Last Saturday, the faces of students from Kentucky's Covington Catholic High School were plastered all over the internet. The students –– who were in Washington, DC to participate in an anti-abortion rally –– appeared, in a viral video taken on Friday, to be confronting Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder participating in the Indigenous Peoples March. To many, it was the very image of privilege: a swarm of faces—most of them white, many under the brim of a "Make America Great Again" hat—laughing, chanting, and smirking as Phillips calmly but proudly pounded on his drum, singing a native song. As the video was shared on social media, outrage grew on both sides.
Indigenous Peoples March Washington, D.C. youtu.be
Celebrities, politicians, and prominent media figures quickly began to condemn the acts of students as racist, intimidating, and reflective of the xenophobic and discriminatory environment borne of the current administration. Some wondered why no chaperones stepped in to diffuse the situation. Yet by Saturday evening and into Sunday, supporters of the students cried foul. It was the students who had been provoked, they argued, and any attempts to explain otherwise was a direct attack on the character of their school and community. They posted additional footage of the confrontation, longer and shot from a different angle, that they claimed told another side of the story.
The footage, indeed, showed another group of protesters, self-proclaimed Black Hebrew Israelites (unrelated to either the March for Life or the Indigenous Peoples March), shouting and cursing at the students and anyone who passed. Phillips appeared on several news outlets to explain that he positioned himself between the students and this group to try to ease the tension. Those in support of the students claimed this as a victory, using the additional footage to cast the boys as victims.
Nick Sandmann, a Covington junior, quickly became the face of the confrontation, as his face is the one seen in the video smirking silently as he stood less than a foot away from Phillips. On Monday, Sandmann, with the help of a local PR firm, released a statement denying any inappropriate or disrespectful behavior, categorized Phillips's actions as "invading the personal space of others," and effectively called any claims to the contrary "outright lies." While Sandmann has become the de facto face of this group of teens and their families, he is but one of the many faces that were surrounded Phillips on Friday. He may have remained silent, but his classmates can clearly be seen yelling and laughing in a way that would be hard to reconcile with respectful behavior.
Outrage about the event grew even louder on Tuesday, when Savannah Guthrie posted a picture of herself and Sandmann, announcing that she'd be interviewing him on Today on Wednesday morning. Vociferous anger continued to emerge on social media, attributing the decision to give Sandmann airtime to the growing "bothsidesism" in media—a sort of over-correction of the mistakes made during the 2016 election that highlights stories of white, right-wing, middle Americans with questionable values under the guise of unbiased journalism.
In the interview, as he continued to eschew any responsibility for his behavior, Sandmann said, "I can't apologize for standing there and listening to him." He appeared almost robotic and unemotional. He never once appeared to understand how his actions could have even been perceived to be in any way untoward. It'd be an unvarnished display of privilege and insensitivity had it not been so obviously cleaned, tweaked, and polished by a PR team ("My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips," he told Guthrie).
Truly boggling is that few, if any, of the parents, teachers, chaperones, and other adults in the daily orbit of the Covington students, seem to be either stepping in or speaking out. That no one thought to advise these boys that, regardless of intention, actions have consequences and, when accused of inflicting any kind of emotional pain, pain that can be hard to identify if it's outside the realm of their own experience, it's worth looking into the origins of that pain. Surely these young men have, at some point in their lives, heard the phrase "walk a mile in their shoes." The complete disregard for the optics and historical context of their actions is perhaps the most egregious error of this whole circus. Doubly so for those content to brush off the recently released videos of Covington students in blackface as a display of "school spirit."
There are few that emerge on the other side of this fracas looking like model citizens, but that doesn't necessarily mean we shouldn't give these teens airtime. With each media appearance, each viral video and subsequent explanation, and each clumsy excuse, a clearer picture of their values emerges; their understanding that they are seemingly exempt from examining even the perception, if not the consequences, of their actions outside of the confines of a school sporting event becomes even more apparent.
A familiar quote, often attributed to Anais Nin, says, "We don't see things as they are; we see them as we are." It's impossible to know exactly how events unfolded last Friday, or what was going on in the minds of those who were there. But if these boys and their supporters want to keep doubling down and the adults responsible for them want to remain silent, let them show us who they are. Let them incriminate themselves, dig themselves deeper into their ugly opinions. Because if we see things as we are, we can also see them as we aren't.
Rebecca Linde is a writer and cultural critic in NYC. She tweets about pop culture and television @rklinde.
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