Update: in the time since this story broke, a private detective agency brought on board by the diocese that oversees Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School claims there’s no evidence that the students provoked a conflict with a Native American man near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, reports NPR. Additionally, the family of 16-year-old Nicholas Sandmann is now suing the Washington Post for $250 million, reports Reuters.
Friday’s tense encounter between high school students from Covington Catholic High School and 64-year-old Nathan Phillips has dominated the weekend headlines and sparked anger, horror, and questions among the American public. Phillips, a Vietnam War vet and an Omaha tribe elder, sang a song from the American Indian Movement on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; he was in Washington D.C. as part of the Indigenous Peoples’ March, while the teens — mostly boys, many of whom were sporting red MAGA caps — were there from Kentucky as part of the March for Life.
Measured statements and apologies on behalf of leadership figures have begun to pour out into the public realm, with many expressing shock and profound disappointment. Meanwhile, the conversation on social media among the members of the public is a mix of outrage and finger-pointing. It’s worth taking a moment to consider how we move forward in love, positivity, and action after an encounter like this one.
Modeling Love and Active Resistance
Phillips inserted himself into the group of teens as a way to diffuse an exchange between them and members of the Black Hebrew Israelites. Videos of the exchange between the two groups showed how anger plays an unproductive role in dialogue; perhaps neither group was committed to a genuine dialogue in the first place, and their ensuing interaction led to an offensive escalation of words and emotions.
“[It] just got to a point where you do something or you walk away, you know,” Phillips explained in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “I put myself in between that, between a rock and hard place.” He went on to characterize that his position had become between beast and prey, the young men as the beasts. The smiling adolescent standing in front of Phillips blocked his progress forward. “[We] were at an impasse.”
The teen disputed this account, explaining that his smile was an expression of his own nonviolence. “I always try to live up to the ideals my faith teaches me — to remain respectful of others, and to take no action that would lead to conflict and violence.” He shared that he and his family has been receiving death threats ever since he became the face of the event.
Ultimately, Phillips expressed his hope that the national dialogue launched by Friday’s viral encounter would spark positivity. “That energy could be turned into feeding the people, cleaning up our communities and figuring out what else we can do,” Phillips told the Washington Post. “We need the young people to be doing that instead of saying, ‘These guys are our enemies.’”
A Time for Public Contemplation
Though Covington Catholic High School is actually located outside of the city limits, the mayor of Covington, Joe Meyer, penned an op-ed for the Lexington Herald Leader and posed questions to his community. “Regardless of what exact town we live in, we need to ask ourselves whether behavior like this DOES represent who we are and strive to be,” he wrote. “Are these the beliefs that we as parents model and condone? Is this the way we want the rest of the nation and the world to see us?”