Divided We Stand

An encounter between a group of Catholic school kids in MAGA hats, an Indigenous elder and word-drunk Hebrew Israelites creates flurry of reactions

Greta Kooy, News Editor

Etched into the Lincoln Memorial located in Washington, DC are the weighty words of Abraham Lincoln himself.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Just steps away from the 5.8-metre-tall statue and those very words, an altercation unfolded that would become the latest in divisive political news.

Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 was a busy day in Washington, DC. Among several other planned events were the Indigenous Peoples March and the March for Life. It was through these events that Nick Sandmann, a 16-year-old junior at Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School, and Nathan Phillips, an Omaha Tribe Vietnam War veteran and political activist, would eventually meet. Better yet, their introduction to one another would be captured on video for the world to scrutinize.

The next day, the video of Phillips and Sandmann went viral. At first glance, it appeared to show a group of high school students, many adorned in bright red “Make America Great Again” hats, in a standoff with an elderly Native American man. In the initial round of published articles covering their meeting, however, we were led astray and left to critique the wrong group of people. But why? Well, that’s easy. The unchecked version of the encounter was far juicier a story than the truth.

The media’s objective was clearly not to act as investigative journalists but rather to sculpt a situation that was so perfect for the headlines that they didn’t care if it happened or not. Scariest of all is not the group of high school kids in stupid red hats, but the media that can so easily manipulate public opinion without having enough proof to back up their claims. The facts didn’t matter, not those reporting on the incident nor the hundreds of thousands of readers. To them, Sandmann immediately became a villain, the Trump-era encapsulated in the body of a white high school male. His grin was smug and proud as he menacingly looked down upon the Native American elder.

The initial picture many people saw was a screenshot taken from a short clip that showed what looked like a heated altercation between Sandmann and Phillips. When the full video was later released, which happened to be nearly two hours long, a very different story emerged, one that would contradict everything the media told us about the situation.

Broken down very simply, the high school students were the targets of slurs made by a small group of African American men now known as Black Hebrew Israelites. And it wasn’t just the kids they were hurling insults at. Long before the “clash” between Sandmann and Phillips, the same group of men were caught on video yelling obscenities to several passersby, including members of the Indigenous Peoples March. A photojournalist who happened to be there at the time of the incident would later tell reporters that Phillips walked up to the group of high schoolers only to try and diffuse the tension between them and their attackers.

The incident that took place at the Lincoln Memorial is complex, and it’s a conversation that can be interpreted in several different ways. However, one thing rings absolutely true: Before any of us knew the truth, the damage had already been done. Sandmann’s hat and smirk would forever condemn him to the pits of public hell, and regardless of his political alignment, the kid was bound to feel the wrath of the online community.

We’re so often told that context matters, so why then does context only matter when it suits us or our personal narratives? Unfortunately, it’s headlines like Insider’s “Video shows teenagers in MAGA hats mocking and harassing Native American protestors at Indigenous Peoples March” that garner more engagement online and are more likely to be shared.

Following the incident, and before the full picture emerged, several celebrities had their say on Twitter. Alyssa Milano, as one example, wrote: “Without white boys being able to empathize with other people, humanity will continue to destroy itself.” Well, Alyssa, if we continue to take everything we see at face value and don’t seek the truth for ourselves, we’re all screwed anyway.

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