The MAGA Teens Aren’t Innocent Victims

The incident at the Lincoln Memorial was more complicated than it initially seemed, but new footage doesn’t exonerate the kids in the red caps.

A crowd of teenage boys in front of Nathan Phillips.
Nick Sandmann (center) smiles as Nathan Phillips plays a drum in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Jan. 18. YouTube

The viral video that seemed to show a white teenager in a MAGA hat harassing a Native American elder near the Lincoln Memorial turns out to have captured a more complicated conflict. The clip, which drew widespread condemnation over the holiday weekend, appeared to depict a then-unidentified teenager silently leering in the face of a Native American man who was beating a traditional drum. The teenager was surrounded by dozens of rowdy peers from the all-male Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, who were in town to attend the anti-abortion March for Life; the man was participating in the Indigenous Peoples March the same day.* In a post I wrote on Saturday, I described the boy’s serene, smug facial expression as “both punchable and untouchable.”

In the days that followed, new accounts and new angles on the confrontation began to emerge. Nathan Phillips, the Omaha elder seen in the clip, gave interviews in which he said he approached the teenagers—not the other way around—in order to defuse tension between them and some noisy and vulgar street preachers nearby.* Longer videos emerged that showed the street preachers—who belong to a fringe religious group called the Black Hebrew Israelites that the Southern Poverty Law Center once described as “obsessed with hatred for whites and Jews”—shouting insults at both the boys and the Native group. Meanwhile, no footage has emerged that shows the teens shouting “build the wall,” as Phillips and other witnesses have said they did. And on Sunday, the teenager, Nick Sandmann, released a statement in which he identified himself and attempted to “correct misinformation and outright lies.” Sandmann said the students were shouting school-spirit chants to drown out the street preachers, and that Phillips seemed to single him out for confrontation. He describes himself as having “diffused the situation by remaining calm.”

What a mess. The encounter was indisputably more complicated than it first appeared, and the new accounts certainly chip away at the straightforward narrative of a MAGA teen going out of his way to taunt a Native demonstrator. The discrepancies between initial perceptions of what happened and the facts on the ground have kicked off a predictable cycle of hand-wringing over participation in a too-hasty internet pile-on. “If the Covington Catholic incident was a test, it’s one I failed,” Ohio writer Julie Irwin Zimmerman wrote in the Atlantic, vowing to “sit out” the next outrage cycle. “As I watched the longer videos, I began to see the smirking kid in a different light.”

I still don’t—or at least not completely. Most accounts, including mine, made no claim that Sandmann first approached Phillips. And it’s worth noting that Sandmann’s actions were seen as aggressive by almost everyone who saw that initial video, including those most inclined to be sympathetic to him. The boy’s school and its Catholic diocese quickly issued an apology. The March for Life posted a statement (now deleted) from its president saying that the “reprehensible behavior” in the video does not represent the march. Many other March for Life attendees and supporters reacted in horror and shame. This is because of what everyone saw so clearly in the initial clip, and what hasn’t changed with the additional information: Sandmann’s smirk, and his failure to get out of Phillips’ face. I described Sandmann’s expression on Saturday as “The face that sneers, ‘What? I’m just standing here,’ if you flinch or cry or lash out.” Or, as Sandmann put it in his statement, “I never interacted with this protestor. I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves.”

More context: There were dozens of Covington boys on the scene, meaning they vastly outnumbered both groups of antagonists. (A letter sent to parents about the school’s March for Life plans this year said 213 boys attended a few years ago.) Many of the teenagers in this background were clearly snickering at the chanting; some can be seen doing the “tomahawk chop,” a controversial gesture that originated in sports fandom (rather than Native culture) and is considered offensive by some. There’s no mistaking the core dynamics of the encounter: Sandmann smugly grins in Phillips’s face and declines to step backward, and he’s backed by dozens of boisterous teens who are jeering and mocking the much smaller group of Native marchers.

None of this might have mattered—and the clip certainly would not have gone viral—if Sandmann and many of his peers were not wearing red Make America Great Again hats. Racked reported in 2017 that the hats had become popular souvenirs among white teenage boys visiting Washington, in part because they invite “instant attention, instant discomfort, easy transgression.” Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham wrote last summer about seeing more than a dozen white teenage boys in MAGA hats at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Clearly, this was meant as a provocation,” she wrote. I’m inclined to believe that Sandmann, too, is smart enough to understand that the MAGA hat is not a symbol of peace and reconciliation, especially when the bill of that hat is inches from the nose of a Native American.

The new facts about this small encounter this weekend in Washington are important, and worth clarifying. But they don’t change the larger story, the one that caused so many people to react so viscerally to the narrative’s first, and simpler, draft. We shouldn’t make the same mistake the president does when he confuses climate and weather. The weather is the encounter between Sandmann and Phillips, and it’s the media’s responsibility to describe it accurately (once we’ve decided to describe it at all). The climate includes a president whose name is used as a taunt by school bullies and racist harassers, who wields the rhetoric of domestic violence to cause pain and then blame those who are suffering, who delights in teasing and threatening his enemies, and who just last week made a joke about a government massacre of Native Americans. It would be a mistake to let our pre-existing views persuade us to see something in this particular video that isn’t there. But it would also be misguided to let the complexities of the scene at the Lincoln Memorial dissuade us from telling the truth about who Trump is and exactly what he stands for.

Correction, Jan. 22, 2019: This post originally misstated the frequency of the Indigenous Peoples March. This year’s event was the first.

Correction, Jan. 23, 2019: This post originally misstated that Nathan Phillips was a Vietnam War veteran. Phillips served in the U.S. Marines but did not serve in Vietnam.