Even as reporters who had been caught up in the BuzzFeed fake news fiasco were concluding that journalists need to take more time to verify the facts before reporting and rushing to judgment, the news media was already attacking a group of high school boys from a Catholic school in Covington, Kentucky based upon a viral video clip selectively ripped from nearly two hours of footage. We were told that a group of white privileged, hateful, bigots mobbed and mocked an elderly Native American identified as Nathan Phillips while he was singing a prayer of peace. Particularly troubling to the media was a smiling young man in a red Make America Great Again hat who was said to be aggressively standing his ground with a “smirk” that says, “‘I’m richer, I’m white, and I’m a guy. My existence trumps your experience.’”
The video clip, which originated from a Twitter account that has since been suspended for “misleading account information,” simply shows boisterous high schoolers chanting with Phillips and a boy smiling as an elderly man beats a ceremonial drum inches from his face while chanting. Nevertheless, this was sufficient to trigger social justice warriors throughout the nation, and the media was quick to supply the missing context based upon only the unquestioned testimony of the Native Americans.
Marcus Frejo, known as Chief Quese Imc, told The Associated Press, “he felt they were mocking the dance and also heckling a couple of black men nearby.” Likewise, Nathan Phillips –erroneously presented as a valiant Vietnam war veteran rather than a long-time political activist with a history of lying—said the confrontation felt like “hate unbridled,” and he wiped away tears as he recounted, “I heard them say, ‘Build that wall, build that wall.’”
Originally Phillips told The Washington Post that as he was “singing the American Indian Movement song that serves as a ceremony to send spirits home, he noticed tensions beginning to escalate when the teens and other apparent participants from the nearby March for Life rally began taunting the dispersing indigenous crowd.” Then the Covington high schoolers “swarmed around him,” but “Phillips kept drumming and singing, thinking about his wife, Shoshana, who died of bone marrow cancer nearly four years ago, and the various threats that face indigenous communities around the world”.
Later, Phillips told a very different story to the Detroit Free Press, “‘[The boys] were in the process of attacking these four black individuals,’ Phillip [sic] said. ‘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.’ … ‘So I put myself in between that, between a rock and hard place’. He went on to say, “There was that moment when I realized I’ve put myself between beast and prey. … These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey, and I stood in between them and so they needed their pounds of flesh and they were looking at me for that.”
Likewise, Nathan Phillips told CNN that he confronted the Covington students because he was witnessing hatred and racism from the boys who looked ready to lynch a group of nearby Black Hebrew Israelite activists just because of the color of their skin. Phillips also said he feared for his own safety from the kids who seemed to want to rip him apart because he had “denied them their prey.” They were very aggressive and said things like, “Build the wall” and, “In my state, those Indians are nothing but a bunch of drunks.”
However, the hours of video footage taken of the event reveals a remarkably different story—one in which the Covington high schoolers, as victims of harassment and racism, exercised incredible restraint, seeking instead to defuse escalating tensions while being berated as “incest babies,” “dusty [expletive] white crackers,” “child molesting f**gots,” “racists,” “future school shooters,” and more. This would have been evident to any reporter who bothered to investigate the facts by first watching the viral video clip in context from the two hours of available footage—or even talk to any of the other witnesses present. Instead, the media rushed to judgment.
After the March for Life rally, the Covington students reconvened at the Lincoln Memorial to wait for a bus. Upon arriving at the memorial, they witnessed a cultic group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites viciously and persistently shout racist remarks at those involved in the Indigenous Peoples March which was protesting President’s Trump’s plans to build a border wall. After a heated and profane exchange between members of these two groups, which is too vulgar to repeat, the Black Hebrew Israelites tried to redirect the Native American’s hatred to the handful of teenagers who were quietly watching from a distance. As some of the Black Hebrew Israelites hollered, “build that wall,” another shouted:
That’s the problem. A bunch of demons, always talking out their [expletive]. Always talking out their [expletive], but you won’t say that to this peckerwood wearing a Make America Great hat again. You [expletive] Uncle Tomahawks. You a bunch of Uncle Tomahawks. Why don’t you crack that peckerwood with the hat on? Why you don’t crack his head? Why you don’t speak to him like that? Cause you an Uncle Tomahawk. You think that this—there’s Uncle Toms? You an Uncle Tomahawk. Out of your mind. Got your head up the white man’s [expletive]. Talk about peace, peace. Ain’t gonna be no peace. You gonna be ripped in pieces, thus saith the Lord if you don’t repent from your wicked ways.
Over the course of the next hour, tensions escalated as the Black Hebrew Israelites hurled continuous insults at the Native Americans as well as other bystanders, occasionally threatening physical harm. In an effort to drown out and counter these profane, hateful, homophobic, and racist rants, the Covington students asked their chaperones for permission to sing their school pep rally songs. Given that the school has an annual tradition of rallying at the steps of the Lincoln memorial where they sing their school spirit songs, the chaperones agreed.
Soon Nathan Phillips and a few other Native Americans waded through the crowd of kids, beating a drum and chanting. Nobody tried to block his path as he locked eyes with Nick Sandmann and came within inches of his face, all-the-while beating his drum and chanting. In an official statement, Sandmann explains what followed:
I never interacted with this protestor. I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves. To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me. 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.
I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse [sic] 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. … During the period of the drumming, a member of the protestor’s entourage began yelling at a fellow student that we “stole our land” and that we should “go back to Europe.” I heard one of my fellow students begin to respond. I motioned to my classmate and tried to get him to stop engaging with the protestor, as I was still in the mindset that we needed to calm down tensions.
For this, Nick Sandmann, his family, and his fellow students have received death threats, and a bomb threat was called into their school. Dan Gainor writes, “The Twitter mob formed, threatening first the wrong student and then bombarding the Covington students with everything from calls to doxx them to death wishes and death threats. The assault was incredible. MAGA hats are ‘offensive’ or ‘white privilege’ or the ‘new white hood.’ The Washington Post ran an entire opinion piece about one boy’s ‘smirk.’ The students were called ‘baby snakes’ and mocked as ‘victims of their own choices.’”
Twitter was in an uproar. Comedian Kathy Griffin repeatedly asked that the children be doxxed, “Name these kids. I want NAMES. Shame them. If you think these [expletive] wouldn’t dox you in a heartbeat, think again.” Comedian Sarah Beattie offered oral sex to “whoever manages to punch that maga kid in the face.” Stormy Daniels Tweeted, “I’m suddenly in favor of building a wall…around Covington Catholic High in K.Y. And let’s electrify it to keep those disgusting punks from getting loose and creating more vileness in society.”
Disney producer Jack Morrissey shared a cartoon image of a woodchipper spraying blood with the caption, “#MAGAkids go screaming, hats first, into the woodchipper.” Alyssa Milano Tweeted, “The red MAGA hat is the new white hood.” And musician “Uncle Shoes” Tweeted, “If you are a true fan of Shoes I want you to fire on any of these red hat [expletive] when you see them. On sight.” Also, “Lock the kids in the school and burn that [expletive] to the ground.” He reiterated this the next day, Tweeting, “Burn the [expletive] school down.”
Apparently, the only true villains in this story are the Covington students, and Nick Sandmann’s greatest crime was smiling at a Native American. Never mind how inappropriate it is for Native American adults to confront and provoke a group of high schoolers by locking eyes with a boy and banging a drum inches from his face. Never mind the hours of homophobic and racist rants coming from the Black Hebrew Israelites. Never mind the profanity-laced confrontations between the Native Americans and the Black Hebrew Israelites. In short, never mind that the clear examples of division, intolerance, and aggression were entirely from the others involved.
Division and prejudice were on full display, but the Covington students were not the face of division. At the heart of this narrative is Nathan Phillips, who says he has forgiveness in his heart for the students even as he fans the flame of division. He and a group of protestors even attempted to disrupt a Catholic mass while Phillips read the statement, “We demand that the students of Covington Catholic High School be reprimanded. Not just by the school officials, but as seniors, by their upcoming universities.” Moreover, Phillips has refused to acknowledge that the video evidence supports Nick Sandmann’s statement and does not support any versions of his own account, instead demanding that Sandmann issue a new statement.
It is easy to spot the divisive and bigoted spirit among the Black Hebrew Israelites, but division and prejudice takes many forms … even the form of an elderly Native American who speaks of peace and forgiveness. The song he was chanting may be a prayer for peace, but as Kyle Smith concludes for the National Review, “Nathan Phillips went out seeking to create an incident, and he fooled the New York Times and Washington Post into accepting his false version of it.” It takes a special kind of divisive spirit and commitment to identity politics to not only use high school boys as political pawns, but to seek to destroy their college futures in an effort to keep the national spotlight just a little longer.
Likewise, division and prejudice can take the form of social justice warriors seeking to rid the world of intolerance. Rarely is there a more fertile platform for the seeds of division and hateful bigotry than Twitter. On his radio program, Rush Limbaugh argued that “Twitter is the cesspool and the sewer that keeps all this destructive drivel and [expletive] alive and blossoming.”
Furthermore, division and prejudice can take the form of respectable news anchors who are predisposed to believe anything that affirms their preferred narrative. Even after being exposed as a fake news story resulting in death threats being levied against high school students who did little more than demonstrate to the nation how to exercise restraint, some in the news media refused to report the facts, choosing instead to double-down on their false narrative. Others refused to absolve the children of the charge of racism—or, conversely, to charge the Native Americans or Black Hebrew Israelites—arguing that the students are ultimately culpable because of their decision to wear Make America Great Again hats.
Regardless of what form it takes, division must be renounced. As a citizenry, we cannot ignore or excuse it. Jesus reminds us that a nation divided against itself cannot stand (Luke 11:17). Moreover, as Christians, we cannot ignore or excuse it. God warns that He hates those who sow division, a false report, and those who are quick to do evil (Prov. 6:16–19). In other words, God hates false narratives that divide the nation and provoke people to destroy the lives of others. As White House press secretary Sarah Sanders notes, “I’ve never seen people so happy to destroy a kid’s life.”
Time and again the news media has proven its inability to identify and adequately renounce divisive false news stories. Likewise, Twitter, who has been quick to suspend accounts promoting false information and intolerance, has repeatedly refused to censor false news stories and intolerant Tweets that match the company’s preferred narrative. As such, we cannot depend upon the news media or Twitter to stem the tide of division and prejudice. Instead, we the people must be the ones to hold accountable those who sow seeds of discord using false narratives. But this requires that we first be capable of identifying the many faces of division.
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Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.