The video spoke for itself. In front of the Lincoln Memorial, American sacred space for its role in the 1963 March on Washington, a group of mostly white teenage boys, many of them wearing Make America Great Again caps, surround an elderly Native American drummer, alternatively staring at him and chanting/gesturing in taunting or mocking fashion. One boy in particular, with a smirk frozen on his face, stands mere inches away from the old man, as if to intimidate him. The images, combined with America’s obviously long and bloodied history of oppression toward its Native population and MAGA-Branding President Donald Trump’s repeated Native-themed racial slurs, seem to paint a clear picture of white nationalism, toxic masculinity and intolerance.
The condemnation was swift. People from across the political spectrum condemned the behavior of the boys, who were quickly identified as a group from Coventry Catholic High School in Kentucky who had been in Washington for the March for Life (an event that overlapped with the first Indigenous Peoples March). Nathan Phillips, the Omaha elder drumming in the video (and a Vietnam veteran) appeared on news programs and gave interviews to express his distress and dismay at the incident. Even the boys’ school apologized for their behavior and threatened expulsion or other punishment. The mother of one of the teens did not help their cause when she blamed the whole incident on media distortions and “Black Muslims” harassing her son and his classmates; these remarks naturally fueled the idea that these boys were acting based on racist sentiments.
Now, however, as additional videos of the incident are being circulated online, many conservatives are taking to their blogs and social media to defend the Covington boys against what they see as an attack by “fake news.” The new videos, they argue, show important context: the Indigenous marchers approaching the Covington group; an individual from the Indigenous group getting into a hostile back and forth with one of the boys; and, adding an entirely new wrinkle, a small group of bearded male African American demonstrators egging on the confrontation and making homophobic slurs against Trump, his supporters, and apparently LGBTQ Americans in general.
[Important note: based on their appearance and terminology, these men don’t appear to be Muslims at all but are rather likely members of the Hebrew Israelite religion – which equates African Americans with the Hebrew tribes of the Old Testament – or a similar faith. Based on the more offensive statements they make, the men in the video are likely part of an extremist fringe of that larger religious group]
As has become the norm in a country divided between the Democratic Party/MSNBC/Huffington Post and the Republican Party/Fox News/Breitbart, each side is now interpreting the incident in completely different ways. For those on the left, the new footage doesn’t change what was seen on the initial video: the smirk, the staredowns, the chanting and dancing and “tomahawk chops” directed toward Phillips and his group. For many, donning MAGA hats and engaging in “build the wall” chants (something not heard in the videos but reported by the eyewitness who filmed the initial video) are themselves hateful acts that send a clear message.
Many on the right, by contrast, are painting the Covington students as victims who were targeted – by the Hebrew Israelites, the Indigenous group, and then the “mainstream media” – for their political and religious beliefs (not to mention accusations of reverse racism). In light of the new videos and remarks from some of the Covington students who were on the scene (including Nick Sandmann, the “smirking” teen featured in the video, who claims he was caught in a hostile and uncertain situation and merely remained still and calm as a way of avoiding escalation), conservatives have been taking to social media to say “I told you so,” claiming that the new footage debunks the initial narrative, and even some conservatives who initially condemned the Covington boys are backtracking and apologizing to them.
[As Father James Martin, editor of the Jesuit publication America Magazine, points out in a Twitter thread picked up by CNN’s Jake Tapper, there is actually a third narrative as well, in which Nathan Phillips and his group step in to diffuse the tense situation between the students and the demonstrators but end up taking the brunt of the backlash from the Covington boys].
You can watch the video evidence for yourself, below (some parts are NSFW and/or just upsetting,
Here is the initial video that made the rounds of news reports and social media this past weekend:
And this is the “alternate view” that has been circulating among conservative circles:
(If you’re really interested, and also willing to hearing a lot of homophobia and really NSFW language and offensive rhetoric, here’s a nearly 2 hour video from the perspective of the Hebrew Israelite protestors at the scene):
The debate continues to be hashed out online; but this incident clearly paints an ugly picture at a sight that, 56 years ago, resonated with a dream of moving past these types of divisions and hatreds.
[This article is the first in a series of articles entitled “America Marches”, inspired by the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the convergence of a series of public events this past weekend in Washington, D.C. and around the country]