Having posted a distraught column on the incident at the Lincoln Memorial over the weekend, I’m realizing I let the first onslaught of imagery upset me too much to pause and think critically. The whole thing between the Catholic schoolboys from Kentucky and Nathan Phillips of the Omaha Tribe is not, I think, quite what it first seemed.
The problem lies in taking a relatively brief video filmed from a certain angle at face value, and not waiting for the rest of the imagery, and the verbal testimony. I forgot that these days there’s bound to be multiple videos from all angles, showing events both preceding and after the moments captured in the one that got me all upset, and that more information might change how it looked. This is my bad. I really ought to know better.
Here’s a different interpretation of events that becomes plausible after you pull back, widen your perspective, view more evidence, read more testimony, and take time to settle down and think.
Before the scene portrayed in the first video begins, a lot has happened. There’s a large group of teenaged boys clustered together in what looks like a mob, but may be just a crowd, assembling at the spot where they were told to go to wait for the busses to take them home. They look like angry taunting assholes, yes, but maybe they just look like teenaged boys, who always look like assholes, and maybe one’s impression is coloured by all their MAGA hats and such, which are perhaps more inflammatory than they should be, given that these are just kids. Teenaged boys are joiners. Maybe to them, MAGA is just a cool team to belong to, and they might just as well be wearing BoSox hats.
Off screen, and still not shown in anything I’ve seen, is another group, also there for the protest march, calling themselves the Hebrew Israelites, or Black Hebrew Israelites according to some reports.
This being a day of general protest and activism, with all sorts of groups of opposing viewpoints swirling around the larger Women’s March, energy is high, emotions are elevated, everybody’s boisterous and noisy. The teenaged Catholic MAGA boys and the Hebrew Israelites, two groups that probably don’t see eye to eye on much, get into a sort of shouting match. The boys, being numerous and loud, decide to drown out their rival protestors by chanting school slogans, hollering, and generally being so noisy that they drown out all competition. To others this probably looks a little tense.
Into the middle comes Nathan Phillips and his small group, also there for the day of marching and protest, and he sees what’s going on and decides to interpose himself, perhaps thinking that he can defuse the situation. He walks toward the crowd of boys, who are still chanting and hollering, and more or less wades into the crowd.
The kids, maybe a little non-plussed, and also, being teenaged boys, acting like assholes, decide to make light of the situation and keep making noise. They keep chanting. Some mimic the chants of Mr. Phillips, appearing to mock him, but who knows, maybe they’re just reacting like guys at a football game, joining in to whatever is going on. A number of them make that awful “tomahawk chop” gesture, which is deeply offensive, but which has its roots in sports culture and what the fans used to do when the Atlanta Braves were playing – for all I know, they still do. This is gross, and a trademark asshole move, but teenaged boys are assholes, and probably don’t think much about what they’re doing. Being boys, they might even be too dense to imagine it’s offensive – I know, that seems unlikely, but remember what these kids are. They’re teenaged boys.
Up front, face to face with Mr. Phillips, is another kid, appearing to be blocking his way in a “none shall pass” sort of posture, and grinning tightly and mirthlessly, seeming full of hate and contempt for the native elder. He’s definitely standing pat. On the other hand, he’s doing nothing else, and he’s not saying anything either.
On video he looks for all the world like he’s blocking Phillips and daring him to try to get past. From other angles, though, it looks like Phillips has marched up to him and stopped.
OK, so what’s really happening? Is the grinning kid in Phillips’s face, or is Phillips in his? Is the kid full of contempt and hate, or just smiling tightly out of confusion and doubt about what to do next, and what it is this stranger wants? Is he surprised to be faced, suddenly, with this guy banging a drum at him? Is he not so much blocking the way as just standing there, perhaps feeling accosted, and wondering how he found himself in the middle of this shit?
Or is it something in between? Perhaps he feels as if he was just standing there minding his own business, and up comes this guy wailing and banging a drum, and he’ll be damned if he lets it scare him, or lets himself get pushed around, which would be a very teenaged boy thing to feel. When seen from other angles, as seen in the picture in the header, he looks to be standing immobile in part because he happens to be at the front of the thick crowd behind him, a little bit hemmed in himself.
Phillips, meanwhile, is beginning to feel isolated and threatened in the middle of this crowd of loud boys, some of them apparently taunting, some of them yelling “Build that wall!”. Is he really being threatened, though? Or has he simply waded into a bunch of asshole teenagers, whose teenaged behaviour is just par for the course, yet objectively frightening to anyone who has reached adulthood and forgets what it was like to be a young hyena? Or again, is it something in between?
It’s hard to say, really, isn’t it?
My sense of it today is that from the boys’ perspective, a strange dude banging a drum marched over to them while they were standing there after shouting down a third party, like you do with rival fans at a ball game, and they weren’t doing anything except chanting back and giving as good as they got. Making fun? Sure. Threatening? Nah. He came over our way, dude. We were just standing there. A lot of the kids don’t even seem aware of what’s going on. The kid in front? He’s likely just startled, a little pissed at being, as he sees it, confronted, and frozen in place, determined not to back down, again as he sees it, but not looking for more trouble either. Seen that way, his tight grin looks more rictus than contemptuous.
This, by the way, is why eyewitness testimony, far from being the most compelling of evidence, is in fact so unreliable that it ought to be banned from judicial proceedings, just like lie detector tests are. You see a slice of time from one angle, and believe you’ve understood the whole event. You infer what you never really saw. One old guy, non-white, surrounded by a bunch of white boys in MAGA hats? They must have surrounded him, right? All that hollering and hooting? Gotta be intimidation. The kid up front? The obvious ringleader, physically trolling the poor elder.
As I think about it now, I realize that I might have been slower to reach conclusions if the kids had been wearing BoSox hats instead of MAGA hats. I’m also guilty of forgetting that when a crowd of teenaged boys gets together, it takes an expert in behavioural science to distinguish a bunch of kids acting just like kids at a football game from a group of Hitler Youth frothing and cheering at the Nuremberg Rally. They all look the same.
Conclusion? Mea Culpa. I jumped too fast. Given what’s going on in America, and what you see at Trump rallies, and hear from adults wearing those godawful MAGA hats, it was all too plausible that these kids had surrounded and menaced Nathan Philips. In fact, he marched up to them, and I think they simply behaved like they would have if any guy arrived in their midst banging a drum. They’re teenagers. They don’t know fuck. They’re not going to get all sensitive and moderate, they’re going to yell, and chant, and make fun, and do the tomahawk chop, and if the guy gets in their faces they’ll stand fast and maybe even get pissed off. That doesn’t mean they were looking for trouble, or that it had ever crossed their mind to be nasty to Nathan Philips on account of race. I’ve no doubt Mr. Phillips was anxious and felt threatened, but I feel that way too whenever I’m anywhere near, let alone in in the midst of, a crowd of adolescent boys. They always look like threatening assholes, just one or two steps removed from turning into a violent mob. That doesn’t mean that this crew had actually gone there.
The real villains of the piece may be the Hebrew Israelites, who by many accounts were taunting everybody and got the ball rolling.
It looked really bad, from a certain angle, for a certain amount of time, removed on video from its context. I’ve come to think of “you took it out of context” as the last refuge of the scoundrel, and it usually is, but let this be a lesson to me: not always. I guess we still can’t really be sure of everything that went on, and may never be. That’s the problem. When trying to dissect an event like this, chaotic, emotional, susceptible to multiple interpretations, one’s perceptions buffeted by one’s own bias against certain things (like white boys in MAGA hats, say), it’s very hard to be sure, and dangerous to become too sure too fast.
One other important lesson, hard for us older folk to wrap our minds around. These days, when journalists tell you what happened, they often don’t know any more than you do. The video wasn’t shot by them, as used to be the rule, and maybe they weren’t even there. They’re just looking at the YouTube post, like you are, and then writing their stories and op-eds. Sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, their first cut at analyzing an event isn’t worth that much – it sure wasn’t this time – and shouldn’t inform your own view. All sorts of mainstream media sources are modifying their coverage today, just like I am.
Shit, I hate being wrong.
I’m still right about everything else though. Of that I’m certain.
As an aside, there are voices out there who’d insist that my prior take on the incident remains the correct one. I can see their point of view. I guess that’s the real point: I just don’t know for sure. See: