Oh, for a time when a school group could go to the nation’s capital, have an awkward encounter with some demonstrators, and not have it turn into an international incident. But such is, unfortunately, the world we live in. Everyone has a cell phone and is poised to use it at a moment’s notice. Blink, and you might open your eyes to discover that your most recent effort to just get through the day has turned you into the most hated person in America.
That, it appears, is what happened to Nick Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic High School in Covington, Kentucky. He went to the 2019 March for Life with a group from his school. While there, he and his friends encountered some members of the Black Hebrew Israelites (BHI), who proceeded to pepper them with profanity and verbally harass them, calling them assorted names (“cracker,” “faggot”) and suggesting they go find a school to shoot up.
The BHI members also singled out a black student for abuse—he was quickly folded into the group of boys for protection—and went on a lengthy anti-homosexual tirade, drawing audible gasps from some of the Covington Catholic boys, who have no doubt been taught that such talk is not acceptable.
As if all of that weren’t enough, the situation was complicated by the arrival of a Native American man named Nathan Phillips, who slowly walked up to the boys and began drumming. In a video that quickly went viral, Sandmann is seen standing face-to-face with Phillips, smiling as Phillips drums.
The first viral video showed none of the lead-up involving BHI, only the bit between Phillips and Sandmann, who was accused, along with the surrounding boys, of mocking Phillips. A few of the boys can be heard asking, “What’s going on?” It seems they were a bit confused by it all. Wouldn’t you be? Maybe, without a playbook or previous experience dealing with a situation like this, you wouldn’t respond in the most elegant way either.
Much has already been written debunking the initial spin put on this whole debacle by people eager to virtue signal by beating up on a bunch of high school boys. Robby Soave of Reason has a great run-down here, and Rod Dreher, who initially condemned the boys, offers his take here. Last night my Twitter feed was wall-to-wall with apologies to the boys by people who were too quick to judge before getting all the facts.
I have not been more ashamed to be a grown-up in a long, long time. What I have observed in the last three days is not how grown-ups are supposed to act. The Covington Catholic boys may not have behaved with perfect decorum. But they’re teenagers. I’m not sure I would have known what to do had I found myself in the situation they did.
Actually, I do know what I would have done. I would have walked away. Unfortunately, these boys couldn’t do that. They were following instructions to wait for their bus in a designated location. They didn’t have the option of walking away. So they engaged in school cheers and general teenaged goofiness while they passed the time, never anticipating that they were going to be called on to provide the world a model of what to do when you find yourselves verbally attacked by protestors on a Washington D.C. street corner.
The Covington Catholic boys have been terribly, horribly failed by a long parade of adults who, instead of modeling good behavior, have done the opposite. Perhaps most obviously, neither the BHI demonstrators nor Phillips exhibited what thoughtful, reasoned free speech ought to look like. Free speech does not consist of hurling obscenities and insults at the perceived opponent, nor does it consist of wordlessly inserting oneself into an already charged situation, as Phillips did, then lying about it afterward.
No sooner had the boys gotten on their bus than they were thrown under it by their school and the Covington diocese, who issued a joint statement condemning the students’ actions and saying the matter was under investigation that appropriate action would be taken. Um, if the matter is under investigation, doesn’t that suggest it might be good to wait before condemning the behavior? Could it be that there’s more to the story than a short, viral video?
The school and the diocese owed these boys a full hearing before coming to any conclusion. They now owe them an apology.
And then there’s the media, which likes to look at itself as the arbiter of truth but too often shows itself to be the opposite: a mindless, blind, and lumbering monster that sustains itself on a diet of half-truths, innuendo, and lies. In a time when the technology at our fingertips should make it easier than ever to track down a story, that technology is instead used to rapidly spread a half-baked and incomplete version of events before all the details have come in.
Speaking of adults, some are starting to ask where the Covington boys’ chaperones were. My guess is that they were there, doing their best, along with the boys, in a challenging situation. I’ve been a chaperone on a youth trip. It’s hard. There are more kids than adults. You manage them as best you can. You try to keep them corralled while giving them a little space.
I am not sure what I would have done had I found myself in charge of a group under the circumstances that played out Friday. My guess is that the Covington Catholic chaperones, like the boys, perhaps didn’t manage the situation perfectly, but did the best they could.
Sandmann has issued a well-written, thoughtful statement about what happened. Considering that he was actually there Friday and saw the whole thing, it’s worth your time to read.