There are so many layers to this story. But first the facts, as best we can put them from media (and social media) reporting.
* The young men went to the March for Life in Washington.
* While at the Lincoln Memorial, they were verbally harassed by the Black Israelites. This group is considered a hate group, and have their own issues. To their credit, they harass anybody within reach.
* At some point during that hour, the Native American march came along, and Nathan Phillips decided to step into the fray to avoid a confrontation.
* Nick Sandmann, the young man in question, got into a staring contest with Mr. Phillips, he claims to defuse the situation. However, accounts from others present put a lie to his view of this. He may believe it, or it may be the manufacture of a PR firm. However, at this point, it has to be taken with a grain of salt. The firm is GOP-linked PR firm RunSwitch.This is as reported by the Courier-Journal.
So the facts are what they are. What can we learn from this?
The first thing to consider is that we have a history of white supremacy and patriarchy in the country. It is ironic, given the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, and the distrust of Protestants and evangelicals of Catholics. Why? The Pope of course, who they are seen to have the first allegiance to. This is a remnant of the 100-year war.
Yet they joined in the March for Life. Let’s just say, that until fairly recently, Catholics in this country were openly distrusted. The KKK was not a fan of the church, and in some places, Catholics are still looked down upon. It might not be as open as it once was, but it is there.
President John F Kennedy had to fight this, and tell Protestant leaders that his priority was the United States, not Rome. While the March for Life may fit Catholic views on abortion (it is a sin under Church doctrine), the Evangelicals they are joining are not quite friendly to them.
We also have to question the actual educational value of a highly charged political rally a few hours away from Covington Kentucky.
We have also seen a few photos emerge, supposedly from the school. These photos show young men in blackface, or even making the OK sign that over the last few years has become a white power sign. These photos have circulated on Social Media, and I could not verify any of them, why I am not posting them. I am mentioning them for one reason, if they are real, they show a school that has a few issues with both tolerance and racism. Moreover, all the photos, whether the video that emerged over the weekend or these, show a white student body.
It is of note, that according to the Wikipedia entry, the School saw increased demand in 1955. Brown v Board of Education came down in 1954. After that decision came down, it was common for all white schools to come to be all over the south. They were part of a movement, the Segregation Academies were (and continue to this day) were a way to keep white student bodies from integrating with African-American bodies. The school itself precedes them, but it fits a pattern. (The school no longer has an online page that I could find)
The year for this increased demand is likely not a coincidence.
So we need to ask, what are students at Covington Catholic learning these days? And I do not mean in math class, but rather in ethics, history and even core Church values?
It is described as such by David Cole in The Stranger:
Like Park Hills and many other Cincinnati suburbs, Fort Thomas is almost entirely white, Roman Catholic, insular, and rabidly conservative. I never met a Black person my age until my family moved to North Carolina, and my only exposure to Native American history in school was the gross caricatures around Thanksgiving each year. Fort Thomas was reportedly a sundown town until at least the 1970s.
I still remember our music teacher at Woodfill Elementary School taking time out of his lesson to explain to us that a Jewish kid had enrolled in the school, as if it were some kind of scandal. A Jew, by his definition, was somebody who didn’t believe in Jesus. Imagine the shocked reactions of a room full of third graders, and that being their first exposure to Judaism.
Unlike most of my classmates, my family wasn’t Catholic, but our mainline Protestant tradition was no less conservative. Sunday school included regular exhortations about the evils of communism. My earliest political memory was my father taking us to a campaign event for Mitch McConnell’s first run for Senate in 1984, and my father still keeps a hand-written letter from Gerald Ford thanking him for his work on behalf the Republican Party.
This is an extremely sheltered environment, where young men learn to shelter, and distrust those not like them. It is also an environment where bullying is common and treating these men as kids is done.
However, they were not alone in this mess.
Enter the Black Israelites and the School Chaperones.
Longer pieces of tape show a group of four African-American men. For the record, as a field reporter, I came across a similar group during the Alfred Olango demonstrations in El Cajon a few years back. Olango was shot by a local police officer, and it led to a week of very charged moments.
Black Israelites is a fringe group that believes they are descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel.
They have appropriated many objects of Jewish worship, and in their ideology, they see the slave trade as prophecy fulfilled. During that mess, they were ignored by almost all, and like a good reporter, I decided to engage them. It was the most impressively racist, antisemitic, hate-filled ten minutes of my life. And trust me, we have come across White Supremacists as well as openly NAZIs. So that took some work, Unlike the Covington Catholic students, I went looking for trouble, as it were, and found it.
The group is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They are also becoming increasingly militant, and to be fair, they are equally insulting to everybody.
Mr. Sandmann’s mother said they were black Muslims. And I will be fair, I hardly think she, or most Americans, have heard of this group until this weekend. We did not mention them in our reporting either since they added nothing to that story. Nor did anybody else engage them during that week, Literally, they were alone, on their own corner of the parking lot, which was an informal no-go zone. Nobody enforced it. None had too. They launched into anti-everybody diatribes at the drop of the hat. So hearing them in the video this weekend was hardly surprising. However, where were the student chaperones? Why did they allow the students to counter chant with school pride songs instead of moving their charges away?
That would have been the adult thing to do.
The best description I have read off what happened from their point of view, apart of Mr. Phillips, an elder of the Omaha tribe, is this one.
Nathan stopped walking, but he kept singing and playing his drum — staring right into the smirking boy’s eyes. We all huddled around him as the other boys began to push, prod, and bump us into a tighter and tighter cluster. They were mocking Nathan’s sacred music with purposefully disrespectful dancing and a perverted imitation of his singing. Their imitations were the racist tropes of “Indian chants” — the stereotypical grunting and “hiyahiyahiyas” of representations past.
As the boys molded our huddle, I felt panic growing in my gut.
I felt trapped. There were so many of them around us that I couldn’t see out beyond them. All I could see was cold faces full of empty laughter, boys intoxicated on their own false sense of power, control, and entitlement.
But Nathan was steadfast. His drumming was constant and he exuded calm, grace, stability. He was unshaken. And it was his example that kept us all together. His singing, his drumming, his prayer. When we were surrounded by the sneering, jeering crowd, his voice was the one I latched onto. The boys alternated between their mock chanting and breaking out into familiar chants.
I am using this to give you a look into how this looked from the point of view of the Tribal elders, and others with them. It undercuts the young man’s story that he was there to defuse the situation. You hardly defuse a situation when you surround somebody with a few dozens of your friends.
Again, where were the adults that came with the Covington Catholic group? Why did they not step in and stop this?
What I posted above also explains the tomahawk chops that First People’s find so offensive. (And for the record, so do I.)
Should these young men face consequences? Yes, but so should their parents and the chaperones. And we need to have open discussions on what looks like another segregation academy. We also need to speak as to why students are attending these rallies. What did they add to the education that these young men are getting?
Oh, and we also need to start asking what were the symbols of hate? The MAGA hats, we have seen them deployed in hateful ways during demonstrations as well. So that would not surprise us at all. Given what the environment is described as all white, it is not a leap of faith to believe that these young men are getting an education that is far from inclusive.
Incidentally, this is hardly Just blaming the young men. There is a lot of blame to be meted is with those responsible for their upbringing. This includes their parents and their teachers. Unfortunately what should become an educational moment will not. I do not expect these young men to visit a reservation or a synagogue, or in any way come out of their protected environment. In fact, the lesson I expect them to learn is that they are victimized and to become even more active in far-right politics.
Perhaps it is time for the Church hierarchy to get involved and demand some accountability from school leaders. Perhaps it is time for a Bishop or two to step in, and do so not to protect the school, but to teach the values of humility, and tolerance of the Second Vatican Council.