The Indigenous Peoples’ March and the March for Life both happened on Jan. 18 in Washington, D.C. Students from the all-boys Covington Catholic High School flew from Kentucky to attend the March for Life. As the two marches converged a standoff occurred between Nick Sandmann, a Covington Catholic High School junior, and Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American Omaha Elder and Vietnam veteran who was playing a ceremonial drum and singing.
In a video that went viral soon after, Sandmann stands directly in front of Phillips, wearing the glaring red symbol of hatred and oppression on his head that compliments the smirk of entitlement he wears on his face. He stares directly at Phillips. This is the look of a boy who knows exactly what he is doing. This is the look of a boy who knows he can exert his privilege — taunting, daring, intimidating — and get away with it.
It is no surprise that hardly a day passed before Sandmann released a three-page statement through a public relations firm regarding the incident, saying that, “I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation. I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict. I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.”
This statement reeks of a privileged boy who has been groomed to cover his tracks by deflecting all responsibility for his actions. It is the beginning of twisting a narrative by ignoring the deeper racially-charged issues at play and spreading the blame. Sound about white? It should.
To see this pattern of behavior, one need only to think back as far as Donald Trump’s comments about the riots in Charlottesville, V.A. during the summer of 2017. In the aftermath of a white nationalist rally that left one dead, Trump said, “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides” (“Trump condemns ‘all types of racism’ on Charlottesville anniversary; critics slam wording,” USA Today). Putting white supremacists on the same ground as their adversaries not only softens their harmful message of racial supremacy, it gives their platform the illusion of a moral leg to stand on. Spreading the blame to all parties, even though there is a clearly more hateful one, perpetuates the idea that racism and other forms of discrimination are okay.
It is true that the video did not show the entirety of the situation — one minute and 32 seconds rarely do. Also present were Black Hebrew Israelites who shouted phrases like “white crackers” and “incest kids,” according to Sandmann’s statement. Sure, those remarks are inflammatory, but clearly heard in the video is the chant “build that wall” by the students wearing Make America Great Again (MAGA) hats. To think that both side’s insults were equally offensive is to ignore that one group has more privilege and power over the other, thereby adding greater implications to the insults hurled by the MAGA kids.
Yelling “build that wall” in front of a group of Indigenous Peoples, though meant as a racially charged offense, is an insult that makes little sense. Indigenous Peoples were actually here first, and European settlers colonized this land, often by committing human rights abuses against the indigenous peoples of North America. The standoff shown in the video not only showcases the blatant disrespect of Phillips by Sandmann, it also reveals the other students’ ignorance of American history and political slogans.