Opinion: Youth unjustly blamed in march standoff

Kaylee McGhee
Videos circulating online show a youth standing extremely close to an elderly Native American who was singing and playing a drum. Other youths, some wearing clothing with Covington logos, surrounded them, laughing and shouting. Many of the youths were also wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.

A video surfaced over the weekend that showed a group of Catholic high school students wearing Make America Great Again hats mocking a Native American veteran on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Widespread denunciation of the boys’ behavior was quick to follow. But further context and new details that have arisen show a different side of the story, raising important questions about the ethical responsibility of journalists, the failure of the adults present, and the telling behavior of trollish high schoolers who could have walked away but didn’t.

The video of veteran and Ypsilanti native Nathan Phillips hitting his drum while repeating a traditional Native American chant, inches from Covington Catholic High School junior Nick Sandmann’s face, has been shared by just about every mainstream media network. The narrative has been the same: “Nathan Phillips, Native American Man Harassed by High Schoolers…” reads MSNBC’s headline; “Native American Vietnam Veteran Speaks Out After MAGA Hat-Wearing Teens Harass Him,” says Huffington Post; and the Washington Post even published an op-ed entitled “The Catholic Church’s shameful history of Native American abuses.”

Conservatives were quick to join liberals in decrying the boys’ actions, and it’s easy to see why. The video circulating the Internet shows Sandmann standing in Phillips’ way with a smirk on his face as his friends imitate Phillips’ chant and laugh at the other Native Americans present. But the full video reveals that it was Phillips, not Sandmann, who began the confrontation.

It was Phillips, leading the other Native American protesters, who approached the group of high schoolers. The media coverage on this has been wrong. Most of the boys parted to let them pass, but Sandmann, who claims he didn’t notice the Native Americans, did not move. The video shows that Phillips walked directly toward Sandmann and stopped right in front of him, banging his drum and chanting.

A teen stands in front of a Native American singing and playing a drum at a rally in Washington.

It was at this point that Sandmann made his mistake: He could have walked away. Sandmann said in a statement that by “remaining motionless and calm,” he believed he was “helping to diffuse the situation.”

“I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict,” Sandmann said. “I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.”

But who bore the weight of responsibility in this situation? Phillips, the adult man with a lifetime of experience, or Sandmann, the teenage high school junior?

Phillips’ story has changed multiple times. At first, he told the Washington Post that the boys confronted him and he felt “threatened” by them. “I was scared,” Phillips told CNN. “I don’t like the word ‘hate.’ I don’t like even saying it, but it was hate unbridled. It was like a storm.”

But when the full video emerged, Phillips admitted to the Detroit Free Press that he had, in fact, walked up to the boys, and claimed he did so because they were harassing “four black individuals.” “You see something that is wrong and you’re faced with that choice of right or wrong,” Phillips told the Free Press.

Again, this is a lie. There is a two-hour video of the incident that shows a group of about five black individuals from the Black Hebrew Israelites shouting racial slurs and abuses at the Catholic high schoolers, calling them “incest children” and “future school shooters.” “You believe in a f***ing child molester,” they shouted. And, “Christ is coming back to kick your cracker a**es.”

Sandmann recalls this in his statement and said that in response to the public insults, his group of friends asked an adult in their group if they could begin a school chant. It was after this that Phillips approached him, he said.

Clearly, Phillips instigated. But this doesn’t absolve the Covington Catholic boys. They made the choice to respond, and they responded very poorly.

But disciplinary action is the parents’ and school’s job, not the media’s. Journalists immediately logged onto Twitter to demand information about the boys in the video, and several television hosts blasted the boys on mainstream networks. Sandmann said he has received “physical and death threats via social media” and his parents, teachers, and classmates have received “death and professional threats” as well.

Thanks to universal Internet access, this encounter might shadow Sandmann for the rest of his life.

Sadly, much of the media felt comfortable attacking Sandmann and his friends because of the red hats they wore. Bill Kristol, the former editor-at-large of the Weekly Standard, suggested in a now deleted Tweet that “Trumpism” is to blame for the kids’ behavior. But Trumpism didn’t create their disrespect.

The kids’ behavior was discouraging — especially given that it took place at the March for Life, an annual pro-life, conservative event — but the adults’ failure was much worse. Phillips instigated a confrontation to make a political statement and then lied about it. The adults accompanying the kids — Sandmann says there were chaperones in his statement — were either absent or they neglected their responsibility to lead these kids.

It’s time for America’s adults to right their wrongs. Phillips claims he was peacefully protesting, and though a physical altercation never took place, his actions didn’t create amity, they created controversy. He should have taken his protest elsewhere — there are plenty of steps at the Lincoln Memorial.

It’s our responsibility as adults to set the example: Let’s make it one of grace and nuance.

Kaylee McGhee is a senior at Hillsdale College and a former intern at the Detroit News.