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Covington teens incite internet outrage, but is it justified? The facts say no (video)

Written By | Jan 20, 2019

The Native American elder standing in front of the teen.

WASHINGTON: Students from the all-male Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky are the internet’s newest targets of outrage.

Anthony Bryan Logan

They wandered into the crosshairs when they went to Washington on Friday to attend the annual March for Life event.

Native Americans held an Indigenous Peoples March in Washington on the same day. The students and the Native Americans ended up in the same place at the same time. Video footage of the encounter hit the internet.

One YouTube citizen journalist, Anthony Bryan Logan offers the following review of the “confrontation”:

Nonetheless, of the facts, the students are now branded as racists, monsters, and exemplars of toxic masculinity. Covington Catholic High School is being described as “a school where casual racism, sexism, and bullying is rampant“.

What do we know?

What we know is limited, but the outrage is fierce. Why? Is the evidence of their racist hatred perfectly unambiguous? No. According to an AP story, “Marcus Frejo, a member of the Pawnee and Seminole tribes who is also known as Chief Quese Imc, said he had been a part of the march and was among a small group of people remaining after the rally” when the students began shouting slogans.

“Although he feared a mob mentality that could turn ugly, Frejo said he was at peace singing among the scorn and he briefly felt something special happen as they repeatedly sang the tune.

“’They went from mocking us and laughing at us to singing with us. I heard it three times,’ Frejo said. ‘That spirit moved through us, that drum, and it slowly started to move through some of those youths.’

“Eventually a calm fell over the group of students and they broke up and walked away.”

Frejo’s account doesn’t paint the students as choirboys, but neither does it cast them as racist monsters.

Nathan Phillips, the Native elder prominent in the videos, has been widely quoted on the incident.

“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’” he told the Washington Post. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”

His account to the Post emphasized his fear when he was suddenly surrounded by jeering Covington students. Video shows that his account was inaccurate, and Phillips changed it when he spoke to the Detroit Free Press.

“They were in the process of attacking these four black individuals,” Phillip said. “I was there and I was witnessing all of this … As this kept on going on and escalating, it just got to a point where you do something or you walk away, you know? You see something that is wrong and you’re faced with that choice of right or wrong. “

Phillips said some of the members of the Black Hebrew group were also acting up, “saying some harsh things” and that one member spit in the direction of the Catholic students. “So I put myself in between that, between a rock and hard place,” he said.

What Covington students say

The students have had less to say, but one sent an email message to WKRC, a Cincinnati station, claiming,

“We decided to do some cheers to pass time. In the midst of our cheers, we were approached by a group of adults led by Nathan Phillips, with Phillips beating his drum. They forced their way into the center of our group. We initially thought this was a cultural display since he was beating along to our cheers and so we clapped to the beat. He came to stand in front of one of my classmates who stood where he was, smiling and enjoying the experience.

However, after multiple minutes of Mr. Phillips beating his drum directly in the face of my friend (mere centimeters from his nose), we became confused and started wondering what was happening. It was not until later that we discovered they would incriminate us as a publicity stunt.

As a result, my friend faces expulsion for simply standing still and our entire school is being disparaged for a crime we did not commit.”

It’s clear from the videos and most accounts that the students did not behave like mature adults; when an adult marches up to you and bangs a drum in your face, the mature, Christian response is to walk away. They did not consider the full impact of their behavior, and thus allowed themselves to be trolled. They displayed no media or political savvy. It is not clear that their behavior was unusually heinous, or even normally heinous.

Rushing to judgment

They acted like teens. Teens are prone to sanctimony, arrogance and herd behavior. They usually grow out of it. If they’re lucky, they do it without having their lives, SAT scores and faces smeared all over news and social media.

At first the Covington boys were singing and clapping with the Native American chanter…

For adults to pile on teens is grossly unfair; it is bullying. The kid whose “smirking face” is being so widely condemned may be an obnoxious little toad. He might be a normal teen. (But that’s redundant.) Whether he deserves an outpouring of hate is unclear.

Before we take that path, we should demand more evidence than we demanded from Buzzfeed on obstruction of justice and whether it’s time to prepare articles of impeachment.

Before rushing to judgment against the teen, we should stop, take a breath, and remember that the evidence never speaks for itself. Pictures and video images have to be interpreted, and the police and courts get these things wrong all the time.

We’re primed for outrage, every time, all the time. When we’re wrong, we rarely go back and say, “sorry”. When we do, damage remains. Kids are resilient, but they should not be targets of public outrage, especially when that outrage is spun overnight from a video.

Before you help destroy a life, stop, think, and ask, “what would Buzzfeed do?” Then do the opposite.

Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.