The Photo Bomb
Last Friday in Washington, D.C., citizen cameras captured a moment with a messy truth. It contained hate and manipulation, with layers of aggression and questionable logic. In an era where everything is recorded for posterity, people watched the same moment and saw something different.
My first introduction to this moment is The Photo. A smug teen in a red Make America Great Again hat stands grinning at a Native American elder, who beats a drum. There eyes are locked in a staring contest. Surrounding the pair appear to be more smiling teens in more MAGA hats.
The Photo came with a tweet. Its author briefly tells me that the teens, who were attending the anti-abortion March for Life rally, surrounded the elder and his small group, taunting and intimidating them during a song of protest.
Other tweets include The Video Clip. It is about a minute or less of footage that depicts chanting from the surrounding students, accompanying that of the elder in this standoff.
In each retelling, new information is added to the narrative. The teens were high schoolers from an all-boys school — Covington Catholic — in northern Kentucky. The elder is Nathan Phillips, a Vietnam veteran from the Omaha tribe, who participated in the Indigenous People March scheduled the same day. The boys were mocking and chanting, and most of the people reporting this incident declared it unconscionable.
In The Condemnation, politicians, celebrities and activists denounced the behavior of the Covington boys. They were disgusted and outraged, prompting cable and print news to file new reports to reinforce the original narrative. The mayor of Covington rebuked their behavior, and the Diocese began investigating, threatening expulsion to the student involved.
When Phillips commented on his experience on the National Mall, they all thanked him for his dignity, grace and wisdom. We learned that he had been harassed before, on the Eastern Michigan University campus, where students dressed in stereotypical Native dress yelled at him and hit him with a thrown beer can. Dr. Adrienne Keene, a professor and author of Native Appropriations, noted that for the first time in her memory her entire timeline was talking about a Native person.
In my feed, someone posted The Photo alongside a picture of three Black men during the Civil Rights Era sitting at a counter waiting to be served. Behind them, a crowd of young white men stand behind them with smiles, watching another pour condiments on the protestors’ heads. The caption is “60 year challenge,” an homage to a recent Facebook meme. I posted a screenshot on Facebook, where it would resonate most.
At this point, I was done with the story. Other than deserved comeuppance on Monday at Covington Catholic, the news cycle appeared over.
As angry icons accumulated on my Facebook post, a friend commented. He acknowledged the behavior captured in the first, older picture as abhorrent, and he recognized the reason why it might be associated with the new one from Friday. He called the juxtaposition a false comparison, however, that would become invalid by knowing the context of the stare down, not captured in The Photo.
My friend pointed me to The Longer Video, which I watched.
This has happened before, though not with this particular friend. I expected to find a stark difference in interpretation that my own eyes would dispute, or an argument for exaggeration that might be promoted as reason to deny any wrongdoing. Although I found such fallacies in peripheral arguments by hosts of conservative YouTube channels, I didn’t find it in raw video.
I watched several videos, actually, from different perspectives. Some came from other teens, who captured the encounter as an oddity. Some came from members of the Indigenous marchers, who were documenting their own day on the Mall. The longest video came from someone in the Black Hebrew Israelites, a black nationalist group that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group.
All those perspectives reveal a scene with a bunch of kids doing what kids do after an event is over — wait for a bus. They gathered where they were told to wait, off to one side of the steps to the Lincoln Memorial. To fend off boredom, they chanted school songs and bounced.
They also took a lot of abuse from the black nationalist group, whose numbers were few but homophobia plentiful. They singled out a Black student in the crowd of Catholic high schoolers, making references to the horror movie “Get Out.” The Hebrew Israelites also suggested that the students should shoot up their school.
This is the backdrop for the original encounter from The Photo.
I looked at these videos for hours, trying to find evidence of the key accusation levied against the student in The Photo: that he blocked or otherwise interfered with Phillips protests. Instead, the kid remained where he had been the entire time, on the steps waiting for a bus.
The students, who purportedly surrounded the protest groups intentionally, didn’t appear to act aggressively. That’s not what Phillips saw, though. He recalled later how he moved his marchers to be in between the students and the nationalists, a maneuver he called an act of de-escalation. He feared the outnumbered black nationalists were vulnerable and the Covington kids were a threat.
Phillips came to the student. He met him in the eye and beat his drum in the student’s presence. That smug smile turned out to be nervousness and confusion. The teen only moved when a peer started responding to one of the activists who accompanied Phillips. They removed themselves before a confrontation erupted.
Neither did the students yell insults at the Native American marchers, or if they did it wasn’t clearly picked up on any of the videos. In what appears to be an attempt to drown out the verbal slings they were receiving from the black nationalists, they ran through the songs they might sing at a school pep rally.
This, too, could be the end of the story. The incident that outraged America had never happened. In its place was a sometimes bizarre but benign interaction between three political groups occupying the same space on the National Mall. With this new evidence shared, the Internet could self correct and move on to the next crisis.
Because such is the activism of the day, however, the outraged had already called on people to contact the school by phone, email, and Facebook to register their disapproval. They used their collective skills to start identifying boys in the crowd, to hold them accountable for their deplorable actions and retaliate. The student and his family have received the requisite death threats, and administrators at the school are spending their weekend in social media triage.
Because the Internet moves in waves, some people remained on the crest I just left. The rest of Sunday was still filled with news accounts of the problems with Covington Catholic, while family and friends defended the student in The Photo. Half of the country, as usual, rode a different wave, where the exonerating Longer Videos were watched and shared. In threads just like mine, people posted that evidence and urged readers to dig deeper. Even when they did, we usually saw only what supported our existing narratives.
The narrative of The Photo was clear cut, a return to oppression of underrepresented groups at the hands of the next generation of privilege. The narrative of The Video Clip added audio that allowed us to interpret the chants as taunting and presume that absent the student mob, the Indigenous Peoples marchers would be able to exercise their freedom of speech. The narrative of The Condemnation is justifiable anger endorsed by more powerful people who we trust to know the truth, providing the energy and motivation to act on our collective outrage. The narrative of The Longer Video is a slog through the tradeoffs of free speech and how we choose to engage.
Altogether, these narratives are a reminder how durable our first judgments are and how much effort it takes to undo the damage of interpretive mistakes. I owed the people in those videos my time tonight because I spent at least that long not doing due diligence from the start.
Now, as we reach the wave of apologies, I am left to reflect on how this happened to me and what I might consider in the future. I ask myself how important was that red MAGA hat—a symbol of the reckless power of an opposition leader—was in shaping my initial assumptions.
If The Photo had shown a 16-year-old girl, perhaps a person of color, and an older white man who was the leader of a religious group, where would my sympathies lie? Would I believe the same truths given the same evidence?
I imagine the same scene with different players. A white nationalist group with only a handful of their members present blares hate over their loudspeaker at a crowd of Parkland students attended a March for Our Lives event. The teens ignore the homophobic taunts and endure the threats of harm, breaking out into song and chants to drown out the hate. While the students wait for a bus, an older man singing traditional hymns moves toward them. His small, dutiful entourage uses cameras to document his song, calling for an end to income tax or government itself. The man slowly walks into the crowd of students and targets one. He sings at her, creeping into her personal space. She stands quietly until she notices the situation escalating, choosing to walk away with her friends.
Would the headline I believe be “Defiant Teens Disrupt Tea Party” or “Tea Party Targets Teen Girl at National Mall”?
Nathan Phillips does good work for his communities. Almost certainly, some of the Covington Catholic students are guilty of poor judgement, are blind to their privilege, and might grow up to be Brett Kavanaugh in all the ways progressives will hate. There is education, certainly, about the history of the Phillips’ AIM song and whether it is respectful to join in. In this instance, however, the narrative of The Photo was incomplete. At its worst, it was a gun we helped load.
Truth is messy. We have a tendency to want to clean it up, to make it easier to digest. When we do, it is no longer true for everyone and may invoke a high cost for some.