According to one narrative now being shared on social media, Native American elder Nathan Phillips was offering prayers to the ancestors at the Indigenous People’s March when he was suddenly confronted by MAGA-hat wearing young toughs from Covington Catholic High School chanting “Build that wall! Build that wall!” — a nonsensical phrase in the moment, and so one which can only be taken as an shibboleth of white supremacy. One tough in particular blocked him from leaving, smirking condescendingly, but Phillips would not be intimidated and calmly continued drumming and chanting.
According to another narrative, a bunch of innocent schoolkids waiting for their bus were suddenly confronted by activists bent on stirring up trouble and entrapping the kids into some action that could be caught on camera and put to race-baiting ends. In this narrative, Phillips used his drum to try to threaten and intimidate one specific young man, who bravely stood firm. “Clearly the harassment narrative is a lie and the victim narrative is pure propaganda”, as one correspondent put it in a private message to me.
As our socially-constructed reality fragments, we are bound to see more moments like this. We might have thought the universal presence of video cameras would bring epistemestic solidity, but it turns out we were naive. Instead the presence of cameras adds to confusion as different sets of carefully clipped videos excerpts from different angles are shared among separate subculture groups, each pointing to their version and saying “See? Video doesn’t lie!”
We’re only in for more Rashomon moments.
Slippery Narratives In Charlottesville
It reminds me of the evolution of the narrative around the beating of Deandre Harris at the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite The Right” rally. Video of Harris, who is black, being beaten by four white men in a parking garage went viral. Many — including myself — were outraged and were quite ready to see his attackers subjected to the harshest justice possible.
However, video soon surfaced showing that moments before that attack, Harris had clubbed white supremacist Harold Crews in the head as his friend Corey Long tried to steal Crews’s Confederate flag. (That video went much less viral, as it seemed to be taken by and mostly shared among white nationalist dingbats.) And Long was later charged with assault and battery for spraying an aerosol can improvised flamethrower at someone during the same protests, another moment that went viral.
It complicated what at first seemed a simple good-versus-evil story of violent white supremacists attacking non-violent anti-racist protesters. The spin got furious. The New York Times recently described Harris’s violence by saying he “intervened in a scuffle after a friend tried to yank a Confederate flag away” from Crews. As someone who has intervened in several scuffles over the years, let me say that in none of those incidents have I struck a person in the head with a club.
On the other hand, alt-right discussion on 8chan’s “/pol” group referred to it as “a strong young black BLM terrorist…smack[ing] an old man in the head with a metal club”. (I won’t dignify that one with a link.) It takes some mental gymnastics to refer to someone protesting against a gathering of white nationalists — many of whom who were literally carrying the flag of an anti-American pro-slavery treasonous terrorist group — as a “terrorist”, even if they did cross the line from legitimate protest to violence.
The complicated truth, that both Harris and his assailants had responded badly by escalating situations where violence was already present, was completely lost, and with it any chance of using the incident to learn how to quell violence and give the devil benefit of law in order to protect our rights.
(Harris was found not guilty of the charge of assault and battery, but only because the judge could not find beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to assault Crews; that he struck and injured Crews with a large flashlight someone brought to the event as a weapon is not in dispute.)
So as we look at the confrontation between Phillips and the students from Covington Catholic High, let’s keep in mind how late-arriving evidence can recontextualize events, and that stories can turn out to be grayer and more complicated than we initially think.
One widely shared video shows a bunch of teen boys clapping in time and laughing mockingly as Phillips drums. Phillips and two other drummers are surrounded by the crowd. A few of the teens make the “tomahawk chop” motion, a gesture invented by drunk frat boys in the 1980s and widely understood since the 1990s as mocking Native Americans. Another teen, a young black man in a Covington Catholic hoodie, makes hip-hop dance moves.
One teen in a red MAGA hat and a gray jacket seems to come closer to Phillips and stand directly in front of him for about three minutes straight. It is hard to be 100% sure, as the camera is panning side to side and moving around, but it appears that Gray Jacket moves towards Phillips, not the other way around.
It is clear that at one point the steps behind Gray Jacket are entirely clear and he could step back if he wanted to; but it’s not clear if he is aware of that.
I am tempted to refer to Gray Jacket as “The Smirker”. He seems to be mocking Phillips — but that’s a judgment, not a fact. It may be possible that this ignorant kid was fascinated by the drumming and wanted to get closer to it. Maybe he felt moved in his spirit in a way that confused him and what we see is him trying to suppress a smile.
Let me be clear that I am not saying that these alternative explanations are the case. I am trying, as part of trying to not fool myself, to generate multiple explanations for the data, so that we might then find the questions that will test the different hypotheses. I’m trying to separate the observable data from the interpretation; and recognizing facial expressions is at least partly a matter of interpretation.
So how did Phillips end up surrounded by MAGA-hat wearing teens?
Some have shared a brief video showing Phillips walking toward the Lincoln Memorial and the crowd of shouting teens as evidence that Phillips initiated the interaction. But you can’t tell much from six seconds of video. Certainly you can’t get intentions.
A longer video provides much-needed context.
A small group of Black Hebrew Israelite street preachers was present at the Memorial, haranguing passers-by. (In the early minutes of the video they can be seen insulting both Indigenous Peoples March participants and March For Life students.) At around 1:07:00 (the starting point for the embed above), they yell race-hate at the Covington students, calling them “incest babies” and accusing them of being infested with lice and of blashpemy.
The students come closer to the Black Hebrew Israelite group, chanting (I think it’s the wordless start of Seven Nation Army, which has become a sports cheer) and dancing, some of them aggressively.
One of the Black Hebrew Israelites says “You dirty bastards better be ready.” (1:11:50).
In my judgment as a student of human violence, the situation we see developing is volatile.
The Drummers Arrive
There seems to be a cut in the video, so the timing is not clear. But shortly thereafter in the video, as some of the students seem to be trying to lead a prayer (perhaps to defuse the situation, good on them if so), Phillips and the other Indigenous Peoples March participants arrive, drumming.
Phillips explained his actions in an interview: “[The students] were in the process of attacking these four black individuals…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.” While the students were not yet actually attacking, some of them were behaving in an aggressive manner; I’m willing to believe Phillips simply misspoke on that point.
Phillips also said that some of the Black Hebrew group were “saying some harsh things” and that one member spit in the direction of the students.
“So I put myself in between that, between a rock and hard place,” he said.
The video shows the drummers move into a position between the two groups, as the students seem to do some sort of school cheer. As Phillips continues to drum, the students jump up and down, shouting a wordless chant — but they are less aggressive. Part of the student group comes around behind Phillips.
One of the Black Hebrew Israelites comments on how Phillips has calmed the crowd, and his courage in stepping in between.
By about 1:14:30, the students seem to have surrounded Phillips and be mocking him with their clapping, sing-song chanting, and dancing. This seems to be about when the first video takes place. We cannot see the interaction between Phillips and Gray Jacket here.
Phillips says that some of the students chanted “Build the Wall” and used derogatory language about Native Americans, though I have not seen this on video.
Deliberate or Accidental Blocking?
Phillips said in a separate interview “It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’…I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way, and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”
This would be consistent with the point we see in the first video where the steps behind Gray Jacket are clear. If he had moved aside, Phillips — surrounded now on all other sides — could have gone on to the Memorial, that odd American shrine, and completed his ritual business there.
But it’s not clear if Gray Jacket deliberately blocked him, or with his eyes on Phillips just did not realize that the path behind him was clear and that Phillips wanted to go up the steps.
The student has issued a statement — more than likely written or ghost-written by a family member or teacher — in which he claims that “he was startled and confused as to why [Phillips] approached [him].”
Imagine it this way: Phillips finds himself hemmed in by the crowd. His best way out is up the steps to to Lincoln Memorial. There’s almost a clear path…but one kid, pushed a little bit forward by random crowd dynamics, is in the way and won’t move. Meanwhile Gray Jacket finds this old guy with a drum standing right in front on him, is confused by the situation and — being a teen — misses the obvious.
Could that be it? Did a teen being dumb about sharing space become, in our national insanity, the screen on which we project our fears about each other?
It would be ironic, but somehow fitting of the moment — not to mention a lovely bit of Erisian Chaos — if this entire news-cycle dominating incident was precipitated by a teenage boy not realizing that he was in the way of someone who wanted to use the stairs behind him.
Not A Victim
This much seems clear: Nathan Phillips was not a hapless victim. He knowingly put himself in risky situation to defuse the possibility of violence, and for that he deserves praise.
It’s also clear that the Black Hebrew Israelite group was full of ugly race-hate. That’s not really news to anyone who’s encountered them before; they’re kind of nuts, and not in the good way.
Though the Southern Poverty Law Center has lost credibility of late, it’s worth mentioning that a decade ago the SPLC said that “thousands of men and women have joined black supremacist groups on the extremist fringe of the Hebrew Israelite movement…there is a rising extremist sector within the Hebrew Israelite movement whose adherents believe that Jews are devilish impostors and who openly condemn whites as evil personified, deserving only death or slavery.” These are not the good guys here.
And it’s clear that many of the students behaved badly, mocking Phillips. (We’ll put aside for the moment how going to an anti-choice march wearing a MAGA hat is bad behavior to start with.) The school and the diocese have issued a strong statement condemning such behavior; we will see if they follow up on it — but also, if they do so with proper due process and respect for the rights of the accused.