If you spent any time on the Internet over the weekend, you probably already know about a confrontation that took place last Friday, at the Lincoln Memorial, between an elderly drum-playing Native American protester and a large group of mostly white Catholic students donning red “Make America Great Again” hats. An online video from the incident (that quickly went viral on social media) provided some unsettling imagery to say the least, seemingly showing the students gleefully harassing and mocking the man (a U.S. veteran) with tribal chants and clapping. One student even appears to be intimidating the protestor by standing just inches from his face, and glaring at him with his lips formed in a smirk.
The Internet mob was quick to pounce, deeming the kids to be racists (who’d clearly been raised by terrible parents) who deserved to be punished for their deplorable conduct. The students were mercilessly hounded online (some even receiving death threats) while media figures called on the kids’ school to issue severe disciplinary measures (which the school considered after delivering an apology). Others on social media posted the home address of the student at the center of the confrontation, as well as information on his parents’ family-run business (which quickly came under attack as well).
The New York Times ran this headline on the incident: “Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March”
ABC News went with this one: “Viral video of Catholic school teens in ‘MAGA’ caps taunting Native Americans draws widespread condemnation; prompts a school investigation”.
Some of the reports described the students chanting “build the wall” and mentioned another group of protestors at the memorial, known as the Black Hebrew Israelites, who had exchanged heated words with the students. According to Nathan Phillips, the Native American vet from the video, the students “were in the process of attacking these four black individuals,” when he stepped in with his drum to keep things from escalating.
“These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey, and I stood in between them and so they needed their pounds of flesh and they were looking at me for that,” added Phillips.
In the court of public opinion, the students were taking an epic beating (the kind that could have stuck with them for the rest of their lives). But then something significant happened. More video emerged from the incident — hours in fact, taken from different individuals and from different angles. And a completely different view of the events began to form.
As it turns out (as made clear in the other footage), the students weren’t the ones doing the harassing. They were actually the ones being harassed — by the Black Hebrew Israelites — as the youngsters waited on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for their school bus.
Called everything from “crackers” to “faggots” to “pedophiles” by the black nationalist group, the extended video reveals that the students actually showed remarkable restraint, and tried to make the best of the increasingly tense situation by engaging in school-spirit chants — not chants intended to mock Phillips’ ancestry. In fact, the chants began long before Phillips ever arrived on the scene with his drum.
Furthermore, the student shown smirking in the original video didn’t even get in Phillips’ face. It was the other way around. Phillips approached him after walking up the memorial steps, seemingly singling the student out and not stopping until the two stood just inches from each other. The student’s changing expressions were indicative of the awkwardness of the scene, and the other students’ smiles and laughter were reflective of the bizarreness and confusion of it all.
Did every student display exemplary behavior? No. One video appears to show a student waving his arm like a tomahawk (presumably in reference to Phillips), and in a perfect world, high-schoolers would be mature enough to ignore (or walk away from) people who are trying to evoke a sharp, public reaction from them.
But taking everything into account, it is painfully clear that many in the media and on social media unfairly defamed these kids to an extraordinary — potentially life-altering — degree.
One of my Twitter buddies summarized the situation quite well (though a tad crudely):
Sometimes social media seems like a snapshot/Rorschach test. Or maybe the absolutely shittiest first draft of history imaginable.
— Brian Carmichael (@carmichael_btc) January 20, 2019
There were no chants of “build the wall.” The only acts of aggression and inherent racism came from those who were heckling the students. And Mr. Phillips, it appears, is a very dishonest individual (one whose word many people were eagerly willing to accept as fact).
Just imagine what would have happened to these kids (whose worst crime is that some of them had the gall to wear MAGA hats), had it not been for the additional video surfacing? Expulsion from school. College acceptance letters rescinded. Career opportunities diminished. Lives ruined. All because of a virtue-signalling Internet mob that was more interested in a preconceived narrative than seeking the truth.
Now, to their credit, many notable media figures (on both the left and right) who rushed to judgement on this story have since publicly apologized for their bad assumptions, and have worked to clear the names of the students. That’s a good thing, but this is a deep-seated cultural problem that started long before last weekend. Public outrage and narrative-building over out-of-context videos and pictures isn’t anything new. It happens all the time (on both sides of the political divide), and at some point, society needs to recognize that convenient opportunities to have one’s biases confirmed aren’t worth the cost of an innocent person losing opportunities to make something out of his or her life.
Those are the stakes, and any one of us could fall victim to the same mentality.
Sadly, some folks are still so deeply invested in the too-big-to-fail narrative of the students being racists, that no amount of new evidence is allowing them to give it up. CNN’s Kirsten Powers appears to be one of them, her weekend argument now reduced to her spotting of supposedly nefarious finger movements in the video. The New York Daily News has even run a piece on other alleged acts of racism from the students. Their evidence: a photo from 2011 (falsely reported as being from 2015) of students at the same Catholic school painted black during a basketball game. The New York Daily News calls it “blackface”. High schools across the country more commonly know it as a blackout game, in which students wear or paint themselves black.
In other words, an out-of-context image being used to bolster an out-of-context video.
This is what America has come to in 2019, and we as a society need to stop contributing to it.