I’ve been following this weekend’s outrage of the native American who was mocked and generally insulted while chanting a song of healing in the National Mall of Washington, D.C., this past Friday. While much ink has been spilled and many pixels sacrificed in explaining the many variations of this incident, there’s one aspect that cuts me right to my core: the smirk.
For those who missed it, here’s a summary of the incident; This past Friday there were competing protest rallies on the National Mall, a not-uncommon day in Washington, D.C. One rally was people showing support for “Pro-Life” (opposing abortion). The other group was Native Americans holding an annual ceremony honoring Native American veterans buried in Arlington National Cemetery. At one point the anti-abortion group, composed of a number of high school people, apparently became unruly and Native American leader Nathan Phillips decided to calm the crowds by using his drum and chanting a Native American song of healing.
At this point, the teenagers could have taken several actions. The most obvious (to me) as a former teenager and high school student, was to ignore the old man and continue being unruly. Another action could have been to just settle the fuck down and leave. Or the teenagers could have calmed the fuck down and enjoyed witnessing a bit of Native American culture performance art.
However, these kids took a different course of action; they surrounded Nathan Phillips and started mocking him by acting out mock dances, yelling “build the wall,” “you’ll be gone after 2020” and other endearing crap. But what got me was one teenager in particular, who stood in front of Nathan Phillips for several minutes of the recording and just – smirked at him. A smug, self-satisfied, arrogant smirk.
The Back Story
I’ve seen that look before. Too many times, in fact.
I’ve seen that look on the faces of people who grew up knowing no one would ever hold them accountable for their behavior. These were kids who did the most outrageous things in grade school, and the teachers and school administration just brushed it off as “kids being kids.” These kids parent’s never called them out on their actions, always found excuses. The parents and other community leaders always found reasons why the actions of these kids were somebody else’s fault.
Those kids grew up with a sense of entitlement. They learned they could do any fucking thing they wanted to, knowing that no matter what they did someone would cover for them.
I dealt with these grown-up kids while I was in the Navy, as an enlisted man, dealing with these kids who became officers that made my life miserable (because they could). Later, in my post-navy civilian career I dealt with these kids who were on the management fast-track and became my managers or my government clients. I dealt with these kids as managers of companies competing (or partnering) with mine. And I’ve dealt with these kids in social circles and in on-line groups.
Yes, I know this look. It’s the look I’ve seen on the faces of too many people in my life who gloried in making the lives of other people miserable. Simply because they could.
Thanks to the work of Arlen Parsa, a documentary filmmaker who took a deep dive into this incident, I now know a little more about this person. This kid, and many of his classmates there on the National Mall, attend the expensive (and exclusive) Covington Catholic High School, an all-boys’ school in Northern Kentucky.
Parsa reports that the school has a nearly all-white student body, with an all-white faculty. Multiple people close to the school have now confirmed it has “a very serious culture problem. Some racial, some homophobic, some sexist.” Parsa also reports “when this kid was a freshman, he tried to hire an essay writing service to do his homework.” And “his mother is a vice president at a major American financial company.” In another story I read that this kid’s parent was allegedly claiming the incident was the fault of “black Muslims” for the actions of the kid (Maga hat boy’s mother blames ‘black Muslims’ for her son harassing Native American man).
None of which is surprising to me, and none of which excuses his behavior.
Nathan Phillips is a Vietnam Veteran, and an elder with the Omaha tribe. He is obviously a good man, as demonstrated by not being goaded into a physical confrontation with this as-yet unknown kid. I’m not sure I could have restrained myself so well.
The school email address of the principal of Covington Catholic High School is public information. I’ve written an email to the principle as follows:
Dear Principal Robert Rowe,
I’ve just finished watching news video of the incident that occurred Friday in Washington, D.C., between your students and a native American group.
I can only say I feel disgusted with the behavior of your students, particularly the one young man who stares at Native American Elder Nathan Phillips. In the face of your student, I see contempt; the self-satisfied smirk of a young man who has never been held accountable for anything he has done no matter how contemptible. While his parents are partly to blame for this young man’s behavior, so is your school.
It is now upon you to decide what is more important, defending this young man, and his fellow classmates, from their contemptible actions and thereby protecting the finances of your school. Or you can decide that actions have consequences, and as adults we are and will be held accountable for our actions.
Please choose wisely.
I’m very interested in the follow-on actions of the Covington Catholic High School administration’s actions. I’m sure they’re all having a really bad weekend, and wondering what they were thinking by sending their kids out into the wide world representing their school.
And I hope someone wipes that smug, arrogant, self-satisfied smirk off the face of that kid.
Four Years Later, A Follow-up
In February 2019 the Covington Diocese released an investigation report performed by a private detective agency, hired by the diocese and the high school. Their findings exonerated the students. The blame was placed on news media, who allegedly covered the incident without fully investigating what occurred and fueling controversy and outrage. The poor, put upon students filed multiple lawsuits against various media outlets for reporting on their actions. Some media outlets settled, some didn’t, and those cases were dismissed.
Nicholas Sandmann, the smirking Covington student, gave a short speech at the 2020 Republican National Convention during which he recounted the incident from his perspective and stated his belief that mainstream media outlets are biased. Sandmann was subsequently hired by Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign.
Why doesn’t any of this this surprise me?
September 21, 2023: Edited post for formatting and typographical errors and added the “Follow-up” section.