Monday, January 21, 2019

What happened with Covington Catholic / Nathan Phillips / House of Israel D.C.?

I hate to post all these more serious blogs over the past few months (I much prefer comic book talk), but it seems that’s how society is right now.  That’s how I am too, I guess.

It’s a constant political / economical / racial thought process because that’s what is plastered all over Twitter and in the media.

This weekend was different though.  It was really an eye-opener for me.  

I know that the people of the U.S. are divided on many issues.  Most people I know (of all races, genders and backgrounds) tend to continue on with daily life.  Entertainment and sports sometimes take focus and can kind of tuck away the differences we have.  

When everyone is talking about a football game or a UFC fight or which movie will get an Oscar, it’s easy to forget the vast difference of opinions we have and how two people can view the same situation entirely different.

I saw a video on Saturday that went viral.  The headlines read something like this: 'On Friday, during the Indigenous Peoples March, a group of Make America Great Again hat-wearing white Catholic teenagers surrounded a Vietnam war veteran / indigenous man while he was beating his drum and singing a Native prayer.'

So, basically, a MAGA hat-wearing punk confronted the man, stared him down and wouldn’t move out of his way.

I clicked on a Tweeted cell video that included a short interview with the man --- Nathan Phillips --- taken the evening this unfolded.  He heard singing and chants of ‘Build That Wall.’  He went on to talk emotionally (wiping tears from his eyes at times) talk about the state of the country.

I didn’t necessarily think much of it because: A) when isn’t there some kind of confrontation in the news? B) I know to take all news with a grain of salt and C) there’s no direct impact on my life.

That’s not to say that people aren’t impacted by things that don’t directly involve them.  There’s always something you can take away from a situation, especially if you take a few moments to empathize and reflect.

I carried a few thoughts about respect and cultural tension away with me when I clicked away from the tweet that described the situation in 160 characters or less.  

Mostly, I was disheartened that people couldn't converse with each other without confrontation during the various marches that happen.

But I continued on with my day (my laundry wasn’t going to take care of itself).

Later that evening, I was on YouTube and saw a couple of 2 or 3-minute cell phone videos that showed different angles of what happened.

From the video I saw, Nathan Phillips wasn’t surrounded by the students with the goal of impeding his way to the top of the Lincoln Memorial stairs.  He walked towards the group of high school students to begin with.  That didn't match a previous article that I read, but I didn't think much of it.

Then I saw another video. This video was a close-up of what happened (you can watch it here), while also providing a different angle.  From this video, Nathan Phillips approached a teen (at 00:23) while playing his drum and then (at approximately 00:46), he approached the now infamous man in the red hat.
I was confused because I wasn’t seeing the same thing that a bunch of tweets (enough to make it a trending topic on Saturday) indicated.

I read multiple articles about it, watched a CNN interview with Nathan Phillips and saw a tweet from WKRC reporter Adam Clements.  The tweet from Clements included a response from a student who was there at the Lincoln Memorial.

The story that was coming from one side wasn’t adding up with the story coming from the other side. The headlines and tweets weren’t matching the video I saw.  

Finally, I saw a video posted to YouTube that showed 1:46:18 worth of what happened (you can watch it here). The video was shot by House of Israel D.C. member Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan.  He apparently pulled it from social media, but not before someone else grabbed it.

So, I grabbed as much of the available cell phone footage of the incident that I could and put together a YouTube video: What happened with the Covington Catholic / Nathan Phillips situation?

On Sunday, Indian Country Today posted 4 videos to their Vimeo Channel (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), so you can take a look at those to evaluate the situation further.

Here’s my analysis of what happened:

  • The House of Israel D.C. members were exercising their right to free speech at the base of the Lincoln Memorial.  Over the course of the entire 1:46:18 video, they shouted almost every racial slur I can imagine.  I don’t agree with it and I wouldn’t have engaged with them had I been there, but they’ve got the right to free speech.
  • They were asked by a Native American man to tone down the rhetoric because there were women and children there, taking part in the annual Indigenous Peoples March.
  • Another woman approached them and took offense to being told that Indian translated to ‘Savage.’
  • A Native American Vietnam war veteran (not Nathan Phillips) approached the group of young black men and disputed their claim about the definition of Indians.
  • Another woman (who seemed to be the mother of the first woman who approached the group) got angry, telling them that the devil is in them.  They called her a ‘culture vulture’ among other things.
  • At this point the Indigenous Peoples March was happening, as you can see in the video.  They had a legal permit for that annual march, as has been reported.  Another Native American approaches the Black Hebrew Israelites, also upset with what they are saying.  The response?  They called him an “Uncle Tomahawk.”
  • A different group (this time white people) wanted to know where there is ‘hate’ in the Bible.
  • At that point, the person shooting the cell video turned it towards a group of Covington Catholic students. They are showing up because they are supposed to meet at the Lincoln Memorial for their bus trip back home to Kentucky (according to what the student told the WKRC reporter).
  • The main speaker for the Black Hebrew Israelites calls Trump a ‘faggot’ and calls the students pedophiles. He says black people and Hispanics can’t be Roman Catholics.  They called a black man a coon and an Uncle Tom as well (along with several other things).
  • At 55 minutes you see Nathan Phillips walking around as the Indigenous Peoples March has apparently wrapped up.  The Black Hebrew Israelites are talking about white men breaking peace treaties.
  • More and more students gather as they are waiting for their bus, but move to the stairs --- on the other side of the Hebrew activists.
  • They start to do cheers to drown out the House of Israel D.C. (according to what one student wrote in text format to the WKRC reporter).  The video matches that claim.
  • At one point a boy runs down and takes off his shirt, which gets his classmates cheering.  Nothing that you wouldn’t see at any football game.
  • After the parade was over, Nathan Phillips noticed the Black Hebrew Israelites and the Covington Catholic boys making noises.
  • He walked over (after the Indigenous Peoples March had ended … not during) while beating his drum and performing a Native prayer.
  • The teens jumped around, smiling.  Some perhaps mockingly.  Some disrespectful.  Others just having fun.  Everyone will have a different interpretation of that.
  • Overall, it seemed they were confused by what was going on --- unsure if Phillips was part of the antagonistic Hebrew group.
  • The first time we see the now infamous CCH student – Nick Sandmann – was when he was clearly standing on the steps alongside his classmates.
  • Phillips approaches a different student first, seemingly focused on him.  That other student shrugs as if to say, ‘I’m not sure what’s going on.’
  • Phillips continues inward and comes face-to-face with Sandmann, but doesn’t seem to be ascending the stairs.  He just approaches him.  Sandmann smiles awkwardly and seemingly isn’t sure if it’s a confrontation or not.  So he continues to smile (perhaps smugly … again, open to interpretation).
  • While that’s going on, the Black Hebrew Israelites are still shouting profanities at the other students closer to them.  They, again, perform a school cheer.
  • One of the other Native American’s in the group with Phillips gets into an argument with one of the students about U.S. land, dropping the F-bomb a couple of times.  Sandmann motions to his friend, apparently saying ‘don’t argue with him.’  Some of the students seem ignorant to what is going on and the significance of the prayer.
  • Phillips turns away from Sandmann and continues beating his drum, performing his prayer.
  • The Black Hebrew Israelites regain the attention of parts of the crowd and yell more obscenities.
  • The students’ bus finally arrives and they take off, happy to get out of there.

Now you can talk about whether or not the students all showed the proper respect for an Indian prayer like that (I'd argue that several of them didn't), but given the fact that it was a confusing situation with the Black Hebrew Israelites involved (yelling at everyone), I’m not surprised they didn’t know what to do or how to react when Nathan Phillips approached them.

Is he part of the Hebrew Israelites group?  Why is he approaching them?  Why is he getting so close?

I look at the video and I don’t see ‘hate’ in anyone's eyes or ‘a riot’ occurring, the way Tara Houska, tribal rights attorney, told MSNBC today.  Ignorance and confusion?  Yes.  Not hate though.

I get the sense that she and the lawyer who was S.E. Cupp’s CNN show on Saturday night (Chase Iron Eyes) are both getting involved for their own benefits at this point, as is the case with a lot of lawyers who end up on TV.  There was a lot of propaganda that I was hearing coming from both of them instead of a solution.

I think Nathan Phillips was trying to probably diffuse the situation.  I don’t think he was looking for a publicity stunt.  

Why were cameras filming him?  They were filming everyone there.  Cell videos all over.  The Hebrew group was filming.  Those involved in the Indigenous Peoples March were filming.  Students were filming.

Based on interviews I’ve read and listened to, Phillips thought the Catholic students were antagonizing the group of 4 black men and wanted to step in before anything got physical.

Good intentions, but he just got it wrong.  The Black Hebrew Israelites were instigating anyone who would listen to them.

Instead, Phillips focused on the teens, probably trying to show them that they need to be respectful. Had he known what the Black Hebrew Israelites were saying, I’d hope he’d have approached it all differently.

Maybe he’d have performed in between the two groups instead of focusing on one and going into the crowd of amped up teens.

Where were the chaperones? Good question.  It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback, but I think someone should’ve told them to just ignore the comments.

Why were they wearing MAGA hats?  Because they have a right to, whether you, I or anyone else agrees with them.

What would’ve happened had Phillips not walked into the picture?  Not much.  

It’s impossible to say, of course, but I don’t think the Black Hebrew Israelites were there for a fight. They were there for the platform.  

The students were goofing around and reacting to racist comments the best way they knew how, not looking to fight.  They were there for a bus ride back home.

I think this was the convergence of 3 groups with different agendas, maturity levels, opinions and understanding of what was happening.  

I saw some insensitive moments and some mockery.  

I saw a group of Native Americans (perhaps trying to make a point of calm emotions) move into a crowd of students that was keeping their distance from a hate group.

What I didn't see was a level of racism that people originally tweeted about or actions that people originally condemned.

We see what we want to see

Just as people debated over the white/gold or blue/black dress, whether Jim Acosta physically touched the White House aide or pretty much any NFL referee call during last night’s playoff games, people see what they want to.

Here are some of the comments I’ve seen:

  • “He may have gone toward the students but to me it sure appears they surrounded him”
  • “So the kids are on the sideline and there is plenty of room for Nathan Phillips to walk and then there isn’t because the kids surrounded him and start mocking him”
  • “They are literally doing absolutely nothing but standing in one place. I see the Black men and Indian man getting in peoples faces and doing the exact thing that they claim others are doing to them but are obviously not.”
  • “Oh, interesting, both groups are awful.”

Everyone is in their respective corners on this one.  It's a mixed bag.  Nobody will be in full agreement on this odd, viral encounter.  I don't think that will change in this case.

Quick to judge

Social media has a lot of great platforms that make it easy for people to stay connected in a way they never could before.  

You can stay in touch with friends once they move away --- friends who you may not have stayed in touch with if you didn’t have the benefit of Instagram or Facebook Messenger.

At the same time there is a downside to it.  You see a short headline or a clip in your busy day (maybe as you're waiting at the dentist or as you're walking into the grocery store or in line at the Redbox) and that's all you get.  That small clip.  One headline.  It infuriates you because, if the situation is as described, it should infuriate you.

But so many times, the situation needs a little more digging.  It's not clear-cut or at least not as clear-cut as you'd think.  You've already got your mind made up though.

News judgment needs to improve

At some point I do believe the media needs to be more responsible in what they report and how they report it.  I worked in TV news for 10 years so I’m not about to jump on the #FakeNews bandwagon.

I know that there’s no master plan --- no master agenda -- amongst the various networks.  The realities of the job do lead to incomplete stories being told though.

When those incomplete stories are told, people spread them online, not knowing that it's not entirely accurate information.

Due diligence is no longer holding a story until you get a comment from both sides.  It’s saying ‘We reached out to (insert name here) but haven’t heard back yet.’

One line at the end of the story mentioning that you weren't able to get a comment / statement doesn't justify running an entire story that is one-sided.

Or, if you have to run the story, it should be made very clear throughout the piece that we don't know the entire situation and this is one person's version of the events.

Also, the news has to consider the fact that people don't always see the updates in 2019.  Even as new details emerge over the weekend, you didn't see them because you're out with your friends at a sporting event or at a brewery or watching Netflix.

I check my Twitter timeline, but if it's not right at the top, I may not see an update that happened on a story I already read about.  I've gone a couple of weeks before seeing an updated, corrected or retracted story.

Also, there absolutely is a race to get the first tweet out and the first clip out and get the ratings.  That's understandable, but at what cost?  If you're doing a disservice to your viewers by not publishing the entire story or investigating deep enough, then your first tweet doesn't mean anything.

As a viewer / reader, I want to depend on your accuracy.  Speedy reporting and tweeting is an element that is expected too, but, mostly, I want to trust that I can get accurate information from your news agency.

Race always comes into play

This situation did involve predominantly white Catholic students (they also had some black students in the crowd), Black Hebrew Israelites and Native Americans.

So maybe this is the perfect recipe for a race debate, but is it odd that I don’t see race being a huge issue here?

I mean, there were a lot of racial slurs being used by the BHI, but at it’s core: the incident itself had more to do with a lot happening at once than it did with race.

‘Man walks up to boy and neither backs down while both are part of a larger, confusing situation.’

It’s the added racial and cultural elements that we added (white Catholic MAGA hat-wearing teen, Native man and Vietnam veteran performing a prayer) when we viewed the video that evoked emotions.

People compared this situation to all kinds of racial situations
  • Anne Helen Peterson tweeted a photo of Sandmann and Brett Kavanaugh, saying: “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.”
  • A comment in the Daily Mail coverage: "Oh yes, his slow moving dance as he gets closer to a rowdy crowd. That hoodlum of a Native, forcing his peace on these poor white kids. How terrible of him.
  • A YouTube comment: “So the white teen Trump supporters are the victims….”
  • A Twitter comment: “We shouldn’t be mad at racist white highschoolers because they’re “just kids” but Trayvon Martin and every other black teenager that gets shot is obviously an adult because reasons." 

I hope that young black men in this same exact situation wouldn’t be labeled ‘thugs’ by anybody.

Sure, I don't doubt that some did call Martin a thug (which I don’t agree with), but Obama said if he had a son, he'd imagine that he'd look like Trayvon Martin.

Also, there are just as many people (if not more) who don’t think highly of George Zimmerman. 

Too many people, at times, seem to focus on the minority groups.  Also, they seem to conflate the comments.  Who is to say that the same people referring to the Covington Catholic group as 'young men' didn't also refer to Trayvon Martin as a 'young man'?

Some people are racist and will always be racist.  They truly believe what they are saying.  

Take the comments of the Black Hebrew Israelites.  They wholeheartedly believe what they are saying.  It’d be great if their opinions were more in line with what society thinks, but they’re not right now.  

That’s just how it is.  We can deal with that though.  I think that's a smaller part of society than we think.  We just give them too much credit.

Let's make it political (and invite the celebrities)

Of course, just as race seems to come into play (something a lot of people of all skin colors seem to be tired of reading about), politics have to be involved too.

One U.S. Senator suggested that there be a ban on all MAGA hats (he later said it was a joke).

Kathy Griffin and Chris Evans tweeted about this.

Kara Swisher called them Nazis (a term I think gets thrown around way to loosely these days).

They're followers see this and then retweet and it becomes a big echo chamber before anyone even gets to evaluate the situation for themselves.  That's the important thing: to evaluate it for yourself and form your own opinion.

Don't let a celebrity or politician's comments frame it for you.

Lessons Learned?

S.E. Cupp offered a Twitter apology.  Some said it wasn’t needed because her first opinion was spot on.  Some said they didn’t accept it (too little, too late).  Others accepted the apology.

Other people (Kara Swisher, Scott Adams) did the same.

Some people stand by their initial reaction.

While there’s still some difference of opinions, it is nice to see headlines that are more reflective of what happened:
  • CNN: Video shows a different side of encounter between a Native American and teens
  • CBS2nd video offers new context to Kentucky boys taunting Native American activist
  • Washington Post: Viral standoff between a tribal elder and a high schooler is more complicated than it first seemed
  • The New York Times update: Interviews and additional video footage have offered a fuller picture of what happened in this encounter, including the context that the Native American man approached the students amid broader tensions outside the Lincoln Memorial 

And each news organization (CNN, Fox News, CBS) seems to be having a conversation about rushing to judgment and trying to destroy people on Twitter.

That’s a reminder I think we all need.

Even if you didn't change your stance after seeing additional video, there was a lot more to the situation than the small snippet we originally saw.

Also, can we get past trying to ruin someone’s life just because you don’t agree with what they said or did?  There are absolutely some horrific things that can absolutely not be defended to anyone with any set of decent morals, but this situation didn’t come close to that.

A possibly rude smirk doesn't mean you should try to stop this kid from going to college.  If we are to accept that people's views change as they mature (something Kevin Hart, Tulsi Gabbard and others are messaging right now), then let's not ruin someone's life over one individual incident.

This goes beyond this one incident though.  It’s happened on social media before.  Instant outrage and harsh backlash.

A lot of the time, I'm shocked or dismayed along with everyone else, but in what way is posting private information and trying to put people out of work OK?

There are people out there in this world that send pipe bombs and anthrax through the mail.  Or they show up at people's homes and intimidate their opposition.  Don't normalize that behavior or encourage it by putting personal information out there, please.

Everyone wants to make their opinion known and they feel like they’re standing up for equality and justice by using hashtags and tweets.  I get that. Sometimes you feel powerless and you want to do the right thing.  Throw your support towards the victim in whatever story has you outraged.  Send them a nice email or letter.

Just remember: the court of public opinion can be a very harsh and unforgiving place and social media comments accelerate that.  Things are cemented on social media forever.

Even though you’re on Twitter, it doesn’t make you any less of a bully or make that behavior any less mob-like.  Instead of an eye for an eye, try going the empathy route. 

I’m posting this on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  It seems appropriate to be talking about empathy as your striving for justice.

Final thoughts

I hope the parents of Covington Catholic do speak to their children about how to deescalate tense situations, about how to handle confrontational people and about the consequences of wearing a MAGA hat in today’s society.

Should they be able to wear it?  Absolutely. It’s good that they do.  However, in a place like D.C., there are all kinds of marches that happen and opinions held by a variety of people.  It’s convergence point of different ideas and that can sometimes lead to conflict.
I'd like to see this issue die down or (preferably) come to a positive conclusion.

Maybe Phillips could have a meeting with the students of the Covington Catholic school to exchange a dialogue about what happened, how social media reacted and what could've been done differently.  Film it (or live stream it) and put it on YouTube.

Help move this discussion forward instead of going back and forth about who is right.

Also, it was nice to see white, black and indigenous people debate the Black Hebrew Israelites on their comments.  We will always have differences and celebrate our cultures and heritages, but we’re all the humans living in the United States.

You can know where you came from, be proud of the successes, learn from the mistakes and not separate yourself into a particular category.  I see examples of the great American melting pot more and more on social media and in every day life.

Whether it’s mixed couples (of skin color or religion) getting married, black Americans at a Trump rally, males supporting female candidates, females voters not automatically supporting female candidates or white people marching in a black rights protest, it’s nice to see that we’re not segregated the way we once were.

I think we often get a skewed viewpoint based on what we see in the media.

The stories in the media often reinforce stereotypes (e.g. all Christians are hypocrites, all black people are Democrats, all Republicans are trash, all liberals are loons).

The fact that people don’t fit into stereotypes as much as they used to should be a warning to everyone: don’t judge (especially quickly) a book by its cover.  

You may have more in common with that person than you think.

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