Did the Boys of Covington Catholic “Mob” a Native American Elder?

If you had the misfortune of being on Twitter yesterday, you were likely swept up in the flood of outrage at the MAGA-hatted students of the all-male Covington Catholic High School. When I first watched the viral video that appeared to show the boys surrounding and taunting a Native American elder, Nathan Phillips, as he beat a ceremonial drum and chanted — I seethed with anger. I didn’t even have the sound on. The images alone were enough to assure me that all the bipartisan blue-checkmark indignation was more than justified.

The idea of (ostensibly Catholic) teenagers disrupting a ceremonial chant at the inaugural Indigenous Peoples March with shouts of “Build the wall!” jives with everything I take for granted about the “spirit of Trumpism.” It was a despairing spectacle, but it also provided a measure of schadenfreude: any moment now these brats would be doxxed and irrevocably tarred by their bigoted folly.

And then fresh videos began to appear in my feed. As I watched — and now listened — I experienced a sinking feeling. I was part of a mob, not those boys.

In none of the videos of the incident will one hear anyone chanting “Build the wall!” Nor will one see students “swarm” Phillips and his compatriots. Rather, one sees a group of teenage boys chanting their school’s fight song as they waited on steps near the Lincoln Memorial for their bus to arrive. One sees Phillips, accompanied by a small group of activists, several of whom already have their phones out and filming, approach the crowd of boys and insert himself into their midst while drumming and chanting.

The boys are clearly surprised and confused by his presence, and they attempt to participate in his chanting. They do so ineptly and raucously — a few even foolishly making Atlanta Braves-style tomahawk hand gestures. Several of them goof-off for the cameras. In other words, a large group of boys are confronted with a novel situation and behave, well, like boys.

The mood of the situation shifts when Phillips positions himself directly in front of a student and beats his drum deliberately inches from the kid’s face. He even appears to strike the drum more forcefully. The kid quickly realizes that Phillips is trying to provoke him, but he holds his ground, refusing to be intimidated, smirking at the absurdity of the situation. In the video below (beginning at 0:42), it’s clear that the kid never moved from where he was standing prior to being approached by Phillips. Other students, however, initially back away, before crowding back in — giving the false impression that they’re egging him on.

One of Phillips’ companions then begins to verbally accost one of the students. “You white people go back to Europe,” he says, “this is not your land.” The student argues back. As the interchange gets heated, the boy who had been confronted by Phillips gestures to the arguing boy to knock it off (which he does). Another activist also helps de-escalate the man arguing with the boy.

Mainstream news outlets were quick to seize on the story and spin Nathan Phillips as hero. Courtesy of The Washington Post:

“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’ ” Phillips recalled. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”

It would be too generous to assume that Phillips merely misremembered events. The confrontation was premeditated, tailor-made for the viral outrage mob. That Phillips appears to be an honorable man outside of this episode — he is a Vietnam veteran who takes care to honor the memory of fellow Native Americans who died in the war each year at Arlington National Cemetery — does not mitigate his behavior.

In an interview with CNN, Phillips claims that he approached the students because they were harassing a group of African-American men who were (in the anchor’s words) “preaching about the Bible and oppression.” The young African-American men who needed Phillip’s assistance, it turns out, were Black Hebrew Israelites, an eccentric black nationalist cult led by “General Yahanna” (who was present in the group). A longer video of the incident shows Covington students engaging calmly with Yahanna, even as the General shouts at them, “Claim your true history. Claim the Greeks. Claim the Romans. The Greeks was a bunch of homosexuals, just like the Romans. … You proud of sodomy? You look like a product of sodomy!” A little later he declares, “Your president is a homosexual!”

(Update: A nearly two-hour-long video filmed by one of the Black Israelites shows scattered moments of tension as some of the boys push back against racist and homophobic slurs. And another video more clearly shows the boys raucously chanting their school’s fight song to drown out the hate group. Nick Sandmann, the boy centrally feature in the confrontation, has released a statement, which is supported by the available footage.)

Major news outlets ran with the false story even though the exonerating footage was readily available. Is this a case of intentional libel? Or is this merely one more example of journalists refusing to perform due diligence on a story that suited their ideological purposes?

Thankfully, at least one local news station was willing to get the students’ side of the story. Read the transcript below of one student’s account of the event. You’ll find that it lines up quite well with everything that can be discerned from the videos.

It really does appear that these kids’ only sin was wearing MAGA-swag and being male (and, mostly, white). If the goal of CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post is to keep young men like those of Covington Catholic on the Trump Train, their malicious, egregiously unethical reporting is perhaps the surest means of doing so.

(Update: A nearly two-hour-long video filmed by one of the Black Hebrew Israelites shows scattered moments of tension as some of the Covington boys push back against racist and homophobic slurs. And another video more clearly shows the boys raucously chanting their school’s fight song to drown out the hate group. Nick Sandmann, the boy centrally featured in the confrontation, has also released a statement, which the available footage supports.)

Justin Lee is a columnist at Arc Digital. Read more of his work and follow him on Twitter.

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