsworthy.
The videos show pretty conclusively that this was not an attempt by Sandmann to block Phillips’ path. Had Phillips genuinely been attempting to proceed up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he might well have taken the opportunity to walk past Sandmann by strategically utilizing the large amount of open space to either side of him. When alternative routes exist around someone, isn’t marching directly into that person’s face with the expectation, if not the unspoken demand, that they move out of your way, a pretty rude thing to do? Certainly ruder, I would say, than refusing to be pushed aside. I wouldn’t move either. And when Sandmann did leave after being alerted to the arrival of his bus, Phillips suddenly lost whatever interest he supposedly had in climbing the steps, turned around and meandered off in the opposite direction still drumming and singing.
But then there’s the issue of Sandmann’s unconscionable smirking – a truly horrific face crime which Anne Peterson of Buzzfeed described as “the look of white patriarchy” rather than perhaps the look of a schoolboy singled out and subjected to a mildly embarrassing serenade in front of an audience of his friends.
Julie Zimmerman in The Atlantic seemed to have it right:
“It seemed to me that a wave of emotions rolled over his face as Phillips approached him: confusion, fear, resolve. He finally, I thought, settled on an expression designed to mimic respect while signaling to his friends that he had this under control. Observing it, I wondered what different reaction I could have reasonably hoped a high-school junior to have in such an unfamiliar and bewildering situation. I came up empty.”
This did not represent a “surrounding” of Phillips nor a “mocking” of him, and he was “tormented” and “harassed” by approximately nobody. This group of schoolchildren, on the other hand, were subjected to a torrent of racial abuse and bigotry from adult men. They acted pretty impeccably in response, and were then confronted by additional bigotry and bizarre behaviour from a second group of adult men – a set of circumstances that they neither instigated nor aggravated nor retaliated to in any realistic sense.
Upon viewing the additional footage in context, a great number of people who had uncritically accepted the mainstream news reports, began to walk back their original takes. Scott Adams who had previously disparaged the teens, issued a video apology. Katie Herzog in The Stranger admitted she’d been duped by the original video. Julie Zimmerman in The Atlantic titled her piece “I failed the Covington Catholic Test.” Even CNN, a full two days after their original report was released, began reporting that there may have been more to the story than the one they published.
Unfortunately by this point the increasingly prevalent and unwelcome phenomena of the Twitter lynch mob was already in full swing. Actress and comedian Kathy Griffin repeatedly called for the students to be publically identified and shamed, to the delight of tens of thousands of her fans. “If you think these fuckers wouldn’t dox you in a heartbeat, think again” she mused. Professional Islam apologist Reza Aslan casually remarked that Sandmann had the most punchable face he’d ever seen, which coming from the perpetually self-satisfied Aslan, is a testament to the apparent lack of attention he pays his mirror. Disney movie producer Jack Morrissey chose the occasion to premiere his latest release – a cartoon of “MAGA kids going screaming, hats first into a woodchipper.” And in an admirable display of restraint, hip hop DJ House Shoes merely called for his fans to gun these kids down on sight.
These teenagers were subjected to threats of death and physical assault and demands for their expulsion, and in typical Twitter subtlety, were compared repeatedly to Nazis, to KKK members, and to segregation-era mobs menacing black diners with the reminder that their kind are not welcome.
These contemptible outbursts were essentially constructed entirely around the identity of the people at the Lincoln Memorial. This would have been a total non-event if not for the fact that the kids are Donald Trump supporters and Phillips is a Native American. When a 71 year old Trump supporter was filmed being confronted by teenagers dancing around him and slapping his placards from his hands, the outcry was essentially non-existent. And when mixed-race activist Saffiyah Khan was photographed in 2017 reacting with a defiant smirk during a confrontation with an English Defence League supporter, the viral footage resulted in widespread praise and she became what The Guardian described as a “darling of the socialist left.”
It’s not necessary that you agree with or even like these kids. I find their political views completely disagreeable. I reject the idea that women’s rights should be predicated on the archaic morality of monotheism, and I view Donald Trump as an incoherent, inarticulate, infantile, confabulatory, crass, bigoted, unstatesmanlike clown with the presidential charisma of a bowl of cold piss. I’m not a fan in other words. But this is irrelevant. Even if the views of these students could not be attributed to a rebellious teenage flirtation with dubious politics exacerbated by a socially conservative religious education – their political affiliations are absolutely no excuse to recklessly spread threats of violence, shameful lies, and unfounded accusations in an attempt to ruin their lives. This kind of behaviour is reprehensible enough when it’s not directed towards children.
Yet the reaction of many of these kids, particularly of Sandmann, in the face of truly malicious and grossly irresponsible conduct from people old enough to damn well know better, has been exemplary and should be a matter of intense embarrassment to those who contributed to their shameful victimisation. Sandmann’s statement on the issue was a masterclass in maturity and levelheadedness, calmly explaining the situation as he saw it, praising Phillips for his military service, and coming out in support of his right to protest, if not necessarily his tactics.
This culture of performance-outrage and online lynch mobs needs to die a very quick death. A couple of weeks ago a middleclass and exceptionally drunk man was filmed in McDonald’s on Brixton High Street, South London, ranting incoherently about feminists and immigrants. It was a bigoted, preposterous, and frankly pathetic outburst which garnered derisive laughter from many who witnessed it and prompted several recommendations from other customers present for him to fuck off. Yet waking up with a thumping head and increasingly vivid flashbacks of having made a complete and utter arse of himself in public was not deemed sufficient punishment for this man. The video of his self-imposed humiliation was uploaded to Twitter and You Tube with the request that he be identified and publically shamed.
We appear to be living in an era of cruel and unusual punishment. Incidentally I was in Brixton High Street the day after this episode and if drunken idiocy now amounts to something approaching a capital offense, I witnessed around a hundred people who’d fail to escape the hangman’s noose.
The MAGA kids were not guilty of anything like this kind of behaviour. But even if they had been, when did acting like an obnoxious cretin in a public place suddenly become a crime worthy of an eternity in the stocks? At what point did we collectively decide that we are going to publicly vilify and attempt to destroy the lives of people, including children who are not even old enough to vote, for espousing the wrong political opinions?
As a Native American military veteran, it’s entirely possible that Phillips wasn’t given the level of deference he believes he is due. It’s also possible that the behaviour of some of the MAGA kids was less than ideal, and that some of these teenage boys were indeed acting a lot like teenage boys. But the reaction to incidents such as these cannot be death threats, calls for violence, doxing, and the dismissal of facts and context in favour of a hysterical media spectacle. We have seemingly abandoned due process and replaced it with knee-jerk emotion and campaigns of harassment with the complicity of the media. This strikes me as an incredibly dangerous development deserving of signifcantly less encouragement.
I don’t blame those who genuinely got the wrong impression about what had taken place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The original edited video clip is ambiguous and the related reporting around it has been a wealth of cynical misinformation. People were simply lied to about what happened by media outlets who were apparently far more interested in provoking another click-bait outrage than in diligence, accuracy, and responsible journalism. In what’s fast becoming a concerning trend, the only real precision and impartial reporting came from independent and amateur journalists, along with other non-mainstream sources. Tim Pool, for example, was vociferously urging people to make their assessments on the basis of the full video rather than the edited clip, and asking some extremely salient questions.
Stephen Knight at Godless Spellchecker spent much of his weekend, and then some, meticulously pushing back against the desperately unfair treatment of these kids, correcting the mainstream commentary, and fending off myriad insults from people making transparently desperate attempts to cling to their preferred, politically comfortable narratives.
Now that it is abundantly clear that Sandmann is not guilty of the charges levied at him, and instead handled this confrontational incident commendably, he and his classmates are owed a large number of sincere and vocal apologies. There is no shame in members of the public having reached the wrong conclusions here and having inadvertently contributed to this spread of misinformation, but it matters that those errors are now rectified. In the words of author Rachel Wolchin:
“It’s not how we make mistakes, but how we correct them that defines us.”
UPDATE 23/01/19: Nathan Phillips was described unceasingly in the press as a “Vietnam veteran” and was therefore depicted likewise in this article. This appears to have been another inaccuracy. The Washington Post have now reported that although serving in the military, Phillips never fought in Vietnam. I have corrected my description of Phillips in this article to reflect this new information.