The outrage machine whipped itself up into quite the frenzy this weekend after video that appeared to show a bunch of virginal pro-life activists in MAGA hats harassing an elderly Native American man went viral online.
The video clip was enraging. It showed an older Native American man drumming, surrounded by jeering white teenagers in MAGA hats. The clip focused on one red-hatted boy staring directly at the man with the drum. His stupid, smirking face seemed to symbolize everything wrong with America right now. The tweet claimed that the boys surrounded and mobbed a group of Natives at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington DC, and I saw red and hit retweet in less than a second.
Taking part in viral outrage is generally against my own rules. I’ve written a lot about this sort of online saga and I’ve realized that short viral video clips almost never tell the whole story. After the initial incident and outrage, more facts emerge and it turns out the cafe owner accused of being a Nazi sympathizer is Jewish; the woman who called the cops on a black person was blind; the trans person kicked out of the vintage store was actually shoplifting. There’s almost always more to the story, and for the most part, I try not to take part in the mob. But when I saw that video clip on Saturday, I was ready to pick up my pitchfork and burn those little MAGA hat fuckers to the ground.
I had plenty of company. From all across the political spectrum, the boys—who, it turned out, were students at Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School and were in DC for the anti-choice March for Life—were roundly condemned. The school was flooded with angry phone calls and emails, leaders of the Catholic Church issued statements calling for the boys’ punishment, and soon, the school issued a statement—the boys involved would be held to account for their actions, maybe even expelled. This wasn’t enough for everyone: One Kentucky lawmaker tweeted that teenagers wearing MAGA hats should be “banned.” Other people called for the kids to be doxed. “I want NAMES,” comic Kathy Griffin tweeted to her 2 million followers. Give us names.
It’s always surprising when people who’ve been doxed endorse the practice themselves, but I saw few defenses of these boys in the hours after the video started to spread. Several people who had failed to adequately condemn them soon found themselves at the bottom of the dogpile, too. The Wall Street Journal’s Byron Tau tweeted what seemed to be a statement of fact—"Everyone posturing on this terrible website has done stupid, foolish, ignorant and downright horrible things that they surely regret as teenagers and were just fortunate enough to grow up in a world where 99% of people didn’t carry networked cameras.”—and received over 28,000 replies. You can guess how many agreed with him.
And yet, as tends to happen, the story was more complex than it seemed. Journalist Tim Pool tweeted a longer video of the incident on Saturday night, and I scrolled to a random point about halfway through. At that point in the video, the Native group was nowhere in sight. Instead, I saw two groups of people, the kids from Covington Catholic High School, almost all of whom were white, and about four black men who seemed to be street preachers set up near the Lincoln Memorial. They, it turns out, are members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, a religious sect the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a hate group.
The men, who looked to be in their 30s or 40s, maybe younger, were taunting the kids from Covington High. Perhaps thinking he had a message that would really resonate with kids in MAGA hats, the man who seems to be leading the group tells the kids to look up some videos on YouTube of Donald Trump kissing Rudy Giuliani. “Your president is a homosexual,” he yells out, probably, like me, expecting the kids to object.
And that is when I started to get confused because the reaction from the boys wasn’t disgust or even protest. Instead, several of them spoke out, “Who cares?” “Yeah, who cares?”
“Your president is a homosexual,” the street preacher yells back. “You give faggots rights,” and then, the crowd of MAGA hat-wearing boys actually starts booing. “The Bible condemns homosexuality,” the street preacher yells, and one of the boys calls out, “They’re still human!”
In that moment, I was shocked right out of my echo chamber. These pro-life Catholics sounded just like I did in college when an evangelical street preacher would show up on campus every semester to yell about faggots and heathens, but more polite. Aside from the MAGA hats, these boys did exactly what good liberal kids would do when faced with someone spewing bile: They heckled him right back.
I ended up watching the full video, as well as several others, for about three hours in all. I also watched all the clips I could find online, and the picture that emerged is not what I’d been seeing on Twitter, where the story was still that the kids had, for no reason, surrounded Native Americans and harassed them.
One video filmed continuously from over hour before the incident shows that long before the boys arrived, the Black Hebrew Israelites were heckling Native Americans who had been marking Indigenous People’s Day nearby. “Before you became an idol worshipper, you worshiped the true God,” the street preacher yells at them. “And that is why you had your land taken from you because you worship everything except the most high.”
While this is going on, Native people, some in ceremonial dress, mill about, and a few come up to engage with the Black Hebrew Israelites. In some moments, it gets heated as the Israelites get into arguments and yell at passersby. When a group of MAGA boys approaches, the street preachers start taunting them (“Dirty ass crackers, your day is coming…. I will stick my foot in your little ass.”) The boys walk away without engaging, then later the Israelites get into conversation with a neatly dressed older black man, then more Native people, then some white kids on scooters, etc. This, according to people in DC, is a common scene and the Black Hebrew Israelites a common presence. Their rhetoric is undoubtedly offensive: They not only drag the Native Americans for "worshipping eagles" and other animals, they tell a black student from Covington High that his white friends are going to harvest his organs. “Get out,” they tell him, presumably referring to the 2017 film. “Hey!” one of the white boys says to his black classmate, “But we love you!”
Later, over an hour into the video, you can see the boys gathered on the steps behind the Israelites, right in front of the Lincoln Memorial. According to a statement from one of the kids in attendance, they’d been told to gather there to wait for their bus. The student says they asked their chaperones for permission to chant their school letters in order to kill time and drown out the street preachers. While it’s hard to make out exactly what they are chanting, it sounds like standard school fight songs. Once the street preachers yell at them, “Goddam dogs. Get rid of your lice,” but the two groups appear to be far from each other, in no danger of throwing punches. The kids are loud, boisterous, rowdy, and one hops down the stairs and takes his shirt and pants off. It seems like it might be a school ritual. He dances around in the cold and the students act like kids at a pep rally.
The video clip that went viral was filmed a few minutes later, after a group of Native Americans walked between the MAGA boys and the Black Hebrew Israelites. Nathan Phillips, reportedly a Marine veteran and Omaha Tribe elder, leads a group of Native people singing and drumming into the crowd of MAGA boys while the Israelites yell behind them that America will be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. The crowd parts for the Natives, and Phillips approaches the smug-looking boy in the MAGA hat, still singing and drumming. They stare at each other for an uncomfortably long length of time, the kid looking like he’s trying not to laugh. The students around them whoop, chant, and laugh, and while one, maybe two, can be seen doing a sort of tomahawk chop motion—clearly a sign of disrespect—it’s hard to tell if individuals are jeering or cheering. Maybe it’s both. Some of the kids just seem bewildered. “I’m so confused,” one student says on the tape. “What’s happening?”
Phillips would later tell the Detroit Free Press that the students were “in the process of attacking these four black individuals” and that he stepped in to try to deescalate the situation. "There was that moment when I realized I've put myself between beast and prey," Phillips told the paper. "These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey."
As Robby Soave pointed out in Reason, however, the video evidence suggests that Phillips got it backward; it wasn’t the kids acting beastly. It was the adults. And it’s easy to see why someone would assume that dozens of white boys in MAGA hats at a pro-life rarely would be in the wrong. Politically and historically speaking, they generally have been.
Phillips also told CNN that he was afraid, not for himself, but for what the MAGA boys “are going to do to this country.” In another interview, with NPR, he said that it was America’s history of racism, the things he’s seen on the news and on Facebook, that made him approach the boys. When he saw dozens of white boys in MAGA hats, he was worried, he told NPR, that the boys would harm the four Black Israelites standing in front of them.
While there’s at yet no evidence that the kids were any danger to the Israelites, as Phillips enters the circle, the atmosphere certainly appears to be tense. One Native man tells a student to “go back to Europe,” and the student, in the young conservative uniform of a NorthFace jacket and MAGA hat, laughs back, “Let’s just all go back to Africa.”
Nick Sandmann, the smug-faced Covington junior featured in the clip that went viral, eventually released a statement of his own. “To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why [Phillips] had approached me,” it read. “We had already been yelled at by another group of protestors, and when the second group approached I was worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers.” He didn’t apologize, though he did say that as a practicing Catholic, he tries “to remain respectful of others, and to take no action that would lead to conflict or violence.” He also says his family has been receiving death threats.
Our reactions to this incident, I suspect, depend as much on our own biases as the angle of the camera. To some people, it looks like the boys were a dangerous mob menacing Native Americans and black people. To others, they just looked like kids goofing off. Two people can even view the same evidence and see different things: Clara Jeffery, the editor-in-chief of Mother Jones, saw the Black Hebrew Israelites as “elderly” black men who were being attacked by the teenagers." I saw them as religious zealots disparaging Native Americans and gay people. So what’s real and what’s not? Even after watching hours of video, it’s hard to tell. I heard the kids standing up to racists and homophobes, but others have claimed that Covington High is a hotbed of racism and homophobia. Both can be true. And while Nathan Phillips told the Detroit Free Press that he heard the MAGA boys chanting “Build the wall,” it’s not evident in any of the videos that I saw. It's certainly plausible—it wouldn’t be the first time a red hat chanted that particular slogan—but at some point, what’s accepted as real and what’s not comes down to who is doing the telling.
I’m sure not everyone will be swayed by the longer videos, although I am sure that some people defending these kids will see a backlash. After news organizations, to their credit, started to report the “fuller picture” on Sunday, I saw one person say on Twitter, “Don’t let them spin this. We know what we saw.” And it’s undeniable that the kids look for all the world like white-privileged assholes. Still, after reviewing the evidence for myself, I decided to delete my retweet of the viral video clip. No video can show every perspective, but the 3 hours of footage I watched complicated the good versus evil narrative I’d assumed to be fact. It also reminded me, once again, of the dangers of confirmation bias. When I saw a young white man in a red MAGA hat staring down a Native American elder, I just knew he was a bigot, a thug. And maybe he is. Maybe he is exactly the smug little shit he looked like in that moment. But these boys, like everyone, should be judged by what they actually did, not by a 6-second clip spreading, like an illness, around Twitter.
Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously claimed that Nick Sandmann's mother erroneously claimed that "black Muslims" started the conflict. It was another Covington student's mother, not Nick Sandmann's, and the author has been sentenced to attend a service with the Black Hebrew Israelites.