MAGA Kids, Black Israelites & Woodstock for A-holes

You’ve surely seen the picture of MAGA-hat-wearing teenager Nicholas Sandmann and Native American elder Nathan Phillips by now, and unless you chose to ignore the noise around it, here’s a good chance you’ve seen at least one of the videos documenting the events leading to their encounter. Now that I’ve watched as much footage as I possibly can, I’d like to share some thoughts regarding the Standoff at the Lincoln Memorial, also known as Woodstock for a-holes.

Here’s a video of the event, and you may not have seen it because it’s 1:45 long and filled with several uninteresting portions, but it definitely tells more of the story than the more popular snippets floating around.

(I’m not going to do a detailed breakdown of the video, but will point out that:

  • An exchange takes place where a member of the Black Israelites questions the MAGA slogan & asks when America was great. The answer shouted back? “Slavery.” (1:08)

Because I don’t recall those clips making the rounds with the frequency of some of the others.)

Shortly after the event took place, Sandmann issued an official statement to deliver his side of the story, which is where we’re going to start because I hated it very much. Official statements are a theoretically great way to deliver a carefully constructed message to the people, but I think they always reek of over-polishing, whereas a letter seemingly written by a regular person with a self of self-awareness would go a long way. If I worked for this kid, his statement would’ve read as follows:

“I’m not a racist, but I do wear a MAGA hat and go to a 96% White private school located on a road called Dixie Highway, so yeah, I get the assumption, unfair as I personally believe it to be. Also, while I didn’t say or do anything to Mr. Phillips, I do wish I had simply backed away as he approached. Lastly, I’m aware that I look like a jerk in that photo. That’s just my face. Can’t help it. In conclusion: Not a racist, just a guy who looks like a jerk sometimes. Cheers.”)

Unfortunately the Sandmann family went with a firm called RunSwitch PR instead, and here’s what they decided to go with — my comments will follow in italics.

“I am providing this factual account of what happened on Friday afternoon at the Lincoln Memorial to correct misinformation and outright lies being spread about my family and me.

I am the student in the video who was confronted by the Native American protestor. I arrived at the Lincoln Memorial at 4:30 p.m. I was told to be there by 5:30 p.m., when our buses were due to leave Washington for the trip back to Kentucky. We had been attending the March for Life rally, and then had split up into small groups to do sightseeing.”

Seeing as that he hasn’t really said anything of substance, I don’t think he’s lying about any of this so far. That being said, if you ask someone to tell you about an event they’re being blamed for, and they’re like “Here’s the factual account: I got there at 4:30 p.m. I was told to be there by 5:30 p.m.,” just sit back, relax and get ready to hear some stuff that might not be all that true. There’s nothing more suspicious in a story than some unnecessary time disclosure, especially when preceded by the assurance that what the person is telling you is true. If you ask your significant other where they were last night, and they’re like “Here’s the factual account: I left the office at 7:30, then I drove to the store and I got there at 8:10, and I left at 8:45,” I’m afraid that’s a bit of a red flag regarding the stability of your relationship.

“When we arrived, we noticed four African American protestors who were also on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I am not sure what they were protesting, and I did not interact with them. I did hear them direct derogatory insults at our school group.

The protestors said hateful things. They called us “racists,” “bigots,” “white crackers,” “faggots,” and “incest kids.” They also taunted an African American student from my school by telling him that we would “harvest his organs.” I have no idea what that insult means, but it was startling to hear.”

First of all, I think it’s very important to point out that when he named the hateful things his group was called, “racists” was at the top of the list, immediately followed by “bigots.” This is by no means surprising, because some people genuinely feel that “racist” is the most hurtful name you could ever call someone. CNN’s Don Lemon once asked a guest if he thought Donald Trump was racist, and he responded “I was brought up not to use that word,” so if you’re like that guy, and “racist” is like “Voldemort” to you and your loved ones, then I guess it must be devastating to be called one, but personally, I don’t get it. If I was walking down the street and someone I’d never met was like “Hey man, you hate Puerto Ricans, I just know it” I’d be like “Huh, that was weird” and I’d continue on my merry and non-Puerto-Rican-hating way. As for the harvesting organs thing, it’s apparent that this young man and his PR team missed “Get Out,” which is really a shame, because it’s a fantastic movie (the Israelites were also yelling “Get Out!” to the African-American kid in question, which I found to be a helpful clue regarding context). Also, why is an insult that you don’t understand really that startling to hear? How does Sandmann even know that it’s an insult? If somebody yelled that I was going to glue a blueberry to back of my Mexican friend’s ear, I would be neither insulted nor startled, as I’m pretty sure that’s not how words work.

“Because we were being loudly attacked and taunted in public, a student in our group asked one of our teacher chaperones for permission to begin our school spirit chants to counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group. The chants are commonly used at sporting events. They are all positive in nature and sound like what you would hear at any high school. Our chaperone gave us permission to use our school chants. We would not have done that without obtaining permission from the adults in charge of our group.”

I don’t know how many chaperones were on this trip, and I want to be 100% fair, so I do want to point out that the video shows one man, who I presume was a chaperone, moving the students away from the Israelites’ personal space on multiple occasions. Thumbs up for that. However, four hundred and twenty-seven thumbs down for some chaperone’s particular display of stunningly worthless decision-making. “Hey Mr. Jenkins, those African-American grown men over there not only think we’re racists, but they’re calling us homophobic slurs and inferring that our parents are related by blood. Instead of walking literally anywhere else and doing literally anything else, can we start up some synchronized chants to drown out those angry strangers who clearly hate our guts?” “Yeah sure Timmy, seems like a great idea to me, go right ahead. We’ve got some time before the bus gets here, really stick it to those guys.”

“At no time did I hear any student chant anything other than the school spirit chants. I did not witness or hear any students chant “build that wall” or anything hateful or racist at any time. Assertions to the contrary are simply false. Our chants were loud because we wanted to drown out the hateful comments that were being shouted at us by the protestors.”

Okay, now here’s why this part is stupid: He basically said “I didn’t hear it, therefore it didn’t happen” on some ‘tree falling in a forest’ bull mess. And of course, some people absolutely ate it up, because they were dying to hear the kid say anything contrary to what they’d heard from the other guy. Maybe Sandmann didn’t hear anything racist (Full disclosure: I don’t know how well his ears work), but that doesn’t mean nothing racist was said.

“After a few minutes of chanting, the Native American protestors, who I hadn’t previously noticed, approached our group. The Native American protestors had drums and were accompanied by at least one person with a camera.

The protestor everyone has seen in the video began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him. I did not see anyone try to block his path. He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face. He played his drum the entire time he was in my face.”

To be fair, here’s where I have to lob some criticism towards Phillips, the gentleman this letter keeps referring to as “the protestor” or “the Native American protestor” instead of his name for some odd reason. Phillips said he wanted to break up the conflict between the MAGA Kids and the Black Israelites. That’s great — I applaud it and it worked for quite a while. That being said, there’s really no reason he needed to get that close to the kid’s face. And once he was there, he certainly could have backed up a little bit. And while we’re at it, he could’ve added a “Hey guys, everybody calm down” or something like that at some point. I don’t have a joke for this part or anything, I’m just saying. Anyway, let’s continue…

“I never interacted with this protestor. I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves. To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me. We had already been yelled at by another group of protestors, and when the second group approached I was worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers.

I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation. I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict. I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.”

I don’t know the racial makeup of this young man’s town, and I don’t know what kind of people he has or hasn’t encountered during his life, but I feel like maybe he’s confusing Native Americans with grizzly bears? Is that what’s he’s doing here? Let me know if you have another theory, but that’s really the only one I’m reaching, as “Don’t move or make any hand gestures, just stare directly into their eyes and smile at them from approximately six inches away” is a course of action that, to my knowledge, has never been prescribed for dealing with a human stranger in the midst of a tense situation. Actually I just looked it up, and they say you should absolutely not make direct eye contact with a grizzly bear. So cross that mammal off the list, and I now have absolutely no idea what he’s possibly talking about.

“During the period of the drumming, a member of the protestor’s entourage began yelling at a fellow student that we “stole our land” and that we should “go back to Europe.” I heard one of my fellow students begin to respond. I motioned to my classmate and tried to get him to stop engaging with the protestor, as I was still in the mindset that we needed to calm down tensions.”

Here’s a clip that shows the yelling I believe he’s referring to.

The camera picks up the exchange around 1:33, and you can see Sandmann motioning around 2:11. Good for Sandmann (who looks extremely uncomfortable and not at all smirky here), trying to squash that beef before it got out of hand. I may have found his strategy with Phillips to be highly questionable, but credit where credit is due.

“I never felt like I was blocking the Native American protestor. He did not make any attempt to go around me. It was clear to me that he had singled me out for a confrontation, although I am not sure why.

The engagement ended when one of our teachers told me the busses had arrived and it was time to go. I obeyed my teacher and simply walked to the busses. At that moment, I thought I had diffused the situation by remaining calm, and I was thankful nothing physical had occurred.

I never understood why either of the two groups of protestors were engaging with us, or exactly what they were protesting at the Lincoln Memorial. We were simply there to meet a bus, not become central players in a media spectacle. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever encountered any sort of public protest, let alone this kind of confrontation or demonstration.

I was not intentionally making faces at the protestor. I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation. I am a faithful Christian and practicing Catholic, and I always try to live up to the ideals my faith teaches me — to remain respectful of others, and to take no action that would lead to conflict or violence.

I harbor no ill will for this person. I respect this person’s right to protest and engage in free speech activities, and I support his chanting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial any day of the week. I believe he should re-think his tactics of invading the personal space of others, but that is his choice to make.

I am being called every name in the book, including a racist, and I will not stand for this mob-like character assassination of my family’s name. My parents were not on the trip, and I strive to represent my family in a respectful way in all public settings.”

I would argue that if being called a racist was indeed such a awful thing, maybe one should avoid doing things like, let’s say, wearing articles of clothing that a great deal of people associate with racism, but we can save that clearly pointless discussion for another time.

“I have received physical and death threats via social media, as well as hateful insults. One person threatened to harm me at school, and one person claims to live in my neighborhood. My parents are receiving death and professional threats because of the social media mob that has formed over this issue.

I love my school, my teachers and my classmates. I work hard to achieve good grades and to participate in several extracurricular activities. I am mortified that so many people have come to believe something that did not happen — that students from my school were chanting or acting in a racist fashion toward African Americans or Native Americans. I did not do that, do not have hateful feelings in my heart, and did not witness any of my classmates doing that.

I cannot speak for everyone, only for myself. But I can tell you my experience with Covington Catholic is that students are respectful of all races and cultures. We also support everyone’s right to free speech.”

“Respectful of all races and cultures,” he said, addressing a video where his classmates sang a mock-Native American chant and did the tomahawk chop

(Tomahawk Chop footage around 6:21 of the interview)

in response to a Native American man chanting and playing a drum. I don’t go to Covington Catholic, but my experience with Covington Catholic is that this gentleman’s statement regarding races and all cultures is not entirely accurate. Anyway, we’ve reached the point where I’m punching and kicking the air like my parents just sent me to my room, so I’m done with the commentary — I’m going to walk away for a minute. You can either finish reading this stupid letter (I’ve included it in its entirety for full transparency) or just skip to the part where I start writing things again. Should you decide to skip ahead, I’ll write “The Letter’s Done” in bold so you know where to go.

“I am not going to comment on the words or account of Mr. Phillips, as I don’t know him and would not presume to know what is in his heart or mind. Nor am I going to comment further on the other protestors, as I don’t know their hearts or minds, either.

I have read that Mr. Phillips is a veteran of the United States Marines. I thank him for his service and am grateful to anyone who puts on the uniform to defend our nation. If anyone has earned the right to speak freely, it is a U.S. Marine veteran.

I can only speak for myself and what I observed and felt at the time. But I would caution everyone passing judgement based on a few seconds of video to watch the longer video clips that are on the internet, as they show a much different story than is being portrayed by people with agendas.

I provided this account of events to the Diocese of Covington so they may know exactly what happened, and I stand ready and willing to cooperate with any investigation they are conducting.”

(THE LETTER’S DONE)

While they were terrible people in their own right, it turns out that the Black Israelites actually ended up being pretty accurate in calling those kids racists (Note: this operates under the assumption that you’re willing to concede that the tomahawk stuff, and that one gentleman’s longing for the slavery days of yore, is racist. If you’re not, I don’t know what to tell you). I’d assume not all of those kids are/were racist, but if you believe a racist to be somebody who does racist stuff, then yeah, a bunch of those kids were super, super racist. You can hear the chanting in the videos, and if you somehow couldn’t hear it, you can still see some of the kids doing the tomahawk chop in front of Phillips as he plays his drum and chants. Seriously, do you know how racist you have to be for a total stranger to call you a racist without a single second of personal interaction, and for you to prove them right like 20 minutes later? That’s like if somebody walked up to you and said “I bet you’re a crack addict,” and you were like “My word! You’ve got some nerve, pal,” then you stared at him for like two minutes and said “Welp, I’m gonna go do some crack. Good day.”

As I was saying, those Black Israelites were awful people, and they begin the extended video yelling at Native Americans for worshiping the wrong God, which they said led to the White man taking their land (I don’t know if that’s official Black Israelite belief, so I’m not going to say that they’re all jerks or anything, but those guys were certainly jerks). Fast forward a bit, and Nathan Phillips found himself the center of a living Venn Diagram of bigotry, as both the Black Israelites and Covington kids were totally cool with treating Native Americans like trash right to their faces. Imagine you’ve been getting figuratively spit on for an hour following the Indigenous Peoples March, the guys doing the spitting then focus on some kids with MAGA hats, you walk between the groups and the MAGA kids start spitting on you in a different fashion from the first guys. Woodstock for a-holes featured countless angles that launched it to the top of the news cycle (racial insensitivity, privilege, media coverage, etc.), but wherever you had it on the list, I think we should move “People are totally cool with treating Native Americans like trash right to their faces” way closer to the top.

In conclusion, The Black Israelites yelled unacceptable things. Some Covington kids walked up to them and laughed. One guy rolled a bottle at someone. Another guy loved slavery. A bunch of other guys did the tomahawk chop and chanted at a Native American. It’s all on video, and this entire situation could be objectively sorted out if people had any interest in simply being a little less terrible, but I think we all know that’s not going to happen. The people who hate the “mainstream media” and root for obnoxious kids in MAGA hats will continue to do so, and they’ll likely do both more than ever. The students have been depicted by their newfound fans as victims of an angry society that not only goes too far in a rush to judgement, but calls people racists for no good reason. They argue that Phillips is solely to blame because Sandmann was standing there first, and while I can’t speak on Mr. Phillips’ behalf, I’d assume his response to that sort of thing would be something like “Oh word? That’s how we settle things now? Whoever’s there first? Interesting.” The kids have been invited to the White House, because of course they have. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she’d “never seen people so happy to destroy a kid’s life” because of course she did, and while I’d love to be wrong, it really feels like nobody is better for any of this. Everyone has remained vigilant in their steadfast opposition to learning something or advancing as a human in any way. Woodstock for a-holes has taught us nothing.

(I don’t want to end this on that note, so I’d like to suggest that if you’re reading this, maybe make some plans to do something nice for a stranger. Just feels like we’ve got a lot of work to do.)

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Chris Rosenthall

You may know me as Joe the policeman in the What's Going Down episode of That's My Momma.