Chairman's Message: What We Can Learn from the Covington Controversy

By Alexander Bush

This is not a typical Chairman’s article, which is usually the literary equivalent of a warm glass of milk. Instead, I want to share with you my thoughts on a story that upset me deeply, and to discuss what we might be able to learn from it. Oh, and it’s a long one, so grab a snack. Of course, I am talking about the Covington Catholic high-school kids at the Lincoln Memorial on January 18th.

It is easy to get lost forever in frustration and recrimination, but I try to remind myself that we should treat every day as a learning opportunity – an opportunity to be a little better today than we were yesterday. And to lay the groundwork for being a better person tomorrow than we were today.

For those of you still a little confused about the facts, let me give you a quick summary: A video posted to Twitter seemed to show a group of teenage boys in MAGA hats crowding around an old man, mocking him. The alleged context was that the boys – in D.C. for the March for Life rally – surrounded and mobbed a group of Native Americans, one of them a veteran, there for the Indigenous Peoples March, while chanting “build the wall.” First twitter, then the whole internet, and then the entire media went mad.

Celebrities, like Kathy Griffin, and media personalities called for them to be doxxed (i.e., making their names, addresses, phone numbers, etc. public so that they could be harassed), or outright assaulted. One child who was not even at the event was misidentified and his name and address were spread across the internet. The boy who was shown face-to-face with the adult activist was accused of being a school shooter in the making, a lookalike to the “white young men crowding around a single black man at a lunch counter sit-in in Virginia in the 1960s” and far worse. Even their own school said it would investigate and consider expulsion. This quick concession failed to protect the school, however, and it was forced to temporarily close due to threats of violence.

Over the next few days, a more complete story was seen on much longer videos of the incident and statements by those involved. The students had been at the Lincoln Memorial waiting for buses to take them home and had been accosted by a group called the Black Hebrew Israelites – a hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The BHI members had earlier hurled racial slurs and insults (“drunkards in the casino” and much worse) at the Native American activists, but then turned their attention to the Covington high school kids. Again, they used racial slurs, threatened to assault them, and specifically targeted an African-American Covington student for insults.

And how did these high school boys respond? Quite well, actually. They verbally defended their classmate, politely objected to the homophobic slurs, and – with permission from their adult chaperones – started their school chant to drown the BHI out. One student even offered to shake hands with a BHI member, and another student attempted to offer one a bottle of water. Both were rudely rebuffed.

Then came Nathan Philips, the sixty-four-year-old activist, there for the Indigenous Peoples March. Mr. Philips, with a few others in tow (cameras out, of course), approaches the students while banging a drum. He never tries to speak with them as they step aside to let him enter the group of students. He then approaches the boy with the famous “smirk” and stands within inches of his face, still banging the drum. Most of the students seem confused. Some join in the chanting, some in a mocking manner, some in a supportive manner, and at least one student is seen making an Atlanta Braves style tomahawk chop.

And that’s it. The buses came and the kids left. And every reasonable person who sees the evidence is left with the abiding belief that every adult involved in this incident – the BHI, Nathan Philips, the chaperones – behaved far worse than high school students that so many celebrities and media personalities have sought to ruin.

The BHI are a blatantly racist, sexist, and homophobic sect that regularly hone their skills for provoking a reaction. Some in the media have condemned the children for not simply ignoring them, as nearly all D.C. residents have learned to do. This is totally unfair. These high school kids from Kentucky had no idea about this history and had no way of knowing that they weren’t being specifically targeted. And they were trapped at that location, waiting for buses to take them home. They were not adults who could simply walk away and take the metro home. Despite this, they behaved remarkably well. And where were the school chaperones? Why didn’t they try to take charge of the situation? Why not stand between their students and the BHI? Why not move their students somewhere else close to where the buses would be pulling up? But no, they did nothing. How much better behavior can we demand of high-school kids aggressively targeted by adults? This whole argument is nothing more than blaming the victims. Nathan Philips also deserves his fair share of the blame, but more on that later.

There’s the history. Now what can we learn? Quite a lot.

First, this story is a reminder that our minds are pattern-seeking machines. This is true of everyone – me, you, Kathy Griffin – everyone. When someone with left-wing views saw that initial viral video, it confirmed nearly every bias they had. Adam Serwer, writing for The Atlantic, summed it up well as “It was like a scene out of left-wing protest literature: a group of white, parochial-school boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ gear taunting an American Indian protester, jeering and laughing, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after attending the anti-abortion March for Life.” Anything they could be accused of would be a great political victory for the left. A big score for team blue, and they ran with it. No questions asked. Why question a story that is so deliciously convenient and that confirms so many biases?

When it became obvious that they could not sustain their narrative, they moved the goalposts. The desperation by some pundits to maintain the narrative would have been almost laughable, if it were not so tragic. Some wrote that the high schoolers were still wrong for not “respecting their elders”. Some said that one of the boys taking off his shirt during the school cheers justified the horrible overreaction. As if a lack of decorum by a teenager at the Lincoln Memorial is equivalent to the initial accusation: physically threatening behavior and blatant racism. One commentator (who I had previously respected) even tried to argue that the “three point” hand gesture in basketball (which a random photo showed some Covington basketball players making) had a racially offensive history. This is not even “guilty until proven innocent”. This is guilt regardless. Guilt forever. Now we’re just negotiating over the sentence. As if impolite behavior was a justification for doxxing, harassment, and demands for their expulsion, and more. But more than this, there was anger on the left that their perfect narrative of hate was being taken from them.

This is part of human nature, and something we can and should seek to rise above. If we are being ruthlessly honest with ourselves (and we always should be), we can see a local example where some of us could have done better. You may recall an incident in 2017 where two Montgomery County High School students were charged with sexually assaulting a classmate. The two students were both in the country illegally, and the story got a lot of local media attention. When more evidence came to light, the charges were dropped – but a few had already gone far out on a limb with a political narrative. This was certainly a far-cry from the way the public jumped to conclusions with the Covington students, but can still serve as a lesson about the temptation of a convenient narrative, and it is a reminder to wait for all the facts to come to light before drawing conclusions.

Another lesson is to remember how little we really know about what someone is thinking or what their motivations are. It is human nature to expect others to assume our good intentions, all the while assuming the worst about others in the same circumstances. For so Americans, one boy’s face became a human Rorschach test. People who believed the narrative of the first brief video saw so much hate, contempt, even evil in his young face. So many people looked at a boy’s face and ascribed to him everything that they hated. Some of us just saw an awkward kid, unsure of what to do. Only the most perceptive of us noticed his little hand gestures to other students, asking them to settle down. 

This reminds me of a study done a few years ago where the subjects were shown a video of a political demonstration. Half the subjects believed that the demonstrators were protesting outside of an abortion clinic, and the other half that the demonstrators were protesting the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy outside a military recruitment center. The subjects’ views on the behavior of the protestors (whether they were threatening, rude, inappropriate, etc.) was found to be based almost entirely on the subjects’ preconceived political and social views, and not on the video they were show.

Of course, I’m not saying that everything is an unknowable. And the best way to confirm what is going on behind a face is to hear what that person has to say. In subsequent interviews, Nathan Philips called the students “beasts” who were “in the process of attacking” the BHI members. He also claimed that “some of [what the BHI members were saying] was educational, and it was truth, and it was history about religious views and ideologies, but these other folks, the young students, they couldn’t see.” It only added context that another activist walking with Nathan Philips told the students to “go back to Europe.” I suppose that when a man who admits that he sees you as a violent “beast” comes toward you, maybe you actually can see that in his face. But this is putting two and two together, not simply cold-reading a stranger’s face.

Finally, let us commit to congratulating those who learn from their mistakes, rather than condemning them. I have seen a lot of great articles by commentators who admitted to jumping to conclusions and apologized for it. I have also seen far too many people refusing to accept these apologies. This is wrong. We should never leave decent, honest people in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation. Instead, they should be congratulated for being better, wiser people today than they were yesterday, and thanked for their honesty and moral courage. I still may disagree with nearly everything else they believe, but even if honesty and integrity are the only things I have in common with someone, that is enough for respect. Remember, many of these people have now received a significant amount of hate from their friends on the left. Now is the time to be strong and courageous. In this modern world, sometimes the most courageous things are honesty and forgiveness.

A lesson here for everyone is that no one should wear one mistake or one wrong opinion as a Shirt of Nessus for the rest of their lives. Yes, this even replies to members of the media, and it certainly applies to high school students. Seeking the truth is a life-long struggle, not the result of one day.

This is more than just because an outnumbered party (as we are in Montgomery County) should always welcome people who have changed their minds. Let us not downplay the danger of the increasing polarization in our county, and the ease with which people with an opposing viewpoint are dehumanized. One day we may again face a time when we will need to come together as a nation. When that time comes, I hope we still can.

Montgomery County Republican Party