Viral Incident Sparks National Conversation
By Katie Schulte
Staff Political Analyst
On January 18, 2019, a viral video took Twitter by storm; a group of white males clad in MAGA hats chanted in the face of a Native American Omaha elder on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Since the weekend, several videos and narratives have emerged from both parties. What first seemed like an obviously racially charged encounter became muddied by the release of more information from several sources.
It started with a video of junior Nick Sandmann, smirking as he stood directly in front of Native American veteran Nathan Phillips, who was beating a traditional drum while processing in the Indigenous Peoples’ March. Around Nick stood his chanting classmates from Covington Catholic, an all-male Catholic high school in Park Hills, Kentucky. It seemed clear that the remarks were racial harassment, as the boys clearly doing the “tomahawk chop,” a chant popularized by sports teams despite being considered a slur.
In response, Phillips gave a more in-depth account of the interaction to The Washington Post, where a third party is introduced: a group of Black Hebrew Israelites. According to Phillips, he saw tensions escalating between the two groups as he was processing through the Lincoln Memorial during the march, singing the American Indian Movement song.
“It was getting ugly,” the veteran told The Washington Post. The boys were loudly chanting school cheers while the other group made offensive comments. Phillips says he needed to climb the stairs to finish his prayer and as he moved closer, he noticed the boys began to back away from the Israelites. This is when Sandmann blocks his path to the top. Phillips says he felt threatened as he was being surrounded by the teenagers and tried to diffuse it by drumming peacefully.
Sandmann shared a different account of the incident in an interview with Today’s Savannah Guthrie. “My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips […] I would like to talk to him.” He refutes many of Phillips claims, such as the one that the boys chanted “Build that wall,” because it is not in any of the videos. He also shares that the men of the Black Hebrew Israelites called the boys homophobic slurs, provoking them.
The school chants, he explains, were to drown out these insults. Guthrie asks if any of his classmates yelled any racial slurs in response; “We are a Catholic school and it’s not tolerated. They don’t tolerate racism.”
Immediately after the first video came out, there was outrage across social media, condemning or defending the high schoolers. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, calls the video “blatant hate.” Writer and activist Shaun King tweets, “I am so deeply grieved […] when your power is centered on your whiteness, mocking others who are unlike you makes you feel strong. But it’s weak. And despicable.”
Cincinnatian Kerrigan Wessel adds that many of the local all-boys schools have a history of racism and refers to the 2018 incident with Elder High School’s offensive chants at a basketball game. “It all goes back to them just thinking that they are always right and that they are invincible.” She mentions the defense is always the same; “boys will be boys.”
Unsurprisingly, the President publicly supported the boys; “Covington Catholic students were treated unfairly with early judgments proving out to be false – smeared by media.” He adds that the boys have become “symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be.”
Amidst the outrage on Twitter, other footage was found of the boys that disproved claims of being intolerant of hate. One video shows a student saying “It’s not rape if you enjoy it” at the Lincoln Memorial and another from Twitter user @roflinds shows the boys harassing her before the incident that day. @MarcusHWeber also finds 2011 pictures of a basketball game with Covington Catholic students in blackface.
Outside of the Twittersphere, there has also been a large local response in the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Area. On January 21, a peace vigil was held in front of Diocese of Covington and was organized by the Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky chapters of the American Indian Movement. The hope was to start a conversation, according to organizer Guy Jones. On this same Tuesday, Covington Catholic also cancelled school due to death threats and fear of large protests.
Almost a week later, there are now talks of Sandmann and Phillips meeting to discuss the “cultural appropriation, racism and the importance of listening to and respecting diverse cultures” says the veteran. Whether you believe the boys were guilty or unfairly smeared, one thing is clear; growth is necessary. Phillips told Today he has forgiveness in his heart, but does Sandmann have it in him to own his part of the incident? Only time will tell.