What’s true, what’s not and what needs context? There are several perspectives on the viral video that came from protests in Washington over the weekend. They add a needed voice to balance in the conversation.
It’s true that the Hebrew Israelites said hateful things to everyone. It’s also true that Nathan Phillips, Native American elder and Vietnam veteran, willingly inserted himself into a situation that was inherently risky. It is true that the Covington Catholic high school students were temporarily successful at drowning out the hateful rhetoric of the Hebrew Israelites. Furthermore, it is true that there was something of a standoff between Mr. Phillips and Nick Sandman, the young person in the viral video.
I watched the one hour and forty six minutes video online. There was indeed hateful and inflammatory speech by the Hebrew Israelites. While it is not clear that their intention was to incite the crowd, it certainly had that affect. From the video it seems to me they would have engaged a telephone pole if they thought they could get a rise. Watching the video has changed my perspective somewhat, but I don’t buy Nick Sandman’s innocent teenager routine for one minute.
Several points are worth noting. If Nick Sandman was trying to de-escalate the situation, why did he continue to stand in Mr. Phillips’ personal space? If de-escalation was indeed the goal, why was he not facing his classmates and encouraging them to disperse? Was he in a leadership role prior to that time, that students should imitate him or listen to him? His insolent smile is as much a smirk as it is anything else. It is the one thing that kept me from believing his story. Hiding behind the “teenager” moniker, though indeed they are teenagers, implies less responsibility for their own behavior. They are old enough to know right from wrong. They are old enough to attend a right to life rally to protest the law of the land.
What is familiar about this situation is white privilege rearing its ugly head. Our culture is raising another generation of patriarchal men who are used to getting their own way. What religious bow they put on the package is irrelevant. What is familiar is a Native American being marginalized and taunted. That Mr. Phillips willingly inserted himself into the situation does not excuse the sneering smile and defiant eyes of Nick Sandman.
This is not the first time a racist event took place at Covington Catholic high school. Several years ago, though the video has been deleted from YouTube, a group of students dressed up in black face to go to a basketball game featuring a predominantly black team. There is no bow that makes this an acceptable package. It suggests there are deeper issues to address. I wonder how many people of color are students at the school and how they are treated.
And, all this from a Catholic school; this is the most problematic. I am trying to think of a bible verse or a Catholic doctrine that covers this situation and I am coming up empty. I am not a doctrinal scholar, so maybe I am missing something but I doubt it. It is important to not paint all Catholics with the same brush; many faithful and loving people find their anchor in the embrace of the Catholic Church. The Catholic social justice workers were some of the earliest champions of human rights. No one religion is all bad or all good.
The church in America, regardless of denomination or tradition, is a hostage to the culture. We no longer see a line between what is Christian and what is American. This is not a new problem. American civil religion has been around a long time. It reinforces power structures that favor white skin over dark skin, the educated over the less educated, and the rich over the poor, the few over the many. And what is maintained in the midst of it all is the status quo.