In January of 2019, a group of young boys from Covington High School, a Catholic school in Kentucky, were on a class trip to Washington D.C to support the March for Life (an annual protest against abortion). The group was waiting near the Lincoln Memorial when they were confronted by a group of Black Hebrew Israelites (an African American religious faction that believes they are the descendants of the ancient Israelites). The Black Hebrew Israelites were preaching scripture and verbally harassing the group; possibly because they realized they were of a Catholic school or possibly because a few of the boys had purchased MAGA hats. A Native American demonstrator named Nathan Phillips (present due to the concurrent Indigenous Peoples March) began banging his drum and singing and approached the boys who had begun chanting school cheers to drown out the Black Hebrew Israelites. Most of the boys moved back as Phillips got close, but a boy named Nicholas Sandmann stood his ground as Phillips walked right up to him. Phillips continued to play his music and sing, and Sandmann smiled at him as the boys around him shouted and observed the interaction. Overall, it was a very odd and awkward confrontation and I’m not sure it would have had any implication had there been no video taken by onlookers.
The video that was shared to social media went viral and was soon picked up by the media. It was an edited down version of the full interaction showed nothing of the Black Hebrew Israelites or of Phillips’ approach. When I saw the video, it seemed to me like some jerk MAGA hat-wearing high schooler was trying to intimidate a Native American street performer while his classmates jeered and egged him on. I was shocked and appalled. Many people saw what I saw, and Sandmann became the target of vitriol on social media and of aggressive condemnation from the media. Not long after the clip went viral, additional footage was posted that provided a fuller context of the interaction. It was now apparent that the group of boys had been antagonized by the Black Hebrew Israelites (who were previously antagonizing the Indigenous Peoples March) and that Nathan Phillips had approached the group. I saw the new footage, and my understanding of and reaction to the incident changed. This did not happen for everyone. A fellow NYU student that I was friends with on Facebook posted a status about how vile and evil Nicholas Sandmann and his friends were. I asked him in a private message if he had seen the additional footage and he told me that he had. His opinion had not changed. I tried to speak with him logically (though, I admit I probably got overly frustrated) and discuss how the additional footage changed the nature of the interaction dramatically. He disagreed vehemently and sent me pictures of the high school participating in politically incorrect practices, insisting that they were white nationalists (see P.P.S for debunking).
The conversation became mildly heated and it ended with nothing settled or resolved. I was seething afterwards because I thought he was being intentionally blind to facts to push his political ideology. Whether or not my analysis of him was correct, I realized much later that this person actually believed everything that he was saying to me. Our realities had diverged. I find this is becoming more and more common. Some people saw George Floyd’s murder as a racist act, and some people saw it as just police brutality. Some people saw Jacob Blake as a man resisting arrest, others saw the brutal attempted execution of a Black man in front of his children. People tell me that things will cool down and civil war in America is unlikely, and they might be right: things may very well cool down. The divergent realities we are experiencing have not yet converged, though. The house with a rotting foundation may weather the storm, but if the rot remains or gets worse, it may not be so lucky in the next storm. We have a few potential storms coming up. What happens if Derrick Chauvin is not convicted? What happens if the officer who shot Jacob Blake walks free and Jacob Blake is convicted for his alleged crimes? What happens… if Trump wins?
Will our Republic be able to weather these upcoming storms?
P.S. I had trouble writing the Covington piece in a concise manner and, ultimately, it ended up taking up two thirds of my essay. If you read it and felt like it was not informative enough, there is a very good Atlantic article by Caitlin Flanagan that does a great job of telling the story of the incident including the reactions of Twitter and the media.
P.P.S. My fellow NYU Student posted pictures of Covington students at two basketball games (it is interesting that these boys confine their alleged overt racism to basketball games. Go figure). In one photo, a member of the Covington High School basketball team is making the “OK” symbol with his hands. I should probably do an essay about trolling, because the idea that this gesture is a symbol of white supremacy came directly from 4chan as an attempt to troll people. Furthermore, the fact that this symbol was being made by a basketball player leads anyone who has been to a basketball game to believe this likely has to do with a 3-point shot being scored. The second photo is of the Covington student crowd at a basketball game that was promoted as a “Black Out” game in which the students are instructed to wear black, so the crowd would be a big sea of the color black. Many colleges and high school have “Black Out” games. The piece that people found to be an indication of racism was that some students in the crowd had decided to paint their faces black. This reminds many of black face, but I think it is important to consider the context in which this “black face” was performed.
P.P.P.S. Nicholas Sandmann has put forth a litany of defamation lawsuits against the media organizations that ran what many (including me) believed to be completely inappropriate coverage. People are cheering him on as he collects settlements for undisclosed amounts, but I am utterly disappointed. It is my understanding that if these suits went to trial, the media organizations would have to submit company correspondence related to the crafting and publishing of their coverage of the event. This would potentially bring to light a lot of the harmful practices our media companies engage in regularly. I do not know what Sandmann’s priorities are, but I had hoped that he would do the patriotic thing and blow the hood off all these media companies.
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