Commentary Media

White-Washing White Supremacy: Media Rushes to Excuse Covington Catholic Students

Jodi Jacobson

In another incident of white-washing white supremacy, white journalists are rushing to excuse a clearly racist incident involving white teens from Covington Catholic school in Kentucky, in part by discounting the testimony of a Native elder and former U.S. Marine.

Every single day across America, women seeking abortion and other forms of reproductive health care have to run a gauntlet of intimidation just to enter health clinics. Protesters, self-anointed street “counselors,” and religious fundamentalists bring gory signs and scream, often using high-decibel amplification equipment. They harangue and harass patients and staff, calling them “baby-killers” and promising them damnation. Clinic protesters feel righteous in their actions because they believe they are morally superior to the people seeking care, and they believe they have a right to impose their will on others. These and other tactics of intimidation are an integral part of the misogynistic, patriarchal arsenal of the “pro-life” movement, which every year in January hosts a “March for Life.” And every year, the march organizers bus students in from parochial schools across the country to ensure someone actually shows up. This year, they brought students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky.

The students’ visit to D.C. did not end well.

In a now widely republished video, students from Covington Catholic, an all-male, virtually all-white, elite private school, taunted and mocked Nathan Phillips, a Native elder from the Omaha Nation and former U.S. Marine. Phillips was in D.C.—which like much of the United States is land from which indigenous peoples were forcibly removed—to attend the first Indigenous People’s March, a gathering of prayers, songs, dances, and speeches, calling attention to the global injustices perpetuated against indigenous peoples. While trying to intercede in what he believed to be an escalating situation between a large and increasingly rowdy group of at least 60 white teen boys and five Black men, he walked between the two groups, drumming in an effort to defuse the rising tension. Phillips then came face to face with Nick Sandmann, the young man who became an instant and iconic image of white entitlement exhibited by him and his classmates.

What happened next is telling: In short, Phillips’ testimony about an incident in which a very large group of raucous boys surrounded him and acted with extreme disrespect is being ignored in favor of an after-the-fact narrative created by white teens from a virtually all-white school with a history of blatant and public racism. The boys’ narrative also is being amplified by white journalists, further disrespecting the Native elder and discounting the accounts of eyewitnesses at the scene. This discounting of experience is familiar to many of us: the women who seek reproductive health care who are effectively told we should endure abuse, the Native elder on sacred ground being made the “aggressor” as the only adult who tries to intervene in a situation, the people of color who constantly have largely male, majority-white media telling them “there’s more to the story” of their abuse than what they say. It’s the same story, different characters that we saw played out just recently in the U.S. Supreme Court hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, who also attended an elite Catholic school and whose alleged actions many defended as an example of “boys being boys.” White boys, of course.

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The entire incident reads like the script of a remake we’ve seen too many times before. The initial video showing a large group of boys being aggressive and disrespectful to Phillips exploded across the internet and drew outrage. Then, new videos purporting to show “other perspectives” (including helpful offers by #MAGA followers on Twitter to send me their “spliced videos” showing the “true picture”) were circulated. This was followed by a letter ascribed to Sandmann that effectively blamed Phillips for the entire incident, stating: “He waded into the crowd, which parted for him. I [Sandmann] did not see anyone try to block his path. He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face. He played his drum the entire time he was in my face.”

The letter was disseminated by RunSwitch, a Kentucky-based PR firm. One of the three founding partners of RunSwitch is Scott Jennings, a conservative commentator, and a former political operative who worked for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, George W. Bush, and other Republican politicians. 

I watched at least five of the initial short videos shot by different people (several posted below), and there was no question as to what I saw: a large unsupervised group of boys, acting entitled and out of control. They had come from an event that is focused on controlling women’s lives, choices, and bodies. Indeed, a group of them harassed a young woman before the incident with Phillips. And another suggested that rape “is not rape if you enjoy it.” The young men who’d just come from the “March for Life” were directly mimicking their movement’s views on the agency of women by harassing young women and discounting rape. In other words, in their eyes women deserve no agency.

The boys were wearing #MAGA hats, “March for Life” sweatshirts, and toting bottles of “Trump water,” which in several videos they can be seen proudly exhibiting to others around them. Though they were high school students, they appeared to have no adult supervision, but for one lone adult who stood at the back of this large pack of boys and did … nothing. Indeed, in a nearly two hour video, Phillips was the only adult I saw who tried to intervene in what clearly appeared to be an escalating and potentially dangerous situation. If I had been there, I would have done the same.

In the videos, it is clear the boys surrounded and hemmed in a Native elder, laughing, chanting, “war whooping,” and at various times doing “tomahawk chops” right in Phillips face. Hunter Hooligan, who attended the Indigenous People’s March to honor her Mvskoke family, wrote in The Cut: “Nathan stopped walking, but he kept singing and playing his drum — staring right into the smirking boy’s eyes. We all huddled around him as the other boys began to push, prod, and bump us into a tighter and tighter cluster. They were mocking Nathan’s sacred music with purposefully disrespectful dancing and a perverted imitation of his singing. Their imitations were the racist tropes of ‘Indian chants’ — the stereotypical grunting and ‘hiyahiyahiyas’ of representations past.” Her personal testimony appears not to have been read by many of the Covington Catholic boys’ apologists.

But all it took was the mournful letter written by a right-wing PR firm to change the situation. Almost immediately after “the other side” letter was released, the white-washing began. White journalists across the internet paused for a collective white sympathy moment, writing mea culpas at having “misread the situation.”

Robby Soave of Reason claimed that the media had “wildly mischaracterized” what happened. Jake Tapper tweeted his piece, without indicating whether he’d personally looked into whether Soave’s position had merit.

John Harwood and S.E. Cupp tweeted mournfully that they’d wished they’d waited for more information. Michael Cohen of the Boston Globe complained on Twitter about lost nuances, and Sam Stein of the Daily Beast asserted “it was a tricky story to unpack.” In other words, those of us who saw this scene for what it was, a pack of entitled, racist boys taunting a Native elder were engaged in “motivated reasoning.” In the Atlantic, Julie Irwin Zimmerman wrote about how she “failed the Covington Catholic Test” [🙄].

I hated the MAGA hats some of the kids were wearing, their listless tomahawk chops, the way some of their chanting mocked Phillips’s. But I also saw someone with Phillips yelling at a few of the kids that his people had been here first, that Europeans had stolen their land. While I wouldn’t disagree, the scene was at odds with the reports that Phillips and those with him were attempting to calm a tense situation.

As I watched the longer videos, I began to see the smirking kid in a different light. It seemed to me that a wave of emotions rolled over his face as Phillips approached him: confusion, fear, resolve. He finally, I thought, settled on an expression designed to mimic respect while signaling to his friends that he had this under control. Observing it, I wondered what different reaction I could have reasonably hoped a high-school junior to have in such an unfamiliar and bewildering situation. I came up empty.

“Listless tomahawk chops?” Of course Zimmerman “began to see the smirking kid in a different light.” That was the point of the PR effort in the first place. Poor young white boy trying to stave off 60 of his best friends yelling and chanting disrespectfully by staring down a Native elder and—really—just praying for peace. It’s as though the PR firm had cast a spell.

In an effort to figure out what had actually happened, I watched the nearly two hour video taken by a member of the Black Hebrew Israelites three separate times. And here is what I saw.

In the first hour of the video, four members of the fringe Black Hebrew Israelites sect are standing well in front of (not on, as Sandmann claimed) the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the patio that leads to the reflecting pool. They were facing the Washington Monument, away from the memorial steps. They never moved from this spot. Black Hebrew Israelites, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says includes a small extremist element, believe that African Americans, not Jews, are the real descendants of Israel. They often engage in street preaching in places like New York City and D.C. They are homophobic, racist, and misogynistic. They can be verbally abusive but, as police in New York attest, they are not generally physically dangerous. Most people ignore them.

In the long video, hundreds of people do just that… either walk right by them, or mill around listening for a while and then walk away. At one point in the first hour, two women engage them in an argument for a few minutes and then walk away. In that first hour, the Hebrew Israelites appear to get agitated by a skateboarder who circles them purposefully over and over, clearly there to taunt them, and indeed the skateboarder is the only one with whom they engage directly. One of the Hebrew Israelites suggests getting a “MAGA hat for this Republican,” referring to the skateboarder.

At 59:09, the video pans to the steps of the memorial, well behind the Hebrew Israelites and it’s clear that sometime in the prior 15 minutes or so, a large group of the Covington Catholic High School teens has assembled there. The Hebrew Israelites still have their back to the steps. The man making the video says, “Take a look at these Make America Great Again crackers,” apparently referring to the large group.

While the Hebrew Israelites face the Washington monument, the teens jeer from behind them. At 1:04:00, a homeless man wanders past and exchanges words with the Black Hebrew Israelites. At 1:05:00, it is clear that the group of teens behind the Hebrew Israelites has grown much larger and they begin to further engage the Black Hebrew Israelites by yelling from behind them, catcalling them; one of the Hebrew Israelites turns around at 1:06:00 to engage the boys briefly and turns back. The students continue to talk to the Hebrew Israelites from the steps. At about 1:08:00 the Covington Catholic students start chanting and jeering, though it is hard to hear what they are saying. At 1:09:51, a student runs down the stairs to face the others. He throws off his jacket, sweatshirt, and t-shirt, and naked from the waist up, starts jumping up and down and leading some sort of loud and grunting chant. The Black Hebrew Israelites never leave the spot they have been at this entire time.

[Photo: Teenage boys from Covington Catholic school acting out disrespectfully and out of control.]

Then the crowd of teens gets even rowdier. They are clearly taunting the Black men. Some of the teens move onto the patio and closer to the men, who still for the most part face away from them, talking to others. The teens are dancing and chanting. Then suddenly they huddle. At around 1:12:20 you can hear faint drumming of Phillips walking slowly into the picture, a distance away from the stairs.

Sandmann claims in his letter that “The protestor everyone has seen in the video began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him.” First of all, Phillips was not a “protestor.” Second, this is clearly not what happens in the video. Instead as Hooligan wrote, the teens surround Phillips and start hopping, chanting, chopping hands, laughing. By 1:13:00 there is a very large crowd of teens surrounding Phillips; they are openly mocking him. There’s nothing respectful about it. If there is a chaperone or teacher around the vicinity, it is not obvious, and if as Sandmann asserts, they asked for and received permission from a teacher to do what they in fact did…well then, as a parent, I am aghast.

The Hebrew Israelites video focuses back on the teens who move closer to the Hebrew Israelites, some clearly taunting them again. Finally at 1:17:17 someone yells for the students to back up, but instead they quickly re-converge around and engage the Hebrew Israelites at which point the Hebrew Israelites themselves ask the teens several times to step back. From there until the end of the video, the Black Hebrew Israelites and teens are talking back and forth until it appears they leave.

Sandmann’s letter states: “I never felt like I was blocking the Native American protestor. He did not make any attempt to go around me. It was clear to me that he had singled me out for a confrontation, although I am not sure why.”

But as this video shared on Twitter by Waleed Shahid shows, Phillips was surrounded by jumping, whooping, mocking teens. As you can see in the frame below, Sandmann is in the background (red cap, gray jacket) smiling. It does not appear to me that Phillips “singled him out” for confrontation. That assertion also appears to be a lie.

Hunter Hooligan’s video shows the same. A very large crowd of very rude boys surrounding a sole Native elder.

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This is how things got off with the boys of Covington Catholic High School (they have since deleted their Instagram) and their MAGA hat wearing goons at the Indigenous Peoples March. Apparently the boys were there originally to support and bolster a pro-life protest. 🤨🙃 However, after their own protest concluded, they surrounded the few of us left lingering from the Indigenous Peoples’ March and rally and pretty immediately began mocking the singing and drumming. As we tried to move through the crowd, they closed in tighter around us, and wouldn’t allow anyone to pass. It was obvious that they wanted any excuse for the day to turn violent. They repeatedly “bumped” into us, trying to agitate people into confrontation. But instead, the very few of us left stood quietly, trying to remain calm. I was seething with anger and rage and disappointment. I was so confused about why these boys would go out of their way to harass such a small, vulnerable group. Parents and chaperones stood on the sidelines, choosing not to intervene or reign back the group. Make no mistake, these boys were not there to experience a cultural exchange or to support the cause for which we gathered. Their mockery was an attempt to distract and demoralize the last remaining members of the rally. They chanted “build the wall,” “Gone in 2020.” The implications of these statements are chilling, to say the least. I ask the school, their parents, and ultimately our society: What actions of discipline are we taking in order to teach these “young men” that this behavior is unacceptable in the world we wish to build? People called the police on your boys because onlookers feared what the boys might do to the 10 of us remaining on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Thanks to @earthchores and @ka_ya11 for also documenting this episode. Feel free to tag your favorite media outlets (especially indigenous owned and operated), repost and share! ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #indigenous #indigenouspeople #indigenouspeoplesday #indigenouspeoplesmarch #indigenouspeoplesmarch2019 #cchcolonels #covingtoncatholichighschool #trump #maga #dc #catholic #christian #god

A post shared by ᏰᎧᎩᎶᎧᎴᎴᏋᏕᏕ (@hunterhooligan) on

There are so many levels of racism here, I am not sure where to start. First, note that in staring down an elder, Sandmann suggests that Phillips should go around him, rather than making way for the elder to pass. Second, contrary to what Zimmerman claims, the tomahawk chops are not listless or innocent. They are directly insulting to indigenous people. In the 2012 Massachusetts senate race, staffers for then-Sen. Scott Brown were caught on video using the tomahawk chop and war whoops to mock Elizabeth Warren, who later defeated Brown. The principal chief of the Cherokee Nation called Brown’s staffers’ use of the gesture “offensive and racist.” The incident almost certainly played a role in Brown’s defeat.

As L.V. Anderson wrote in Salon, “[T]he tomahawk chop and the war chant have little basis in Native American history. There is no indication that Native Americans ever made the gesture known today as the tomahawk chop. Tomahawks were historically not only used as weapons by Native Americans but also revered as sacred objects.”

Professional sports teams throughout the country have been under fire for almost two decades to abandon their use of Native imagery and caricature for their own gain. David Waldstein, writing in the New York Times about the Cleveland Indians “Chief Wahoo” symbol, that “The logo has long been the source of anguish and frustration for those who consider it offensive, outdated and racist, but for many of the team’s fans it is a cherished insignia — a divide that has played out at all levels of sports in recent years with teams featuring such nicknames and insignias. Most universities have stopped using Native American nicknames, while other teams, like the Washington Redskins in the N.F.L., have resisted growing pressure to do so.”

For journalists and others who consider themselves “informed,” to not tie this incident and the treatment of Phillips to the broader effort by indigenous people to reclaim dignity stolen from them in a culture laden with white supremacy is some “motivated reasoning” indeed.

Then there’s the blaming of the Hebrew Israelites for the boys’ behavior. The letter from RunSwitch states:

When we arrived, we noticed four African American protestors who were also on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I am not sure what they were protesting, and I did not interact with them. I did hear them direct derogatory insults at our school group. The protestors said hateful things. They called us “racists,” “bigots,” “white crackers,” “faggots,” and “incest kids.” They also taunted an African American student from my school by telling him that we would “harvest his organs.” I have no idea what that insult means, but it was startling to hear.

The Hebrew Israelites were not, as I have noted above, on the steps. Wherever they were, however, is immaterial, because it does not excuse the behavior of this large pack of boys, nor the absence of any adult supervision. In effect, they are blaming five Black men for the behavior of 60-odd male teens who were free to and should have left the scene. Ironically, “racist” and “bigot” fit the actions of Covington Catholic students in other public venues. How else, for example to explain this video of boys at a high school basketball game, in full view of parents and coaches, wearing blackface and body paint, caricaturing Black students on the opposing team? (The original has now been deleted by Covington Catholic but has been uploaded by others.) Or this photo:

I am not sure I see the nuance here. The notion that this was OK at a formal school function tells us all we need to know about the lessons these kids learn from their parents, “teachers,” coaches, and community. The same lessons Kavanaugh got: Act with impunity because we will protect you.

That impunity is what the country saw during the Kavanaugh hearings. It is what we see every time a white police officer or other agent of the state goes uncharged or is acquitted for killing an unarmed person of color. It is what we see and hear in the rush to show sympathy and find “nuance” in the actions of entitled white boys and men, and in the dismissal of the experience of a Native elder. It is what women see every day in trying to access health care. Intimidate with impunity, and we will protect you.

The only “motivated reasoning” that’s been deployed is by those who find a need to excuse male white behavior, no matter what.

As Zerlina Maxwell, a political analyst and director of political programming as Sirius.XM, said on Twitter, we know what that smirk all too well.

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to reflect a correction issued by the Washington Post clarifying that Phillips was never deployed to Vietnam, though he served in the U.S. Marines from 1972 to 1976.

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