Standoff on the Mall: What do the videos actually reveal?
At first, it looked like the clearest-cut case of good vs. evil one could ever imagine, said Daniel McCarthy in Spectator.us. In a brief video clip that went viral this week, an “old and frail” Native American man stands on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, surrounded by jeering white teenagers in red MAGA hats, one of whom stands only inches from the man’s face, “grinning in silent insult.” The outrage online was swift. Social media lit up with calls from liberals for the teen villain to be identified, expelled, and shunned for life as a racist pariah, and the boys’ high school, Covington Catholic in Kentucky, issued a formal apology. And then came the context, said David Brooks in The New York Times. A longer video was released that shows the Covington group enduring prolonged racial and sexual slurs from a nearby group of “Hebrew Israelite” black separatists, before the indigenous elder, 64-year-old Marine veteran Nathan Phillips, inexplicably marches into the teenagers’ midst and starts banging a tribal drum only inches from the face of the kid who later identified himself as 11th-grader Nick Sandmann. Phillips, in other words, was the aggressor, not the victim, and the demonization of the preppy, red-hatted Sandmann—assumed to be a racist oppressor—was a “blatant rush to judgment.”
The additional video footage does add some complexity, said Ruth Graham in Slate.com, but it doesn’t “exonerate the kids in the red caps.” The extended footage actually shows some of the teens performing tomahawk chops, dancing, and sneeringly mimicking Phillips’ Native American chanting. At best, that’s offensive; at worse, racist. And although Sandmann released a statement—written by a public relations firm his parents hired—insisting he’d been silently praying and trying to “defuse” the situation, the sneering privilege of his smirk and red MAGA cap as he blocked Phillips’ path tell a different story. Don’t “doubt what you saw with your own eyes,” said Laura Wagner in Deadspin.com. An elderly member of one of America’s most marginalized communities was taunted and mocked by a “writhing mass of sneering young white men” clad in the “racist, misogynist paraphernalia” of our toxic president.
The MAGA caps definitely shaped how people perceived the confrontation, said Megan McArdle in The Washington Post. But can we reasonably find Sandmann and the other Covington kids guilty of any real offense, besides being rambunctious teenagers? Watch all 90-plus minutes of available video and you will count maybe three half-hearted tomahawk chops performed by a handful of students. As for Sandmann’s famous “smirk,” said Kyle Smith in NationalReview.com, precisely what facial expression would we have a high school junior adopt when a strange adult deliberately invades his personal space and starts “loudly banging a drum in his face?”
This incident has quickly become a political “Rorschach test,” said Julie Zimmerman in TheAtlantic.com. Based on whether you see Phillips or Sandmann as the victim, “I can probably tell where you live, who you voted for in 2016, and your general take on a list of other issues.” That’s a sad statement about how utterly polarized we’ve become. We’re “living through an American Rashomon,” said Tony Norman in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The haunting image of a white kid in a MAGA cap locking eyes with a Native American perfectly captures today’s “messy, divisive, dispiriting and thoroughly humiliating American reality.” What people see in that image reveals more about their biases than about objective truth. ■