Making Sense of the Phillips-Sandmann Viral Video

A woman speaks during the Indigenous People's March on the National Mall at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on January 18, 2019. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo credit should read AND... A woman speaks during the Indigenous People's March on the National Mall at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on January 18, 2019. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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Over the last couple days I’ve been watching the unfolding reaction and re-reactions to the video of the confrontation between Native American activist and elder Nathan Phillips and a crowd of high school students from Covington, Kentucky on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The whole story is a good example of how we can react quickly to a zoomed in (both literally and metaphorically) video and miss a lot of what led up to it, as well as some key context. With that said, though, when you add all the context I’m not sure it’s all that different from what it looked like on the first go, despite some now saying the new evidence and new videos change everything.

Saturday night and into Sunday I watched numerous different videos of the encounter itself and what led up to it. So let me give you my impression of what happened as well as links to videos and accounts which can help you come to your own conclusions.

First, the initial videos could easily give the impression that Phillips (the man with the drum) was in the midst of marching in a protest when he was surrounded by a crowd of white teenagers in MAGA hats. That’s not what happened.

Let’s start with some background.

A Native American group (The Indigenous People’s March) had marched to the Memorial earlier in the day. Later a group of teenage boys from a Catholic High School in Covington, Kentucky were also there. They were in town for the March for Life, an anti-abortion march. They had apparently congregated at the Memorial as a staging point to wait for buses to leave. While these two very different things were happening, there was a third much smaller group of so-called “Black Israelites” – maybe half a dozen men – who had been there seemingly for most of the day haranguing both groups. One video I watched from earlier in the day shows the Black Israelites haranguing the Native American marchers for “worshipping totem poles” and in other ways needing to repent to God.

I’m not sure how common they are in other cities or parts of the country. If you live in New York or DC or Philadelphia you’ve probably seen them. They’re mainly known for a form of very aggressive street preaching, often combative and using racial epithets. They are often and not-unfairly viewed as a cult. In a later interview, Phillips said they reminded him of the protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church, the ones who used to go to the people’s funerals and rant hateful things about gay people. That’s a pretty good analogy.

In any case, at some point late in the afternoon, the Black Israelites are yelling at the High School kids and vice versa. The more aggressive language, at least at the start, is coming from the Black Israelites, using homophobic slurs and using the N-word directed at one of the High Schoolers who’s African-American (seemingly the only one.) It’s not totally clear to me who started what here. But you’ve got the hyper-aggressive black supremacist group and this crowd of white high school boys in MAGA hats. So I’m not sure much of a spark was needed.

It’s this situation Phillips described as getting out of control when he decided to intervene to settle things down or at least try to put himself between the two groups. Phillips walks between the two groups and into the group of students. The group of students parts around him and pretty quickly he’s surrounded by high school students who are variously laughing, jeering and chanting. The one student whose face you’ve no doubt seen doesn’t move aside like the others and that’s where you have the standoff captured in the original viral video.

As this is happening, the kids surrounding the two are taunting Phillips and laughing and variously goofing off like high school guys do. The entire tableau is defined by the fact that Phillips, the Native American elder with a dark complexion, is surrounded by lily white teens probably half of whom are wearing MAGA caps. They’re all laughing, taunting and doing ‘tomahawk chops’ in response to Phillips. I’ve seen various people claiming in the light of the new videos that the kids might simply be milling around or laughing uncomfortably or even chanting in unison with Phillips’ drumming. That’s a stretch by any definition and the ‘tomahawk chop’ hand motions put any such claims to rest. It’s already a pretty riled up situation. But it’s crystal clear their reaction to Phillips is one of jeering and racial taunting.

The boy who was at the center of the confrontation on the other side of Phillips, Nick Sandmann, later released a statement in which he claims he was “startled and confused” and attempting to defuse the situation by “remaining motionless and calm.” He says he was saying a “silent prayer” in the viral video in hopes that the situation would not get out of hand.

I’m sure there was some element of being startled or even confused. Few of us are ever thinking only one thing in a chaotic situation. But I see no way to reconcile Sandmann’s claims with what’s actually on the video. He can be seen hipping and hawing around Phillips like the rest of the kids just before the stand off and he seems more cocky and defiant than anything like trying to appeal for calm in the video that went viral. Eyewitnesses claim they heard the boys making various denigrating remarks about Native Americans. I heard some of those on the video but not all of them. Phillips and Sandmann gave conflicting accounts of whether Sandmann refused to move as Phillips tried to walk up the steps. At least the video itself makes it hard to resolve that.

The original video especially is so loaded – smiling white boy in a MAGA cap standing on the verge of laughing in the face of an impassive Native American beating a ceremonial drum – that it’s probably impossible for anyone to look at it and not project all sorts of beliefs, fears, grievances about the society we live in. But again, I don’t think Sandmann’s explanation is credible. I think he decided to stand his ground, get in the guy’s face, and smile a kind of satisfied smile to show he wasn’t backing down. Meanwhile, his friends are surrounding both of them, goofing, taunting, jeering. Again, the chopping hand motion tells the story.

One side note that probably deserves more attention. There were apparently chaperones with the boys. Again, these are high school students on a school trip. Whatever you think of the rest of it, all the videos show numerous points at which adults should have intervened but apparently didn’t.

The upshot is that when you see all the videos, not just the one that initially spread like wildfire, you get a lot more context to what led up to that video moment. But it doesn’t greatly change the substance of what you see on the video, which is a middle aged Native American activist/elder beating a ceremonial drum in the face of what appears to be a bemused and cocky teenager while his classmates surrounding them, mostly wearing MAGA caps, jeer and taunt the man with chopping motions. To me, Sandman’s grin looks self-satisfied and arrogant. You can see that part as well as I can. So make your own judgments.

If you’re interested in getting your own take. This is the only video I’ve seen which captures everything that happened over almost two hours. It was videoed by one of the ‘Black Israelites’. I watched it on their local group’s Facebook page. But it was taken offline a short time after I watched it. This guy somehow got a copy.

You miss a lot of the Phillips v Sandman moment. But you get the context leading up to it.

You can also read this exhaustive thread by Lisa Sharon Harper. I don’t agree with all her interpretations necessarily. But she manages to go meticulously through the chain of events, who did what when. And to the extent one might quibble with this or that interpretation she shows the actual videos she’s reacting to. So you can make your own judgments. Harper went deeper on this than I did. But I watched a lot of these various videos myself Saturday night. And almost everything she describes matches up with what I saw. Harper also attended the Indigenous People’s March. So she brings that additional context and perspective to making sense of what happened.

Here’s another video from The Washington Post which weaves together a lot of videos, an interview with Phillips and more. It’s pretty good.

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