The recent controversy surrounding the behavior of students from Covington Catholic High School toward a group of Native Americans encountered on the National Mall in Washington, DC, has added another sad chapter to a long and distinguished history of intolerance fostered in the Bluegrass.
On January 18, 2019, Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist, was on the Mall closing the Indigenous Peoples March with a prayer ceremony. Students from Covington Catholic, a private all-boys institution in Northern Kentucky, situated just across the river from Cincinnati, were visiting to participate in the anti-abortion March for Life. Afterward, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, these divergent groups crossed paths with contentious results.
In a video that went viral, a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites and the students began arguing. Heated rhetoric was exchanged. Phillips, who was in prayer at the time the groups began arguing, placed himself between the two sides, in an effort to defuse a volatile situation.
Inexplicably Nicholas Sandmann, a CovCath junior, sporting a bright red “Make America Great Again” hat, stood in the face of Phillips. Sandmann, leered at the former Vietnam Veteran, uncomfortably close, with an ignorant grin on his face, as Phillips calmly beat his drum and chanted a prayer.
Meanwhile a larger group of the students were seen openly mocking the Native Americans, hooting and jumping about, doing fake Indian dances, with one brainiac pulling his shirt off to incite the crowd. Some performed the “tomahawk chop,” a cheer reserved for sports fans.
It’s an act of disrespect that even high schoolers should recognize was wholly inappropriate to do in the face of a Native American elder who was praying. If they didn’t recognize it was a prayer they should have shut their mouths long enough till they did have a clue about what was taking place.
The look in the students’ eyes and the shitty smiles on their collective white privileged faces said it all.
No doubt the five adult Black Hebrew Israelites were baiting the high schoolers into a confrontation. It’s DC. That kind of stuff happens all the time. It took those Covington Catholic students to come along and take the bait to make the situation an incident.
Those students were in our nation’s capital, where groups come to visit from around the world. They represented their school, the city of Covington and the state of Kentucky. Why in God’s name were they allowed to engage in such an altercation, much less mock a Native American. The optics were just horrible.
Everyone walking the Mall has a camera. If anything happens it’s going up on social media. That the teachers and chaperons failed to move their students along before this episode escalated was a dereliction of duty, and put people at risk.
Once back in Kentucky, Sandmann, 17, released a carefully crafted statement that seemed to absolve himself of any guilt. This was followed by an interview on Today that showed Sandmann remained unrepentant, and that he felt that by squaring off, refusing to move and standing his ground before Phillips, motionless with that grin, he was helping to defuse the situation. In reality it caused the situation to worsen.
“I have read the statement from Nick Sandmann, the student who stared at me for a long time. He did not apologize, and I believe there are intentional falsehoods in his testimony,” said Phillips. “But I have faith that human beings can use a moment like this to find a way to gain understanding from one another.”
From the interview it appears Sandmann has a ways to go before he understands what he did, and fails to recognize how his behavior will likely linger on video to haunt him. He even refers to Phillips and fellow marchers as Native American protesters.
“I take great offense to that term, ‘protester,” Phillips said. “We were not protesting anything. In fact, we were the only group with a permit to be there and we were marching for solidarity and for being indigenous people. We were there in prayer. We wanted to make a better America.”
Having seen the full video, there remains nothing that excuses the abhorrent conduct displayed by these kids from Covington Catholic. They demonstrated a lack of class, respect and worse, no tolerance or interest in the cultural opportunity that was squandered by mocking what they were incapable of understanding.
It seems telling that of all people Donald Trump was quick to assert the innocence of these kids. Not like his past history isn’t littered with examples of racism, bigotry and misogyny. The MAGA hats, especially since Charlottesville, have become a symbol of the Confederacy and an item worn by supporters of white supremacy, the Alt-Right and White Power movements.
Locally Republican defenders, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Mr. Obstructionist, and Trump Mini-Me, Gov. Matt Bevin, chimed in as well on the possible rush to judgment about these students. Notice these three defenders are ardent supporters of exclusionary policies like The Wall, a Muslim ban, the Travel ban, voter suppression, family separation of asylum seekers, and let’s throw in some Birtherism for fun.
If I’m that Sandmann kid I would ask mommy and daddy to hire a better PR firm to camouflage my xenophobic behavior if Trump, McConnell and Bevin are the type of characters coming to defend me. We’ll know these Covington Catholic kids are in real trouble if Rudy Giuliani starts spouting gibberish on their behalf.