If you have been following the reports about the confrontation between the Native American Nathan Phillips and a group of teenagers from a Catholic school in Covington, Kentucky, on the Mall for the anti-abortion demonstration last weekend, you’ve been hearing a lot of conflicting versions: the kids were the innocent bystanders who got caught up in it, or they were the instigators by mocking the Native Americans and the Indigenous Peoples March, or there was another group of Black Israelites who stirred it up.
Here’s a rather succinct version of what happened, put together by Josh Marshall at TPM.
A Native American group (The Indigenous People’s March) had marched to the Memorial earlier in the day. Later a group of teenage boys from a Catholic High School in Covington, Kentucky were also there. They were in town for the March for Life, an anti-abortion march. They had apparently congregated at the Memorial as a staging point to wait for buses to leave. While these two very different things were happening, there was a third much smaller group of so-called “Black Israelites” – maybe half a dozen men – who had been there seemingly for most of the day haranguing both groups. One video I watched from earlier in the day shows the Black Israelites haranguing the Native American marchers for “worshipping totem poles” and in other ways needing to repent to God.
I’m not sure how common they are in other cities or parts of the country. If you live in New York or DC or Philadelphia you’ve probably seen them. They’re mainly known for a form of very aggressive street preaching, often combative and using racial epithets. They are often and not-unfairly viewed as a cult. In a later interview, Phillips said they reminded him of the protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church, the ones who used to go to the people’s funerals and rant hateful things about gay people. That’s a pretty good analogy.
In any case, at some point late in the afternoon, the Black Israelites are yelling at the High School kids and vice versa. The more aggressive language, at least at the start, is coming from the Black Israelites, using homophobic slurs and using the N-word directed at one of the High Schoolers who’s African-American (seemingly the only one.) It’s not totally clear to me who started what here. But you’ve got the hyper-aggressive black supremacist group and this crowd of white high school boys in MAGA hats. So I’m not sure much of a spark was needed.
It’s this situation Phillips described as getting out of control when he decided to intervene to settle things down or at least try to put himself between the two groups. Phillips walks between the two groups and into the group of students. The group of students parts around him and pretty quickly he’s surrounded by high school students who are variously laughing, jeering and chanting. The one student whose face you’ve no doubt seen doesn’t move aside like the others and that’s where you have the standoff captured in the original viral video.
As this is happening, the kids surrounding the two are taunting Phillips and laughing and variously goofing off like high school guys do. The entire tableau is defined by the fact that Phillips, the Native American elder with a dark complexion, is surrounded by lily white teens probably half of whom are wearing MAGA caps. They’re all laughing, taunting and doing ‘tomahawk chops’ in response to Phillips. I’ve seen various people claiming in the light of the new videos that the kids might simply be milling around or laughing uncomfortably or even chanting in unison with Phillips’ drumming. That’s a stretch by any definition and the ‘tomahawk chop’ hand motions put any such claims to rest. It’s already a pretty riled up situation. But it’s crystal clear their reaction to Phillips is one of jeering and racial taunting.
The boy who was at the center of the confrontation on the other side of Phillips, Nick Sandman, later released a statement in which he claims he was “startled and confused” and attempting to defuse the situation by “remaining motionless and calm.” He says he was saying a “silent prayer” in the viral video in hopes that the situation would not get out of hand.
I’m sure there was some element of being startled or even confused. Few of us are ever thinking only one thing in a chaotic situation. But I see no way to reconcile Sandman’s claims with what’s actually on the video. He can be seen hipping and hawing around Phillips like the rest of the kids just before the stand off and he seems more cocky and defiant than anything like trying to appeal for calm in the video that went viral. Eyewitnesses claim they heard the boys making various denigrating remarks about Native Americans. I heard some of those on the video but not all of them. Phillips and Sandman gave conflicting accounts of whether Sandman refused to move as Phillips tried to walk up the steps. At least the video itself makes it hard to resolve that.
The original video especially is so loaded – smiling white boy in a MAGA cap standing on the verge of laughing in the face of an impassive Native American beating a ceremonial drum – that it’s probably impossible for anyone to look at it and not project all sorts of beliefs, fears, grievances about the society we live in. But again, I don’t think Sandman’s explanation is credible. I think he decided to stand his ground, get in the guy’s face, and smile a kind of satisfied smile to show he wasn’t backing down. Meanwhile, his friends are surrounding both of them, goofing, taunting, jeering. Again, the chopping hand motion tells the story.
One side note that probably deserves more attention. There were apparently chaperones with the boys. Again, these are high school students on a school trip. Whatever you think of the rest of it, all the videos show numerous points at which adults should have intervened but apparently didn’t.
Having been a high school teacher and having taken a number of field trips with kids of that age (and that privileged mindset), it’s not hard to imagine this happening with the awareness of the grown-ups in charge and realizing too late that it’s getting out of control and onto the airwaves. That in no way excuses it.
The pathetic message from the kid’s parents — we’re the victims here! — goes right along with the mindset that started the whole thing, and the adults on the trip and back home have a lot of explaining to do about how well they teach their children to respect others. If they want to win people over to their side, be it anti-abortion or whatever, they’re going to have to do it without the Trump-inspired smirk.