What happened Saturday in Washington on the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial?
As the nation prepared to observe the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend, while a partial government shutdown over a border wall, other news caught our attention. This had to do with a set of encounters as separate marches and protests collided on or near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. You may have seen or heard of a viral video that appeared to show a young man clad in MAGA clothing, with what appears to be a smirk on his face, standing in the face of a Native American man singing and drumming. Many jumped on this sight and proclaimed the young man to be a racist and that he was being disrespectful. Thus, this young white male was deemed a poster child of white supremacy. It didn’t help that he represented a Catholic school and he and his fellow students were attending an anti-abortion march. All of this—the Trump gear, the anti-abortion purpose for the visit, and attendant visuals cast the high school students in a bad light. As more information came out, the story got more complicated. Longer versions of the scene have emerged (I have not watched them), which has led to multiple interpretations. As you might expect multiple interpretations have been shared, none of which give clarity.
This is why I tend to shy away from jumping into the midst of these kinds of situations. There is a human tendency to see things that fit our vision of reality and run with them. We want to make a statement. We want to get the first word, especially those of us who engage in influence-efforts. That can leave us vulnerable to making mistakes. Whether that is true here remains to be seen.
So, for those of us on the left, who are concerned about the increasing levels of racism in our culture, as well as a President who has tended to encourage white angst, this scene was ripe for picking. Many did so and are now backtracking and apologizing, even as defenders of the students claim the students are being maligned (along with the President, whose gear they were wearing), while shouting once again about fake news. Perhaps it is better being the tortoise than the hare, though my tortoise-like response will not get the same attention as those who jumped out first.
There is still much we don’t know about what happened Saturday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The reports are conflicting. My gut feeling is that the report given by Nathan Phillips, the Native American Elder, is the closest to the truth. According to his story, he saw an escalating situation brewing between the high school students and a group of four African American men who are part of a fringe group known as Black Hebrew Israelites. These men allegedly were taunting the students, probably because of their MAGA gear, but also because that is their modus operandi. Things went awry at that point when the students decided to engage the men rather than ignore them, leading me to believe that there was a lack of adult supervision or guidance. This is when Mr. Phillips entered the picture. He was present for another march for the rights of indigenous peoples. Seeing the escalating situation, he tried to put himself in between the two parties, even as he sang and drummed. Instead of separating the students surrounded him, and some began engaging in what appears to be mocking of him by doing tomahawk chops (like the ones you see at football games) and other demeaning actions. Then there is the student whose picture is now viral standing face to face, seeming to stand in the way of Mr. Phillips, smirking all the while. I don't know the whole story, but it’s clear that these young people have much to learn about engaging others, about racism, and cultural appropriation. Again, I might ask---where was the adult supervision.
All of that being said, here is where I think we need to focus. As a white male, I know that I have certain privileges. I know that my ancestral history contributed to the cultural and physical genocide of the First Nations peoples (I like the Canadian designation). It is worth noting that Washington, DC is home to an NFL team known as the Redskins. It is important to note that other sports franchises, including the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves, and the Cleveland Indians also have appropriated Native American symbols for their own purpose, often doing so in demeaning ways (Chief Wahoo or the tomahawk chops).
Being an optimistic person, I hope there is opportunity for lessons to be learned, especially regarding the place of Native Americans in our culture, including the oppression and cultural appropriate that exists. That this occurred on the weekend dedicated to the legacy of a Civil Rights hero makes this all the more poignant.
Here is the possible good news. Nathan Phillips, the Native American Elder who was caught up in this situation (and a resident of Ypsilanti, Michigan), has offered to visit Covington Catholic School and meet with the students and explain how their actions might be perceived as insulting and inappropriate. In an article published in the Detroit Free Press (my local paper), Phillips is quoted as saying:
“Race relations in this country and around the world have reached a boiling point. It is sad that on the weekend of a holiday when we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., racial hostility occurred on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, where King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
He notes in the article in the paper, that the students’ actions were perceived by members of the Native American community gathered there as demeaning. He challenged the claims made by the students in their response. Thus, he notes:
“I have read the statement from Nick Sandmann, the student who stared at me for a long time," Phillips said. "He did not apologize, and I believe there are intentional falsehoods in his testimony. But I have faith that human beings can use a moment like this to find a way to gain understanding from one another.”
That is my hope as well. So, perhaps this can be a lesson learned by all of us. First, do not jump the gun. Get the facts, knowing we’ll never know all the facts. Second, let we who are part of the majority culture recognize the need to learn and listen from those whose stories are different from our own, especially from those who have lived in the shadow of a white Eurocentric vision of reality.