This weekend, a short viral video may have burst into your social media feed. It showed a white teenager, at the Lincoln Memorial, wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat. He’s standing inches from an elderly Native American demonstrator singing a song of peace. The student was from Kentucky’s all-male Covington Catholic High School.
Was that a hateful smirk on his face? Or a nervous smile? His classmates jumped and whooped in what seemed like a crass and dangerous display threatening the dignity of the elder. Social media outrage was swift and powerful. Calls for the student to be doxed, or expelled for plainly racist behavior. Others scoffed at the pain felt by Native people.
But then, longer video emerged. And the story got a lot more complicated.
Thinking through what happened at the Lincoln Memorial.
Tristan Ahtone, tribal affairs editor at the High Country News and president of the Native American Journalists Association, Robby Soave, associate editor at Reason.com, and Jacqueline Keeler, writer and enrolled member of the Navajo Nation who was scheduled to meet with the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, joined On Point.
On initial reaction to what was on the video
Tristan Ahtone: "Basically, I don't think that this is really all that complicated. I mean, I don't need to watch two hours of video to see that the Black Hebrew Israelites were making vile, homophobic comments, just like I don't need to watch two hours of video to see that the students from Covington Catholic High School were engaging in racist behavior. You know, in terms of even characterizing Mr. Phillips' song, a number of outlets reported that he was chanting, some have said that he was singing a song of peace, or, as you mentioned, a prayer song — that is in fact not the case. What he's singing there is Raymond Yellow Thunder song, which is colloquially known as The Song of the American Indian Movement. That song was composed in the 1970s to honor an Oglala man who was murdered by white men in Gordon, Nebraska. So there are still a lot of facts and context that aren't necessarily being reported correctly about this. But, bottom line, I just don't see this as being all that complicated.
"I just don't think harassment is ever a reasonable answer to a situation like this."Tristan Ahtone
"I think critics have said that the students were confused or perhaps even stressed out by the situation leading them to harass and intimidate Mr. Phillips, and where I'm coming from, I just don't think harassment is ever a reasonable answer to a situation like this. It's not reasonable for the other groups to be doing this, and just because we're under stress doesn't give you the right to harass or intimidate or engage in racist behavior."
Robby Soave: "There is very little evidence of harassment or intimidation on the part of the students. It's very clear if you watch the videos that everyone got this incredibly wrong. Phillips approached them. They were doing cheers, pep-rally-type things in response in trying to draw drown out the Black Hebrew Israelites, as you mentioned. He came up to them as they were doing that. They were confused and some of them, they thought he was maybe showing solidarity with them. So they tried to join in with what he was doing. I mean, maybe that was insensitive or not the best idea, but they weren't trying to harass him. Actually, he was the one who misread the situation completely. He said on media later, he said that he was trying to protect the prey, the Black Hebrew Israelites, from the beasts — the students, he described the students as the beasts. That is a willful misrepresentation of what was happening. These students were not engaged in wrongdoing and for the most part — there were some, there were a few students who made, maybe one or two, who made a tomahawk gesture. That was racially insensitive and I hope someone talks to them about that. But for the most part, he is intruding on what they're doing and what they're doing wasn't wrong or offensive or inappropriate whatsoever."
On the historical context in regard to Native Americans in the U.S.
Ahtone:"I obviously don't speak for the Native community, and can't do that, but I think a lot of the comments that we're seeing and a lot of the analysis that we're reading now is that a lot of folks have said that criticizing and mocking indigenous people is an American tradition.
"The Washington NFL team bears the name of a dictionary-defined a racial slur. The president routinely makes anti-Indian comments to belittle his opponents. The Declaration of Independence calls indigenous people 'merciless Indian savages' and Indian racism is sort of an integral part of the United States. And while there is a lot of shock that this has been captured on video I wouldn't say that there's a whole lot of surprise."
On the role of journalists in this
Ahtone: "I think, on the part of journalists, I think it's a real failure by outlets that they don't recognize when racism is happening. It's an utter failure on the part of journalists to not call a thing a thing. If you're questioning what is plainly in front of you, you should probably hang up the press card."
Soave: "It is the role of journalists to question what they see in front of them, to add context, to look for the truth, to clarify matters. This was a confusing incident, especially if you only saw a few seconds of it. The broader context makes it abundantly clear that the fault for what happened belongs with the Black Hebrew Israelites and then with Mr. Phillips, who misled the media and his entourage, who were also trying to provoke the students. The students, not all of them behaved perfectly, but, Nick Sandmann who has been the object of all this scorn, my God, he gives a hand gesture to one of the other kids telling them not to engage at all. He's clearly not trying to intimidate. He's confused, and if you just watch it for three seconds, yes, it looks creepy, but that's out of context. The reason people lose faith in the media is for insisting on on absolutely false narratives like this."
"It is the role of journalists to question what they see in front of them, to add context, to look for the truth, to clarify matters."Robby Soave
On the planned meeting between the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, and Native American representatives
Jacqueline Keeler: "They weren't able to actually — the diocese actually called the police and closed the school and basically went into lockdown mode. So what occurred was actually that the the Native American representatives from the county Nattie, and also from the AIM Kentucky-Ohio chapter had to hold sort of a prayer press conference outside of the diocese.
"We did get a lot of speeches from the various members of the media community here, which was really instructional, and it is really disappointing the diocese doesn't want to have a dialogue with the community here locally."
On the teachable moment
Keeler: "The fact is, the Black Israelites, if you review some of the footage that was on there, they were insulting everyone. And so this is what they do. They do this all over the country. You can go to Times Square and they will go and insult you. They do this to every race, creed, tourists, everyone. It's not a personal thing. And what the parents and the people in charge should have done was to recognize that and to redirect the boys somewhere else. They were waiting for a bus on the Lincoln Memorial. They didn't need to wait on the stairs for two hours. They could have moved to the other side, where the bus was. As a parent and someone who has run events, taken kids places, there's a certain amount where it's up to the parents to assess the situation and inform the youth.
"And also the wearing of MAGA hats. That is an inflammatory gesture in a very public space. When they leave their own personal spaces, they need to understand — and this is the role of the education of pedagogy, is to basically educate young people of how to interact with the rest of society. That was incredibly inflammatory."
"This was an event where you saw three streams of American experience coming together in one location, on the Lincoln Memorial. And here you have very privileged young man who have enjoyed the benefits of the way our society is structured, which is commonly referred to as white supremacist historical structure. And then you had the Black Hebrew Israelites, who of course come from the exact opposite, a group that, their whole ideology is derived from the oppression that they faced, and they chanted that. And then you have a Native American man, a group that, as a Native person, we don't see ourselves in these national dialogues. This is a national dialogue we're having right now. It is a great opportunity to have a discussion. And this is all the result of U.S. history coming together at a monument to change, to a better country."
Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.