Breda O'Brien: Racist frame too small for the full picture
A smirking American teen is treated as evil personified. Where were the adults?
Nick Sandmann, a student from Covington Catholic High School, stands in front of Native American Nathan Phillips, in Washington DC, last week. Photograph: Kaya Taitano/Social Media/via Reuters
A minor incident at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington involving high school students, a religious group styling themselves the Black Hebrew Israelites, and Native American marchers has become an event worthy of international coverage.
At this stage, it is like some kind of bizarre Rorschach test, where what you see depends on where you stand on the political spectrum.
The first take was that the short clip showed a group of white high school students apparently acting in a racist fashion towards an elderly Native American (or First Nation) representative, Nathan Phillips, who was drumming while one of the students, Nick Sandmann, smirked at him.
The students allegedly surrounded Phillips and others on the Indigenous Peoples’ March and chanted “Build that wall!”
As a teacher, I see these boys as kids who were on a day trip to a massive annual event
Reaction was predictable and swift. Privileged white boys wearing MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats on their way home from an anti-abortion march? Of course they are racist and smug about being racist.
That was my own first take. I cringed, wondering why on Earth the anti-abortion movement is cursed with such representatives.
The second take revealed a group of adult male black men, the Hebrew Israelite group, who were hurling racist and homophobic epithets at the boys.
Apparently, this group believes that as African Americans they are biological descendants of the ancient Israelites but ironically, some of their fringe members have been accused of anti-Semitism.
The charming things this group said to the students included telling one of the few African American students present that his fellow students would harvest his organs.
They also called the students “incest babies”. The students were chanting school slogans, but not “Build the wall”, and some made tomahawk gestures.
The First Nations drummer, Nathan Phillips, had said that he had waded in to make peace, describing the black protesters as prey and the young people as beasts.
His judgment is odd given the obvious provocation and is already a different picture from Phillips and his group being targeted and surrounded.
As a teacher, I see these boys as kids who were on a day trip to a massive annual event. (Incidentally, the March for Life, despite involving tens of thousands, gets little coverage unless there is a controversy showing the marchers or speakers in a bad light.)
All school trips have adults who are in charge. In America, there are usually teachers and parents who act as chaperones. Where were they?
If a stand-off were developing between their students and a group such as the Hebrew Israelites, most teachers I know would be circulating, calming things down, and telling students just to ignore the provocation.
Nor would Irish students be allowed to wear political badges on a school trip.
There have been reports that one chaperone did tell the boys to move back and stop engaging the Hebrew Israelites. Why did other chaperones not take an even firmer line?
Perhaps they were busy putting out fires elsewhere. Who knows? But most teachers would not give permission to start using any kind of school chants when the situation was already tense.
They would also wade in if there appeared to be a stand-off between a student and an elderly man, getting between the two and instructing the student to please step back, that there was an adult here now and the situation would be handled.
Perhaps what the most striking aspect of this whole bizarre event is not teenagers behaving in a nervous, adrenaline-fuelled way, but the absence of adults acting like adults.
This includes Phillips but also the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and producer Michael Green, who tweeted: “A face like that never changes. This image will define his life. No one need ever forgive him.”
Did they do anything to merit death threats or this level of media attention? No
To tweet something like this about a kid whose crimes consist of wearing a MAGA hat and a really annoying grin while an elderly man drums in his face, is completely wrong.
Aside from being the highly-talented screenwriter of Blade Runner: 2049, Green is also a father. He has a child aged about eight.
Supposing that in 10 years’ time, Green’s child becomes embroiled in a controversy that generates a completely disproportionate reaction, would he like to see that child condemned forever?
Green makes his living from crafting compelling stories. Why would he make a comment that crafts a narrative that denounces someone else’s child?
Probably because social media has made instantaneous polarisation so normal that this young man, Nick Sandmann, is not just a kid with an aggravating expression but the face of evil.
People have latched on to the fact that Sandmann’s family have employed a crisis-management company. What would you do if it were your child, you had the money to do so and he and you were receiving death threats?
Could the students have been more mature? Are tomahawk chops stupid, insensitive gestures? Yes, to both. Did they do anything to merit death threats or this level of media attention? No.
What the students needed at the time was adult intervention that gently but firmly defused the situation and what they need now is for adults to pause instead of continuing to whip up a mob.