On Saturday, a short video rocketed across social media that appeared to show a group of male students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky mocking and intimidating an elderly Native American man as he peacefully beat his drum amid the nasty din. Many of the students, who were visiting Washington, DC for the annual March for Life, were wearing red 'Make America Great Again' baseball caps, and were alleged to have chanted things like "build the wall' at their target -- who also turned out to be a US military veteran. Based on the early evidence and claims, it looked like an ugly display of youthful intolerance and bullying. Many who saw the initial tweets condemned the boys' conduct, including myself.
In the hours and days since those first snapshots of the encounter made the rounds, however, it has become crystal clear that the original narrative was hugely misleading. Additional videos from different angles began to emerge, proving that the students did not swarm or try to block the drum-toting man; rather, he proactively approached them. We also learned that a small group of African-American men were hurling racial and homophobic insults at the boys, singling out the small number of non-white students in the group for especially grotesque abuse (including creepily telling a black student that his classmates would harvest his organs). The drum-beating Native American 'victim' was accompanied by someone who screamed at the students to "go back to Europe," profanely hectoring them over 'stolen' land. And the drummer himself acted strangely, choosing to approach one of the students wearing a red hat to play his instrument within inches of the boy's face.
Having viewed more videos and read statements published by several of the students (who have become Internet hate objects, some getting harassed and doxxed -- including a number who weren't even in DC for the incident -- by unhinged strangers), it is now beyond dispute that the first impression of his controversy was wrong. If anything, most of the teenagers behaved better than any of the adults who tried to provoke them, whether intentionally (the overtly hateful trolls) or unintentionally (it's unclear exactly what the Native American man was trying to do). Reason's Robby Soave has published the most evenhanded and definitive account of the incident that I've read. After sharing others' revulsion over what he believed had happened, Soave went on to follow the evidence that started to trickle in, largely exonerating the students and directly contradicting the victimhood tale spun by the Native American man:
The rest of the video—nearly two hours of additional footage showing what happened before and after the encounter—adds important context that strongly contradicts the media's narrative...Far from engaging in racially motivated harassment, the group of mostly white, MAGA-hat-wearing male teenagers remained relatively calm and restrained despite being subjected to incessant racist, homophobic, and bigoted verbal abuse by members of the bizarre religious sect Black Hebrew Israelites, who were lurking nearby...Phillips put himself between the teens and the black nationalists, chanting and drumming as he marched straight into the middle of the group of young people. What followed was several minutes of confusion: The teens couldn't quite decide whether Phillips was on their side or not, but tentatively joined in his chanting. It's not at all clear this was intended as an act of mockery rather than solidarity.
One student did not get out of Phillips way as he marched, and gave the man a hard stare and a smile that many have described as creepy. This moment received the most media coverage: The teen has been called the product of a "hate factory" and likened to a school shooter, segregation-era racist, and member of the Ku Klux Klan. I have no idea what he was thinking, but portraying this as an example of obvious, racially-motivated hate is a stretch. Maybe he simply had no idea why this man was drumming in his face, and couldn't quite figure out the best response? It bears repeating that Phillips approached him, not the other way around...
Mr. Phillips has gone on television and accused the students of being vessels of violent hatred, claiming that they were somehow attacking the black men who were, in reality, the true aggressors, tormenting the teens with vile insults. As Soave writes, "all the evidence suggests that Phillips got it backward." Furthermore, Phillips' version of events -- which has changed dramatically as more evidence has come to light -- "is at best flawed, and arguably deliberately misleading." After viewing the available video, and reading statements from two of the boys (including the teenager who became "the face" of the episode), it seems quite obvious that the students' detailed accounts are at least much closer to the truth than the media storyline that first circulated. And it is now beyond dispute that the worst actors of the whole lot, by far, were the members of the "Black Hebrew Israelites," whose cartoonishly bigoted invective was appalling.
At best, Mr. Phillips may have feared that a physical confrontation was brewing, so he decided to march and chant between the two "sides" to diffuse the situation -- then, suddenly finding himself starring in a national hero vs. villain tale, he decided to lean into his assigned role by twisting the story for maximum effect. But two factors cut against the more sympathetic interpretation of Phillips' actions: His cohort berating the students with racial grievance attacks, and his own bizarre decision to bang his drum directly in a teenager's face. The most charitable explanation of the students' actions is that as they found themselves in a surreal and confusing situation, they maintained laudable composure (especially for kids of that age), and basically waited out the weirdness until it passed. The available evidence strongly suggests that this account of what happened is also the most plausible. It's impossible to vouch for the rectitude of every single student present based on the clips we've now seen (at one point, it looks like some were doing a derisive "tomahawk chop" chant), so I won't go so far as to issue a verdict of 100 percent vindication. That's an overcompensation; some certainly could have been more subdued and respectful.
On balance, however, they handled themselves about as well as one could realistically hope -- considering that they were a group of dozens of teenage boys, far from home, being accosted and approached by adults behaving disgustingly or perplexingly. It is also absolutely appropriate to declare that the manner in which they were portrayed, based on partial information, was not accurate or fair. What I initially saw bothered me deeply. It looked like a pack of young people succumbing juvenile stupidity, treating an elder with shocking disrespect, and sullying their own, noble cause. But looks, in this case, were deceiving. I wish I'd had more information at the time of this tweet, which is part of why I spent the next few days sharing and highlighting new, exculpatory evidence. To that end, I tweeted the very first piece of countervailing information that I noticed in my timeline, then focused more attention on the subject as the extend of the injustice became clearer.
The many media and political figures who ran with the early account should proactively work to correct the record. And those who decided to attempt to identify, shame, and "punish" the students are, in fact, the people who've disgraced themselves here. They should humbly make amends and think hard about lessons learned. In a weekend full of bad takes and rushes to judgment -- no doubt fueled by the media's inclination to believe the very worst about Trump supporters -- I'll leave you with perhaps the most awful take, spewed by a writer at, of all places, Buzzfeed. What a week that crew is having:
One theme of the conversations over the past 24 hours = how deeply familiar this look is. It's the look of white patriarchy, of course, but that familiarity — that banality — is part of what prompts the visceral reaction. This isn't spectacular. It's life in America. pic.twitter.com/TmziDwAjYA— Anne Helen Petersen (@annehelen) January 21, 2019
Actually, this one is worse:
Honest question. Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s? pic.twitter.com/jolQ7BZQPD— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) January 20, 2019
If everyone initially assumed the best about everyone else (especially on twitter) until definitively proven otherwise, what a wonderful world it would be.— Patricia Heaton (@PatriciaHeaton) January 21, 2019