Sorting Out the Covington Narratives

Sorting Out the Covington Narratives January 20, 2019

Fr. James Martin does a pretty reasonable job of picking over the emerging narratives:

Do read the whole thread.

Also there is this very careful and thoughtful analysis that I think is well worth reading.

I’ve gotten a lot of mail, pro and con, about what I wrote on Saturday. The dynamics are complex here and I think I certainly was unjust in assuming the kids had sought out the elderly Native gentleman for a confrontation. Some have asked what the Native Americans were doing there. As it happens, there was a (comparatively tiny) March for Indigenous Peoples there that day. It was winding down and Nathan Phillips was still there. He was not there (as some have absurdly claimed) on the payroll of George Soros to make the March for Life look bad. (The habit of invoking shadowy conspiracies to explain every problem is something the Cult of Trump really needs to break.)

Also, present was a weird little group of Black Hebrews who have some theory that they are descended from Israelites and who were spewing craziness. I was (as most people were) unaware of just how vile the Black Hebrew group had been in its rhetoric. To wit:

(50:34) Banyamyan’s buddy continues baiting and shouting, but the people arguing with him and the Trump supporters leave. Applause can be heard, but it’s difficult to tell if it’s connected or not. He continues shouting in a more generalized way.

(54:34) Banyamyan’s buddy chastises people who believe in a white Jesus, pointing to a caricaturized picture of Christ, calling Jesus a “f — — t child-molester.”

This is what the Covington kids are responding to at the beginning of the video.

Notably, the Black Hebrews alternated between slinging insults at the Covington kids and attacking the Native Americans as idol worshippers. They were equal opportunity jerks.

Meanwhile, the MAGA crowd starts to respond as you would guess a MAGA crowd would:

(1:09:45) The crowd starts getting more aggressive and one guy comes down, stripping off his coat. He is wearing a red hat and appears to be spoiling for a fight. The crowd cheers as he does this. Another guy comes down and strips off his shirt. He jumps in the air and the crowd roars. At this point he and a group of guys in red hats (a big group, at least 30 guys) start doing a chant in unison that seems to be a faux-native chant. When they finish, the energy dissipates and nothing happens.

In short, tensions are escalating. Three minutes later, this happens:

(1:12:20) Indigenous protesters appear, the one in the lead beating a drum. It’s important to point out that these are the first indigenous protesters I recall seeing in this entire video. They are accompanied by a MAGA protester with a video camera, who aggressively paces them and immediately gets in Banyamyan’s face.

At this point, the entire scene is incoherent. The men in the crowd are still doing their football chant. It starts blending with the drum beat of the indigenous protesters. Black Hebrews are shouting. MAGA guy is shouting. The guy beating the tribal drum almost seems to be smiling, and the guys at the front of the crowd start jumping up and down to the beat. As the scene calms down, the guys at the front, clearly teenagers, just start dancing and laughing along with the tribal drum.

According to Nathan Phillips’ own testimony, his purpose was to act as a peacemaker:

They were in the process of attacking these four black individuals,” Phillip said. “I was there and I was witnessing all of this … As this kept on going on and escalating, it just got to a point where you do something or you walk away, you know? You see something that is wrong and you’re faced with that choice of right or wrong. ”

Phillips said some of the members of the Black Hebrew group were also acting up, “saying some harsh things” and that one member spit in the direction of the Catholic students. “So I put myself in between that, between a rock and hard place,” he said.

In short, he says he was attempting to draw the focus of the anger on to himself. I think that’s a very Christlike thing to do and the attempt to paint this gesture as somehow “elderly man with drum terrorizes innocent youth” is ridiculous.

It’s at this point we start to get the footage that initially blew up Twitter. Yesterday, many people, including me, wrongfully interpreted it as the Covington kids aggressively approaching Phillips. We were wrong.

Today, many people wrongfully interpret it as Phillips aggressively approaching the Covington kids. They are wrong. There’s nothing aggressive about it. He’s singing and playing a drum, for Pete’s sake, not brandishing a gun. He does what he said he was doing. He draws fire and returns none. This is in the classic tradition of non-violence.

And the kids? Well, this is where I’m not very impressed with the claims of their snow white innocence, because say what you will, the behavior of the kids in response to Phillips is, I think obviously, mockery, jeering imitation of tribal dances, and generally racist juvenalia. There’s no way I can watch the video and come away saying, “Those kids treated Phillips with respect.” That was what people were responding to.

Interestingly, Phillips’ tactic seems to have worked in the short term. Had there been no cameras, the whole incident would have been forgotten since the tensions visibly calmed once he showed up.

But, alas, there were cameras there, reporting piecemeal what happened. First, there was the “hang ’em high” reaction (to the disrespectful behavior of the kids in their MAGA hats. And who thought those hats were a good idea? Oh. Yeah. Virtually the whole March for Life Leadership.). I disliked the “Crucify Them!” response because I think punishment should be ordered toward redemption, not destruction.

Then, today, there was the Reaction to the Reaction as the Right Wing Media Machine swung into high gear to Give Context and (above all) hit back hard with the pretense that nothing the boys did was wrong at all and the real villains were, variously, Phillips, the liberal media, liberals, the media, media liberals, and the Black Hebrew group.

There’s no question the Black Hebrew group was way the hell out of line. There’s no question the cries for the expulsion and ruin of the kids was out of line. There’s no question that the cries for the closure of the school were out of line. There’s no question *I* was out of line in assuming this was simply a mob action of a bunch of aggressive kids intimidating an old man with a drum.

But there is also no question, I think, these smirking, disrespectful kids were out of line in their disrespect for Nathan Phillips. And, I would add, there is no question that Phillips acted bravely and at risk to himself to defuse a situation he believed to be spiralling out of control. He received disrespect from the kids and abuse from the Black Hebrew people and he took the (always dishonored) place of the peacemaker in the middle. He has my respect.

For my part, I think my dislike for the MAGA crowd certainly colored my perception of the affair, wanting to believe the worst of the kids. That was wrong of me and I apologize and ask forgiveness. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ remark:

“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”

I think I am guilty of a failure of love, which is the the true measure of sin. I did not hope the best for them, but just assumed the worst.

At the same time, the vehemence of the hatred I am seeing for critics of these kids’ behavior strikes me as… compensation. Here is a story, not about MAGA folks behaving virtuously, but about MAGA folks behaving not as horribly as their critics thought. And so the flood of responses from the MAGA Media to the critics has been one of a sort of exaggerated fury such as you see when habitual liars and bullies for once are (sort of) exonerated. It’s like when Gollum breaks with his lifelong habit of lying and tells the truth and Sam does not believe him. Gollum goes into a paroxysm of rage at Sam for his injustice to him, not because he is usually honest and slipped up on this rare occasion, but because he is usually a liar and hates Sam for knowing that.

The reality is that the MAGA crowd we have seen over the past two years are usually racist bullies who initiate the bullying and racism. On this occasion, MAGA guys did not initiate, but they still were transparently disrespectful and, yes, with their mockery of tribal dances, I think they acted racist.

On other occasions though, they have been the aggressors and initiators, as for example, when these innocent and spotless victim souls mobbed and mocked a black kid from an opposing school, complete with blackface, just to add that extra note of KKKlass.

In short, there’s a history with this school. And it doesn’t begin with the kids. It begins with their adult supervisors who see zero conflict between “Catholic values”, black face, MAGA hats, and treating Native Americans with mockery and disrespect. This is why I am not buying the “You must repent every speck of criticism of these spotless victim souls and their persecuted Catholic institution, hysterical liberal!!!!111!!” Nope. There’s a problem here.

That said, they are also just a bunch of kids and the goal is not to wreck them forever, but to redeem them.

More than that, the goal for me is learn to love my enemies and humble myself before God.

So here’s the deal: I did not speak in love of these kids. I think they were deeply disrespectful of a good man trying to act as peacemaker. But calling them names and so forth did nothing to bring peace as Nathan Phillips tried to do. It just poured gas on the fire, to my shame. For that, mea culpa.

The failure of love was due to a choice to assume the worst of them. This was not Christlike and was a sin. For that, mea culpa.

I hope, more than anything, that Mr. Phillips is honored for his non-violent attempt to bring peace. He, more than anybody, seems to me to be the hero of this story.

Peace.

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