In the clip, captured after the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington on Friday, an elderly Native American man beats a drum and quietly sings, and a small group of activists and allies can be seen in the crowd behind him.* Perhaps 18 inches in front of him, a white teenager in a “Make America Great Again” hat makes eye contact and smirks. A much larger crowd of teenagers—mostly male, mostly white, many wearing MAGA hats—hoots with delight at the wordless confrontation. The encounter was captured from multiple angles and circulated widely on YouTube and social media, generating widespread disgust.
The elder is Nathan Phillips, a former Marine Corps Reserve member who holds an annual ceremony honoring Native veterans at Arlington National Cemetery.* The boy has yet to be identified, but he was visiting Washington with a group from Covington Catholic High School, an all-boys college preparatory school in northern Kentucky. The group was in Washington to attend the March for Life, an annual anti-abortion rally that attracts tens of thousands of demonstrators, including many groups of young people from churches and private schools. The event’s stated ideal is “a world where the beauty and dignity of every human life are valued and protected.” (The Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School issued a statement on Saturday apologizing to Phillips and Native Americans in general, and said it is investigating punishments that may include expulsion.)
The encounter between the teenager and the older man didn’t end in violence. They apparently didn’t even exchange words. Why, then, did this unexploded grenade of a moment read as so fundamentally disturbing—and spread so quickly? There’s the ahistorical idiocy of wearing a Make America Great Again hat while harassing a veteran, of course. There’s the physical contrast between the young white punk and the Native elder, and between the teen’s cruelty and Phillips’ calm. And there’s the crowd of hooting MAGA teens ringing the central conflict, bouncing along to the drumbeat with a mix of giddiness and scorn. (In a video posted to Instagram, a teary Phillips said he heard them chanting “build that wall.”) Cameras are everywhere in the crowd. The boys know they’re being recorded—some of them are even seen capturing the moment themselves—but either their homosocial glee is too orgiastic to be dampened by the instinct for self-protection, or they don’t think anyone who matters to them will care. (And yes: Where are the adults?)
The context is key to the clash’s virality, too. It took place just days after President Trump made light of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee to mock Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whom he often refers to by the racist nickname “Pocahontas.” More broadly, it takes place in an era in which chanting the president’s name has become a tool of racial intimidation.
But I think the real reason the clip has spread is simpler: It’s the kid’s face. The face of self-satisfaction and certitude, of edginess expressed as cruelty. The face remains almost completely still as his peers hoot in awed delight at his bravado. The face is both punchable and untouchable. Many observers recognized it right away.
The face is in this photo of a clutch of white young men crowding around a single black man at a lunch counter sit-in in Virginia in the 1960s, and in many other images of jeering white men from that era. The face is the rows of Wisconsin high school boys flashing Nazi salutes in a prom picture last year. The face is Brett Kavanaugh—then a student at an all-boys Catholic prep school—“drunkenly laughing” as he allegedly held down Christine Blasey Ford. Anyone who knew the popular white boys in high school recognized it: the confident gaze, the eyes twinkling with menace, the smirk. The face of a boy who is not as smart as he thinks he is, but is exactly as powerful. The face that sneers, “What? I’m just standing here,” if you flinch or cry or lash out. The face knows that no matter how you react, it wins.
Correction, Jan. 23, 2019: This piece originally misstated that Nathan Phillips is a Vietnam War veteran, which was widely reported over the weekend. Phillips later clarified in interviews that he served in the Marine Corps Reserves during the Vietnam War era, but was not deployed to Vietnam. This piece also misstated that the video was captured during the Indigenous Peoples March; the incident took place after the march.