What Are We Supposed to Learn from the Covington Catholic High School Boys?

Maybe you don’t want to read another gush of outrage over those kids who tried—and failed—to humiliate Omaha tribal elder Nathan Phillips. I’ve seen at least two dozen full-scale editorial pieces, in the mainstream and alternative media, plus many more posted on social media with one of the many shaky iPhone videos and a few choice insults in the comments.

Perhaps you have decided that the news cycle for MAGA Boy and the persistently drumming Native American elder has run its course. Maybe you called or emailed the school in Kentucky to express your displeasure. Make a few comments on social media posts—and considering that the event is now over, it goes into the ‘Old Outrages’ file, along with the Hitler-salute Youth in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and the Stanford swimmer who got away with rape, pretty much. Not to mention Michael Brown, Tamar Rice, et al..

Perhaps there are just too many outrages to keep burning, burning, burning all the time. It’s exhausting. But maybe that’s the problem—we get angry, or sad, or sickened by all signs and signals that there’s something really appalling happening in this country. And we feel powerless to do more than comment.
More than that, we’re not really sure who or what to blame. We don’t know how to fix this.

Is this about a spoiled and entitled generation of kids? Is it about Catholic schools, sending teenaged boys on a mission to publicly protest a woman’s right to have control over her own body? Who thought that was a good idea? Or is it really about the adults—a response I’ve heard from many educators—and their failure to step in and stop the reprehensible behavior of the boys in their charge, to point out their disrespect, to yank them back?

I think the fact that virtually all the boys in the video were wearing MAGA hats answers that last question. Clearly, that was acceptable gear for a visit to the nation’s capital. They got off the bus with those baseball caps, their cell phones to document their manly actions, and their inclination to rumble.

The thing is—and I’m not the first to point this out—we’ve seen boys like this before. Boys like this have been part of our history, from Birmingham to Wounded Knee to Charlottesville. They sit in corner offices, the halls of power and the highest court in the nation.  To boys like this, life is a game of winners and losers. They want to be winners, to come out on top. And white boys think they have the advantage there.

The question now is not who’s most to blame— or whether the boys even understood the political and philosophical differences between the Black Hebrew Israelites, who were also protesting, and the cause of the Indigenous Peoples March.  Doubtful.

The question we need to be asking is what this incident represents about us, as a nation. What will we do next, how can this be mended, what does it mean to be ‘great?’

Perhaps the most on-point and frightening thing I’ve read came from Nathan Phillips himself:

Phillips said he recalled “the looks in these young men’s faces … I mean, if you go back and look at the lynchings that was done (in America) …and you’d see the faces on the people … The glee and the hatred in their faces, that’s what these faces looked like.”

So–let’s stop talking about this incident as proof that Catholic schools are missing the moral mark, or that teenagers are clueless jerks who don’t know their own history, or that parents need to take a firm hand and stop defending their kids (instead of hiring PR firms to clean up the mess).

This is about a malevolence sweeping across our country. We’re all involved here. This is about racism, in all its filthy and sordid flavors, shapes and forms.

It’s just more evidence that demons we thought had been tamped down, again and again, are on the loose once more. Ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and white nationalism, parading around in red hats. The cracks in our democracy widening. A new sense of who the natural winners and losers are—who ‘deserves’ to come out on top.

In one of the videos, Nathan Phillips says:

 “Let’s make America great. Let’s do that.”  After an exchange about “stolen land” one young person responds to Phillips’ group by saying, “And y’all stole it from the aboriginals. … Land gets stolen. That’s how it works. It’s the way of the world.”

There you have it. Not sure who told this kid that stealing property was the way of the world, but if this is what young men attending a school that purports to inculcate strong moral character believe, we’re in terrible trouble.  White teachers and parents need to take a good look at not only what happens on school trips, but in the curriculum, the athletic fields, at the dinner table and every other place that our kids look for role models and guidance. Because they ARE looking.

That doesn’t mean I’ve let these kids off the hook. I haven’t. Only this: if you were relieved that YOUR children/students/community would never behave like this, look at what’s coming down the pike.

 Decide for yourself what is causing this upsurge in hate and ugliness.

Nathan Phillips gets the last word:
Phillips said the students who derided him Friday were motivated by fear of different people. 

“The Black Israelites, they were saying some harsh things, but some of it was true, too,” Phillips said. “These young, white American kids who were being taught in their Catholic school, their doctrine, their truth, and when they found out there’s more truth out there than what they’re being taught, they were offended, they were insulted, they were scared, and that’s how they responded. One thing that I was taught in my Marine Corp training is that a scared man will kill you. And that’s what these boys were. They were scared.”

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17 Comments

    1. I watched more than two hours of video, long ones and short ones. I’ve seen the Black Hebrew Israelites. I’ve seen Nathan Phillips. I’ve seen the tomahawk chops and ‘pretend Indian’ dancing from the boys. I’ve had conversations with first hand witnesses.

      While the available evidence does strike people in different ways, I’ve not heard anyone–ANYONE–state that Nathan Phillips is lying.

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      1. Nancy, I’m writing from Sioux Falls,SD & I want you to know that I believe what you have written is the best account that I’ve seen or read. Everyone in my family attended both Catholic high schools & colleges & many on to Grad school, medicine or Law …..so the behavior of the Covington Catholic boys ( besides really pissing me off) also is heartbreaking 💔. Ofcourse I’ve been depressed for 2 years now & every time something like this happens (Charlottesville, etc) I think …Again , really ?? I’m so angry @ the school for even allowing those hats & sweatshirts; & the blackface, chop chop & more……. continue your writing . It’s excellent . And yes J.A. is a very good friend !!! Peggy✌ 🙇

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      2. Thanks Peggy. I recognize the name from trips to Sioux Falls, which is the nicest, totally Midwestern town I know. I appreciate your comment. And I echo your emotions–I’m weary of being angry all the time. I’m just sad.

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  1. Nathan Phillip is a wise man, by stepping in and offering a song of prayer, he defused a possible serious confrontation.
    I strongly agree, these kids have been endoctrinated by their parents, teachers, and church to hate people who are inferior in their eyes.
    Thank you!

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  2. There is also footage of a group of boys allegedly from the school harassing young women as they walked past. Clearly these boys were not on their best behavior from the start, and were under little to no supervision. And ironically, the mother who blamed “Black Muslims” for the aggression did exactly what she was accusing everyone else of doing, in her attempt to vindicate her son – leap to an incorrect assumption.

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    1. I fully believe that these boys thought they were ‘large and in charge,’ walking the Mall in D.C.. Their behavior represents what has been encouraged and allowed all their lives. Sometimes, I wonder–who are the people in that third of all Americans, the ones who support the President, feel a wall should be built to keep out refugees, walk with tiki torches in one of our old historic cities? Now I know where they come from.

      Stuff like this happens all the time, but until now, it’s not been covered by multiple videos, widely shared. How we respond–like the boy’s mother–tells us more about our own beliefs and perceptions than the truth. I asked myself, dozens of times, watching those videos: What am I really seeing here?

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  3. Phillips was lying just as he lied about being a Vietnam vet. Furthermore he never tried to be a peacemaker. and the Black Hebrew people were the real instigators here belittling both the students and the Indigenous People. The students acted badly and were wrong to respond to the situation but they are kids. the adults with them should have intervened and got them away from all the demonstrators and maybe they are the real problem with this encounter. The Maga hats and trumpf paraphernalia should have been left at home because they were lightning rods for the other groups. I have some real problems with the school, the Catholic church, and any radical group but this was not a good picture or example for anyone.

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    1. What’s interesting to me about your comment is your quick judgment about Nathan Phillips, who never said, BTW, that he went to Vietnam. He repeatedly said he was a ‘Vietnam-era’ Marine veteran. Which he is.

      Ever been to the Mall, near the Lincoln steps? It’s crawling with protestors, like the Black Hebrew Israelites. Most people ignore them, because—under the rules of democracy–they get to say what they think, even if most people disagree. The boys engaged them, without adult correction or removal, for nearly an hour, shouting back and taking off their shirts and screaming disgusting epithets to match the similar BHI epithets.

      What I’m getting from your comment is: #1) These (white) boys are ‘just kids.’ #2) The black and Native American men were the real culprits.
      This incident lays bare the way white Americans view who, precisely, is trustworthy (just kids) and who is not trustworthy (black and brown men). In the blog, I said that the incident was about racism, mistrust of ‘the other.’ I also said, clearly, that the question now IS NOT who’s to blame (something you seem to be stuck on), but what to do about this.

      I wrote the blog before the PR firm re-framing of the story, the grinning kid’s big TV interview where he recited his talking points like a champ, the incredible mountain of research now showing the Coventry Catholic has a history of racism, Trump’s congratulating the boys, etc etc. So my question–what do we do about this?–is now moot. It has served to further divide the country, into ‘us’ and ‘them.’

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    2. It is important to view the many FACETS of this public display of behavior at the National Mall in DC. It should now be deemed as a case study for our nation. At any given moment and place, behavior can be displayed on the worldwide stage of social media. From that point, many in our society begin a process: put words in each other’s mouths; claim to be able to read each other’s minds. Dig in in our heels. Become more polarized. Hate.

      FACET: The face-to-face between an adult Native American and a junior in high school was spawned by a Twitter Account based out of Brazil that has since been suspended by Twitter. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/twitter-suspends-account-that-helped-ignite-controversy-over-viral-encounter/ar-BBSz1yo?ocid=sf.

      FACET: The group of H.S. students was gathering at a pre-arranged location at the National Mall before exiting to their buses to depart from a pro-life rally. Many students were wearing caps that support the president of the USA.

      FACET: A small group of demonstrators was also present; the Black Hebrew Israelites has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a racist group https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2008/racist-black-hebrew-israelites-becoming-more-militant?fbclid=IwAR1oZqW2eqDP7q7miir3-JJWdyEsQ0. A video of the demonstration of the Black Hebrew Israelites on this day is available to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch? . This is the link to an almost two-hour video that allows us to watch what transpired before the face-to-face between a high school student and a Native American adult. Some of the inflammatory examples of provocation by the group of Black Hebrew Israelites directed to the mostly white high school students can be heard at the following markers; as well as push back from the students.
      1:06:45 threats of violence.
      1:07:40 calling the students “incest babies”
      1:24:50 students booing the preacher after he uses slurs
      1:27:00 “there will be no peace until there is bloodshed”
      However, taunts and slurs between other individuals begin at marker 46:00; the atmosphere intensifies.

      FACET: a Native American adult male approaches the high school students, as the group of boys from Covington Catholic High School have begun taking part in high school chants and cheers.
      There is a face-to-face between a high school student from Covington Catholic and the Native American. The chants and cheering by the students continue, students and other Native Americans surround the two individuals in the face-to-face. As the drum beating continues, some students make the gesture/symbol that is known to be extremely offensive to Native Americans.

      Finally, the high schooler walks away from the face-to-face. The crowd of high school students disperses.

      My initial reaction upon seeing the video of the face-to-face was to be EXTREMELY offended by what I deemed as utter disrespect for an Native American adult by a white kid wearing a Mega “TRUMP” cap ; I felt outrage toward this student and his peers. This was my knee-jerk reaction.

      From another source on social media, I was invited to learn more about what transpired at the National Mall in DC. I was VERY reluctant to do this, but felt compelled considering the source.

      This is my personal bias from which I formed my initial reaction: I did not vote for Trump. I was astounded and grieved when Trump was elected. I voted for Obama both terms. I have voted for Republican presidents. My late husband died before he received his Green Card (he was a French Jew whose family were subjected to major consequences and death due to the Nazi Occupation in France). I am a product, as are my siblings, of public education. We attended public universities, too. My city of birth in the midwest is also my present residence– home to the most diversified public high school in my state; it is also my alma mater. During childhood, my family hosted students from all over the world. I, in turn, was hosted by families in other countries. I received my Masters at Hunter College in NYC where I lived for three years with my late husband. Later, I remarried. My white children attended a private catholic parochial elementary school where they were in the minority. I had switched from public to the private catholic school system because the public school had the policy of NO RETENTION. That meant that my child would enter third grade without being able to read; by forfeit, I chose a school system that allows students to repeat a grade. I am of scandinavian heritage. My paternal grandfather–who I never meant–immigrated to the US and changed the family last name to sound more americanized. He forbade his children from speaking the mother tongue. English was spoken in the home as well as in public. They lived below the poverty level. The majority of his children dispersed across the United States as there were few career choices in the region where my grandfather immigrated to. As a woman approaching 60, I continue to take courses (Great Courses, online) in american and world history as well as a philosophy course. I am toiling through the great French classics in literature of Zola, Balzac –that are anthropological studies of French society written during the 19th century.

      My take-away about what happened at our National Mall and the social media storm that ensued is this: I became a member of Knee-Jerk Nation of Social Media. Our nation is being manipulated by outside sources on social media; then, we incur insults and hate on one another. On the backside, hate meets hate–coming from the extreme left and right. On the backside, it is hard to distinguish who hates more; who is more self-righteous in their hate. What is all this hate about? It is a means to what? Can we change as nation, in our ethics and morals without hate? Martin Luther King, Jr. believed we could.

      Let us promote human dignity at every level. Let our high school student–any student–take a field trip to our National Mall in Washington DC to be awed and inspired by the intent of the basis of our Nation: a democratic republic. No matter where we find ourselves, may we engage in mindful freedom of speech and assembly. May we all gain wisdom from this experience; to learn from it as a collective NATIONAL CASE STUDY.

      Thank you for allowing me to share my evolving opinions and beliefs.

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      1. Thanks for your detailed personal comment. Would that all of our beliefs and opinions evolve.

        I think this case–which is really very simple, just an altercation between some HS boys and a Native elder–has become a flashpoint because of its simplicity. It doesn’t involve learning about policy ramifications or studying data. It’s just people, confronting each other. The lazy and easy thing to do? Pick a side.

        As an educator, I too had an immediate response. While the first video’s initial source being a now-suspended Twitter account is interesting, there are so many different videos of this incident, and the Covington boys’ behavior in D.C., that I’m not sure anyone can be ‘blamed’ for starting the fire. The fact is, social media is the Wild West of news dispersal–some of it questionable, some of it reprehensible, and some of it incredibly valuable. People’s lives have been saved because of social media. Caveat emptor, of course.

        It’s interesting to compare what’s happened on social media to what happens when a white-shoe conservative PR firm comes in–the story gets cleaned up, boys are memorizing talking points, the MAGA hats go away. Is that, appearing on the mainstream media, any more real? I don’t think so.

        Thanks for your comment.

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  4. Education, education, education. When my kids were in middle school, I presented 4 Power Point documentaries about the family of my late husband living under Nazi Occupation as Jews in France. At that time I viewed it as an exercise of Never Forget. My youngest child is a senior in high school. In a matter of a few years, hate crimes have risen and the murder of Jews in an American synagogue have transpired! I believe in taking a knee, I believe in exposing hate groups, I believe in the separation of religion and state. High quality public education is a major avenue for peace, merit and stability. When I had my children switch to private parochial, we had to get the signature of a religious leader. In private/private parochial education system, every child’s admission hangs in a precarious, subjective balance.

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