A video recorded in front of the Lincoln Memorial that went viral over the weekend—sparking a torrent of commentary, from sources as diverse as elected officials and Catholic theologians—has now become something of a political and cultural Rorschach test. What you saw—or didn’t see—and how you responded is part and parcel of fierce national debates over privilege, race, and identity.

The now ubiquitous footage shows a white teenager wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat standing inches from the face of Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder in the Omaha tribe. The high-school junior is surrounded by dozens of his mostly white classmates from Covington Catholic High School, an all-boys prep school in Kentucky. The students were in Washington to attend the March for Life, which this year coincided with the Indigenous People’s March. Phillips, a Vietnam veteran, calmly chants and bangs a drum. The scene becomes tense as the teenager continuously stares and smirks at him. His classmates jeer, laugh, dance, and chant mockingly (a few using the offensive “tomahawk chop” from sports events) as the standoff plays out before the crowd disperses. Phillips later described the students as having a “mob mentality.”

Twitter exploded with commentators, myself included, quickly condemning what appeared to be another Trump-era expression of nativist bullying and racist intimidation. Sadly, these episodes are becoming common these days. Incidents of verbal and physical violence directed at religious and ethnic minorities have soared since Trump’s election. The fact that the incident unfolded in the wake of the March for Life, where students from a Catholic school were supposed to be promoting respect for human dignity, only intensified the swift reaction from theologians, priests, Catholic writers, and activists. Covington Catholic High School and the Diocese of Covington released a joint statement apologizing to Phillips, condemning the behavior as contrary to Catholic values, and promising to “take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.” The statement also acknowledged the episode “tainted the entire witness of the March for Life.” Diocesan and school officials offered apologies to “all those who attended the March and all those who support the pro-life movement.”

In a statement released Sunday night, the student identified himself as Nick Sandmann. The junior denied that he was trying to antagonize Phillips. “I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves,” he said in the statement, which was released by a public-relations firm. “I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict. I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or to be provoked into a larger confrontation. I am a faithful Christian and practicing Catholic, and I always try and live up to the ideals my faith teaches me—to remain respectful of others, and to take no action that would lead to conflict or violence.”

Twitter is often less a virtual public square in which substantive ideas are exchanged and debated than a performance space where we showcase our polished outrage and virtue.

A longer video released a day after the story broke includes more than an hour of footage leading up to the incident. I do think it offers a more complicated picture and provides helpful context in understanding how tensions escalated, even if it doesn’t change the fundamental takeaway—that these students were engaging in a form of harassment. A small group of African American men affiliated with the Hebrew Israelites—black-nationalist street preachers who are a fixture at many large D.C. gatherings and are being monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center for increased militancy—argue at length with several passersby who stop to debate them. Among other things, the men ridicule Native Americans for worshipping totem poles, insult Puerto Ricans, and criticize blacks and Hispanics for helping to elect Bill Clinton. When the Catholic-school students, several wearing MAGA hats, walk by and begin watching from a distance, the men turn their attention to them, calling the teenagers “dirty crackers,” “a mob of animals,” and “incest babies.” The men read aloud from the Bible as they use anti-gay slurs, ridicule the students for being part of the “child molester Catholic Church,” and accost the only black student with the school group with a racial epithet. The students remain at a distance, both laughing at the men and appearing somewhat bewildered by what is happening. More students arrive; the Catholic group grows much larger, surrounds the men, moves in closer, and grows increasingly animated. At times, they jump up and down shouting school-spirit chants. One briefly takes off his shirt, flexes, and growls, as the students cheer wildly. Their boorish response to being ridiculed by the men can be viewed as stupid, adolescent behavior, or the escalation of a threatening situation, or perhaps a mix of both, depending on your viewpoint. The Hebrew Israelites again goad the students with racial epithets: “Y’all got one n **** in the crowd!” A student shouts back: “We got two!”

As I spent over an hour watching this video, I kept asking myself: Where are the adults chaperoning these students? Teachers or parents are nowhere to be seen. If a few clear-headed grownups had moved the students along, the situation could have been defused. It’s into this charged scene that Nathan Phillips enters, approaching the students while chanting and drumming. Again the students seem caught up in a giddy, nervous excitement. Others seem confused. “What is going on?” one student asks. Interviewed after the event by the Detroit Free Press, Phillips said he wanted to act as a peaceful buffer between the black men and the students. Members of the Hebrew Israelites were “saying some harsh things,” Phillips said, noting that one spit in the direction of the students. But he also worried that the white teens were going to attack the black men. “So I put myself in between that, between a rock and a hard place,” he said. In Phillips’s account, the students then turn their anger on him: “These young men were beastly and these old black individuals were their prey, and I stood in between them and so they needed their pound of flesh and they were looking at me for that.”

After watching the longer video, it's hard for me to square Phillips’s claim that the white students were going to attack the black men. The students were clearly agitated after being cursed at and ridiculed, but they were not advancing aggressively toward the men. But I was not there and so can’t speak to the fear others felt. Either way, Phillips may well have been right in sensing a potentially escalating situation. While he later explained that his movement toward the group of teenagers was meant to separate the young men from the Hebrew Israelites, in the heat of the moment there is no way the students could have known this, since Phillips never speaks or tries to explain what he is doing. No matter what happened before the moment seen in that segment of the video that went viral, once the two groups came together the students clearly acted with disrespect toward Phillips, displaying an arrogance, ignorance, and sense of superiority all too common among students at largely white prep schools. I wrote about my own experience with the attitudes, cultures, and norms prevalent in that kind of culture a few months ago, as the Brett Kavanaugh hearings unfolded: not as a sweeping indictment of all private schools, but as a reminder that privileged places rarely reflect on their own status in the world because the world is designed for and caters to them. Culture is the water we swim in each day. We don’t see it or question it unless we’re forced to open our eyes.

It’s not a revelation that people can watch the same video or review the same evidence and come away with different conclusions. Our life experiences, race, gender, and sexuality don’t determine who we are, but often influence what we see, omit, prioritize, and categorize. What you observe in this video might have less to do with a camera angle or length of footage than the interpretive lens you bring to issues, a lens that formed long before this incident. The challenge we all face, particularly white men, is this: How do we interrogate our own biases and blind spots?

I worry it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have these tough conversations, harder to slow down, and harder to think before we open rhetorical fire. Everyone knows social media exacerbates this problem. We live in a time when the news cycle never stops, when instant reaction is demanded. Twitter is often less a virtual public square in which substantive ideas are exchanged and debated than a performance space where we showcase our polished outrage and virtue. Instead of encouraging humility, empathy, and reflection, we’re celebrated for our speed, hot takes, and how many ideological opponents we can slay in 280 characters. I’m guilty of not always having the discipline to stop feeding this insatiable beast. Like others who have confessed their own haste on social media in recent days, I could have waited longer before tweeting about this incident and given more space to filling in the picture. But conservatives and MAGA bros who want to lecture liberals or dunk on so-called “PC mobs,” or who think these Catholic students come away from this as victims, need to step back. In aligning themselves with a demagogue who has boasted about assaulting a woman, mocked a disabled reporter, called a sitting member of Congress “Pocahontas,” and said there was blame “on both sides” of a bloody white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, they’re perpetuating a system and culture that celebrates the abuse of power. Make America Great Again hats are not KKK hoods, but you don’t exactly have to hide racism and nativism when the most powerful man in the world gives energy to those forces. Any principal who thinks it’s appropriate for students to wear MAGA clothing to a pro-life rally has thought very little about how this president debases human dignity on a near-daily basis. More broadly, prolife groups that have cozied up to Trump—while his administration caged immigrant kids and his Environmental Protection Agency lets polluters spew toxins that are dangerous to pregnant women—undermine the credibility of the prolife cause.

Once the media spotlight moves on from this latest viral moment, where do we go? Covington Catholic High School and every school now have the opportunity to use this episode to do better. Teach history—including the church’s complicity in white supremacy over the centuries—in a way that helps young people connect the dots between the past and present. Most Catholics, no matter their age, are uninformed about our own institution’s role in exploitation and oppression. “Catholic parishes rarely examine the church’s record of actively participating in the federal government’s conquest and colonization of Native Americans and the West, part of the church’s effort in the 19th and 20th centuries to gain mainstream acceptance in America,” William S. Cossen wrote in the Washington Post last week. Reckoning with this uncomfortable past, he writes, “is essential for coming to terms with the injustices faced by indigenous people both in history and in the 21st century.”

In another video shot near the Lincoln Memorial, a Catholic high-school student is reminded by an indigenous man that they are on stolen land. “Land gets stolen,” the student retorts. “That's how it works. It’s the way of the world.” His response is the verbal equivalent of Nick Sandmann’s smug smirk in Phillips’s face. Phillips has now offered to meet with students and teachers at Covington and, according to a statement, “have a dialogue about cultural appropriation, racism, and the importance of listening to and respecting diverse cultures.” The school should take him up on that offer. The job of education, indeed conversion in a deeper spiritual sense, is to open that closed mind and awaken that heart. Since we’re a few centuries behind in learning those lessons, we might as well start now.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.