A 30-second video clip whipped the online mob into a frenzy; a group of Catholic school teenagers wearing “Make America Great Again” hats surrounded a poor Native American drummer and surrounded him, intimidated him, and blocked his escape.
"When I was there, and I was standing there, and I seen that group of people in front of me and the angry faces, and all of that, I realized I had put myself in a really dangerous you know?" the drummer told CNN. "Here’s a group of people who were angry at somebody else and I put myself in front of that, and all of a sudden, I’m the one who is all that anger and all of that wanting to have the freedom to just rip me apart. You know? That was scary."
That drummer, Nathan Phillips, is a veteran and native activist, while the students are white and presumably privileged as they attend a private Catholic School—Covington Catholic—in the heart of Trump Country in Kentucky. The narrative was clear; these junior bigots in town for the March for Life were basically threatening the life of a peaceful demonstrator, who bravely told CNN that he wasn’t scared for himself, but rather had "fear. Not for myself but the next generation."
"Fear where this country is going. Fear for their youth, for their spirit what they’re going to do to this country," he continued. "What they were doing was not making America great. It was just tearing down the fabric that was, the whole idea of the spirit of America. That wasn’t it, you know?"
This, clearly, was a story about what Trumpism is already doing to this country, imbuing these boys with such hatred for their fellow man that they would, well, stand in front of someone while smirking. An image of that smirk heard round the world—a photo of one of the boys in his red hat staring down the brave drummer—was retweeted endlessly, and before anything more than a 30 second video clip of the incident could surface, the online mob struck.
In retweet after retweet, news story after news story, the boys were demonized and the mob was energized. People from around the world pledged to identify the boys, especially the smirking one, and ruin their lives. Even the Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, weighed in.
The boys’ school and archdiocese, terrified at the hell their students actions hath wrought, immediately issued panicked apologies, and pledged to expel them if they really did what they were accused of.
And then...it became clear that they didn’t.
As soon as videos longer than 30 seconds appeared, they showed what neither the media nor the mob whose anger they stoked would: The students weren’t aggressors at all. In fact, they were the victims of some truly vile hatred themselves from a group of Black Hebrew Israelites screaming racist epithets at them.
At that point, Phillips marches over to the boys and starts drumming. They start clapping along and chanting—but not, as the media alleged “Build the wall.” Phillips, though, gets closer and closer, eventually pounding his drum in a boy’s face in a rather obviously intimidating manner. The boy simply stands there and, well, smirks as Phillips drums in his personal space.
30 second video of that then turned those boys, the smirking one in particular, into monsters.
Even after the full video emerged, media figures tried to demonize this smirking brute.
For a full weekend, no one seemed remotely interested in getting the boys’ side of the story. Why bother? They were the villains and Nathan Phillips was the hero. The narrative was set; evidence for it be damned.
The smirking boy, Nick Sandmann, though, did attempt to set the record straight in a statement to the media:
After a few minutes of chanting, the Native American protestors, who I hadn't previously noticed, approached our group. The Native American protestors had drums and were accompanied by at least one person with a camera.
The protestor everyone has seen in the video began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him. I did not see anyone try to block his path. He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face. He played his drum the entire time he was in my face.
I never interacted with this protestor. I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves. To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me. We had already been yelled at by another group of protestors, and when the second group approached I was worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers.
I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation. I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict. I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.
During the period of the drumming, a member of the protestor's entourage began yelling at a fellow student that we "stole our land" and that we should "go back to Europe." I heard one of my fellow students begin to respond. I motioned to my classmate and tried to get him to stop engaging with the protestor, as I was still in the mindset that we needed to calm down tensions.
I never felt like I was blocking the Native American protestor. He did not make any attempt to go around me. It was clear to me that he had singled me out for a confrontation, although I am not sure why.
The engagement ended when one of our teachers told me the busses had arrived and it was time to go. I obeyed my teacher and simply walked to the busses. At that moment, I thought I had diffused the situation by remaining calm, and I was thankful nothing physical had occurred.
But something physical had already happened; Sandmann and his classmates were threatened with physical violence from the darkest corners of the internet as the national media all but egged it on by running one-sided stories pegging the boys as the bad guys without ever once wondering whether the narrative might be inaccurate.
Accuracy, however, was never the aim. Advancing that narrative was; inciting that mob was; convincing millions that hate in America is alive and well and wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. And then, even when the evidence disproves the narrative, makes clear that the boys weren’t monsters, the media shrugs its shoulders, absolves itself of any responsibility for inciting international hate for them, and says “well, that’s the internet for you.”
Now ask yourself, who is the real monster here?