I’m not happy that I have to write about this. I’m not usually in the business of defending rowdy, Catholic, pro-life teens in MAGA caps. Nothing personal, it’s just that they really aren’t my cup of tea. I’m no fan of Trump. In fact, I’m a lifelong, left-learning, pro-choice exiled liberal working at a centre-right news website. (I must admit that my life has been enriched by this opportunity to work and disagree with colleagues in a healthy professional environment, but I digress.)
The point is that I must write about this: The mobbing of the Covington Catholic high school boys that dominated social media yesterday was wrong. The media reports that spurred on the mobbing were wrong. My own participation in the mob (albeit minor) was wrong. I tweeted just once about it. I responded to a friend, agreeing that the video footage that had gone viral—what looked like a group of MAGA teens surrounding and intimidating an elderly First Nations drummer named Nathan Phillips—looked bad, and added “How awful. Ugh.”
I didn’t target, rage post, or dox, but given my own experience with mobbing, I would be a hypocrite to not admit that I was wrong, I was duped, and I should have been more careful. Besides, what kind of a reformed social justice crusader would I be if I only defended publicly shamed people with whom I agree?
The New York Times (along with basically every other major news outlet) proclaimed that the boys—who were in town for a pro-life march—had mobbed a “native elder at [an] indigenous peoples march.” The video that circulated with the stories was a minute and a half clip that indeed did look like a bunch of entitled young men surrounding the elder, Nathan Phillips.
A writer for Jezebel asked her readers to hook her up with a school yearbook so she could identify and target the boys. Stormy Daniels got into the act. Even dependable right wing pundits were quick to condemn the boys, calling them disgusting. The mayor of Covington apologized. The Kentucky Diocese apologized and condemned the boys. And on it went.
But at the same time as hundreds of thousands of tweets piled up calling the boys the worst names imaginable, demanding that they never get into college, calling for physical violence against them and more, the story began to unravel.
It started with a few small voices of dissent. Byron Tau of the Wall Street Journal was among the first and he paid a heavy social price for it.
Some cautioned that we should all wait for more footage to emerge. Those early calls for context were met with anger and more mobbing. But the longer, more complete videos were already being uploaded, and they provided the full picture.
Thanks to the dogged work of independent journalists like Tim Pool and Nick Monroe the mainstream and social media narratives surrounding the incident were almost completely debunked. The full two hour video reveals that the two main talking points for this story were all false.
It was not true that the boys had been chanting “build the wall” (they were doing a school chant, something they are famous for); it was not true that the boys approached Phillips as he was drumming (he approached them with a group of fellow activists who were behind him holding video cameras); it was not true that the boys confronted black protestors as was widely claimed on Twitter (they were confronted and harrassed by a group of racist, anti-semitic fringe lunatics known as the Black Hebrew Israelites); it was, in fact, not true that the boys instigated anything at all.
What the boys did do was verbally defend themselves from homophobic and racist language that was being hurled at them by the nearby Black Hebrew Israelite street preachers. In fact, numerous boys criticized the hateful and homophobic language of the street preachers. They also defended a student of colour in their group who were being heckled for keeping the wrong company.
Over the course of the two hour video, the main Black Israelite street preacher demeaned First Nations people among the crowd for “worshipping totem poles,” and women of colour for “coming up with their loud-ass mouth.” They also condemned America for “giving f*ggots rights.” The young Catholic men jeered in disapproval at this last claim.
The worst thing that (some of) the boys did was clap along with and dance to Phillips’ traditional drumming in a way that could be perceived as mocking. In my opinion, this is unkind, disrespectful behaviour that should be corrected, but it hardly constitutes the mobbing that the media had claimed happened. The full evidence suggests that the boys were remarkably restrained despite being called “klansmen” and “f*ggots” and being told to “go back to Europe.” A statement from Nick Sandmann, the boy who was face to face with Phillips provides even more context.
With regard to the question of why there was an intimidatingly large group of young, white, MAGA-gear clad men gathered at the Lincoln memorial in the first place, the answer is simple. They were told to meet there. They were waiting for their bus.
As for Nathan Phillips, the First Nations drummer and elder, I have no reason to believe he meant any harm either. It’s entirely possible that he truly believed the school chant was a pro-Trump chant. From what I’ve seen in his interviews and sound clips, he seems like a kindhearted and earnest man, steadfast in his beliefs and good intentions.
Despite the current practices of the media, news stories should not have pre-approved heroes and villains.
In the short term, it looks like we simply cannot turn to legacy media when we want to understand what happened and why. If it were not for numerous independent journalists and critical thinkers, we would not know the truth about this situation today.
Slowly but surely, people who had rushed to judgment, myself included, realized that we had all been played by a manipulative and cynical media that values clicks over facts.
Now, that some mainstream media figures are conceding that the story was fake, it appears that these kids just might be spared any further mobbing and harassment.
This story is basically two paranoid imaginings of American political life converging, with the media, instead of setting things straight, opting to confirm everyone’s paranoia. Even when these stories are disproven, the paranoia remains, and people tend to believe that these debunked narratives are still indicative of larger cultural and political enemies they perceive.
Life in America is extremely polarized right now, and there are legitimate grievances to have with Trump and his administration. I just wish the world would would focus on the legitimate ones instead of gravitating to the manufactured ones. For those, like me, who long for a different president and a return to sanity, it’s never been more important to reject the outrage clickbait news cycle that we are currently trapped in.
In a lot of ways it feels like the Trump presidency is like a magnifying glass under the blazing hot sun of the culture wars. When cultural differences are tightly focused through this magnifying glass, everything underneath it becomes part of a raging, uncontrollable fire.
The only way to avoid this happening to you is to refuse to be underneath it at all. Rise above it, and while you’re on your way up, do your best to invite as many people as you can, whether you agree with them or not, to join you.