In the abstract, innocence is a rather simple idea. A blank slate, unmarked by sin. In the real world, innocence is a stranger concept. For some, it is wholly unattainable. For others, all it takes is a press release. For many Native people, the last few days have been exhausting. After elder Nathan Phillips’s now-famous encounter with a group of tomahawk-chopping, MAGA-hat-wearing Catholic school students made headlines, a surprisingly large number of non-Native people spoke in Phillips’s defense, decrying the behavior of the Covington Catholic High School students. The outpouring of support was striking to many Native people because, while Native people experience bigotry and abuse on a regular basis, we rarely see other Natives experience the kind of public support that Phillips was ever-so-briefly afforded.
We should have seen the revocation of that support coming a mile away.
Even though footage of the MAGA boys taunting Phillips has been viewed countless times, the existence of other footage, in which the boys were crudely insulted by a small group of Black Israelites, was seen as a game-changer. The group of Black Israelites, who, by all accounts, made despicable comments to both Native people and the Covington youth, were quickly cast as the true instigators, as though the boys’ mimicry and taunts of Phillips and his group were somehow justified by the acts of a completely different group of people. By the time Nick Sandmann, the young man who stared Phillips down while the elder sang and drummed, released a statement, many were eager to accept it as fact. The statement itself, which cast Sandmann and his classmates as level-headed angels being menaced by an elder with a small drum, was purported to be Sandmann’s own narration of events, but read like a press release from a PR firm.
As Vice reported, Runswitch PR, the firm the Sandmann family hired, has a history of supporting powerful Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Runswitch PR was founded by CNN contributor Scott Jennings, a former adviser to McConnell and George W. Bush. Jennings currently advises a McConnell super PAC.
Sandmann’s supporters did not seem to contest accusations that the statement was authored by a PR firm, and instead insisted that it was perfectly normal that the boy’s narrative was outsourced to professionals, rather than being told in his own words.
Interestingly, CNN personality Jake Tapper was an early promoter of the new narrative. Jennings is also a frequent guest on Tapper’s show. Since sharing the statement, Tapper has faced questions about why he did not disclose the involvement of Runswitch PR. It has also been revealed that Donald Trump’s top White House attorney is a Covington graduate.
As Cherokee writer and activist Rebecca Nagle told me, “In all of Indian Country, Native people don’t have as much access to media influencers and power as this one white kid. And now, on the ‘Today Show,’ to the president, he gets to say what happened. Like so many white men who came before him, he gets to rewrite history.”
In the new narrative, Sandmann claimed that, upon approaching him, Phillips was aggressively drumming near Sandmann’s face, and that he stood his ground to “diffuse” the situation — an explanation that strains credulity, and one that would not be readily accepted if Sandmann were not white. If a non-white young person claimed, as Sandmann’s PR statement does, that an elder created a standoff by “invading” their personal space while playing a musical instrument, they would be told that they simply should have taken a step back. But because Phillips is Native, Sandmann was allowed to portray an elder engaged in song as threatening. In a heavy-handed PR maneuver, Sandmann’s statement also claims the boy was saying “a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand” during his interaction with Phillips. It was an improbable story tailor-made for a country that assumes the worst of marginalized people, and it was only a matter of time before Trump weighed in. “Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday.
Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be. They have captivated the attention of the world, and I know they will use it for the good – maybe even to bring people together. It started off unpleasant, but can end in a dream!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 22, 2019
Once the new narrative was launched, a number of media figures and publications took pains to walk back their supportive framing of Phillips, including CNN and the Guardian. There were notable exceptions. In Deadspin, Laura Wagner’s piece, “Don’t Doubt What You Saw With Your Own Eyes,” pointed out that a video touted by some as disproving Phillips’s version of events did not actually contradict Phillips’s story — that he had brought music into the space between the boys and the Black Israelites in order to de-escalate a tense situation. GQ and Rolling Stone also published pieces critical of the narrative reversal, pointing out that the video that showcased the Covington boys’ racist behavior still existed. On Tuesday, a young woman posted a video on Twitter that she says shows the Covington boys harassing her and her friends. In text accompanying the video, the young woman stated, “The Covington Catholic boys harrassed [sic] my friends and I before the incident with Nathan Phillips even happened. I’m tired of reading things saying they were provoked by anyone else other than their own egos and ignorance.”
On Tuesday, Covington’s Holy Cross High School 2018 valedictorian Christian Bales joined the conversation. Holy Cross is overseen by the Diocese of Covington — the same diocese that oversees the Covington Catholic High School. Bales delivered his graduation speech on the school’s lawn using a bullhorn after being told, only hours before graduation, that he would not be allowed to speak. Bales told NBC he was “not surprised at all” that Covington Catholic High School was at the center of a controversy. “It was only a matter of time that something this school community did would blow up to this degree,” Bales said, “and I think they need to be held accountable.”
So why did the public so easily change its tune? White people who harm Native people are often absolved by way of recontextualization. The entire mythology of the United States demands as much. Native people have suffered at the hands of white people since first contact, with the Nazis modeling their attempted extermination of Jewish people after American efforts to wipe out Native populations. For the United States, violence against Native people is foundational, but such violence has never fit the national narrative of a country that claimed its independence with a declaration that “all men are created equal.” Stories of the “founding fathers” are relayed with admiration and sentimentality to American youth, either without mention of the slaves they held or Natives they helped massacre, or with an acknowledgement of those harms that also absolves the “framers” due to the historical period in which they lived.
Native people are not actively supported by most liberals on an ongoing basis, because Native hardships are only periodically made visible by the media. What is true historically is also true of the present: For most people, it’s easier not to think about us. It’s easier not to think about missing and murdered Indigenous women, or about extreme poverty and tainted water, or murders at the hands of police. We are treated as a permanent, monolithic backburner subject, undiscussed until it is convenient to do so (or until a hashtag catches on).
On Saturday, elder Nathan Phillips had utility to those who wanted to use him as a cudgel to attack Trump. Those who announced their sympathy with Phillips, only to walk it back after the press release, were not highlighting Native struggle, nor were they talking about how frequently Native people are harmed by white people in the United States. To them, it was a moment — a moment when they could take our pain and beat an enemy over the head with it.
With a slightly more complex narrative, the public began to treat the MAGA boys as though they had been exonerated.
In the United States, a Black child can be slaughtered without consequence within seconds of a police officer’s arrival. Black and Native children are shuffled through schools that treat them like prisoners and prisons that degrade and destroy them. White innocence remains the default assumption, easily regained if lost. While the footage of the Covington boys behaving badly and brutishly remains publicly available, their innocence has been reinstated. Meanwhile, a Native elder, who offered music in the hopes of creating a bit of peace, is vilified as a liar. In the American imagination, the dough-cheeked Covington boys are not the face of malice, even as they wear symbols of hate as headgear and march for forced birth and the theft of bodily autonomy.
Some in the media have chosen not to insist upon the significance of the MAGA hats the boys were wearing. Mainstream outlets, wary of losing sponsors, will not say what is undeniably true: The MAGA brand is now and has always been about racism. Bigotry is, indeed, the only thing Trump has ever reliably delivered to his followers. As he breaks pledge after pledge, it’s clear Trump’s fandom is only upset when he hedges about a bigoted policy.
At present, it seems unlikely that the corporate press will make another course correction, and the American public remains unable to describe its own moral and political chaos. One can only hope that our society will bear witness to itself and confront the fact that the decent are ground under while their tormentors are made pure.