Indigenous People, MAGA, and Black Hebrew Israelites

This weekend the nation has been shaken by images from Friday 18 January, of teenage boys from Covington Catholic High School (Park Hills, Kentucky) visiting Washington DC. In the video, they are staring at — and in the background, loudly mocking — a pair of indigenous drummers. Many of the CovCath teenagers are wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, proudly displaying their support for President Trump. A tremendous backlash has ensued, with many calls for action against the students. Snopes is hosting an Associated Press article with lots of details.

Today another 2-hour video surfaced on YouTube, which helps provide some additional context. Some of the students, shaken by what they consider an unfair demonization, have put forward their own narrative. The new video, which apparently was removed from Facebook, is strange and confusing — and I won’t be surprised if it’s removed from YouTube soon as well. But I’ll try to explain what I see, and then discuss a larger context.

What the Video Shows: Hour 1

The video begins, so far as I can tell, at the end of the Indigenous Peoples March, near the reflecting pool of the Washington DC Mall, outside the Lincoln Memorial.

A small group of men, who appear to be Black Hebrew Israelites, are quoting scripture and trying to address everybody who walks past. They level some accusations at the indigenous protesters, including self-hatred and worship of false idols. (At one point, one of the BHI guys says “You got your head up the white man’s ass.”) A few indigenous folks try to talk with the BHI speakers, but most of these interactions are short and hard to follow.

At one point, the man holding the camera (who seems to be part of the BHI group) turns it on himself and says: “The problem is these women coming up with their loud mouth”.

As the BHI guys speak, other folks — of various backgrounds, possibly tourists, possibly from DC itself — approach the group. We start to see young people in MAGA hats and shirts. These are apparently students from CovCath who were in DC as part of the 2019 March for Life anti-abortion rally. The BHI guys accuse the young people in MAGA gear of supporting a “faggot” (because Trump once kissed Giuliani dressed in drag) and a “pedophile” (possibly because Trump has been accused of raping a 13-year-old girl).

The BHI guys then lambast the Catholic Church for its decades of sexual abuse of minors. (It’s not clear if they know that the MAGA-clad students are from a Catholic school or not.) Early in the video, the cameraman suggests that the “dirty-ass crackers” in the MAGA hats + shirts are afraid to come too close. He says they would never wear those items in a black neighborhood. “I will stick my foot in your little ass,” he says.

Throughout the entire first hour of the video, various people try to speak with the BHI guys. Some of these people are black, which leads to accusations from the BHI guys of “Uncle Tom”. The cameraman asks why, with all the MAGA-hat-wearing white folks around, “you wanna fight your brother”. They also refer to black teenagers near the CovCath students (perhaps they are also students at CovCath) as “Kanyes” and “Coon-ye West”. The indigenous protesters occasionally join the argument, but mostly appear to dance and drum in the distance.

At one point, addressing the white students (many of them wearing the American flag or MAGA slogan on their clothing), one of the BHI guys asks: “When was the last time you saw a Mexican or Hispanic or Native American or a Negro shoot up a school?” In response to the silent crowd, the cameraman says: “Yeah. Crickets.”

More CovCath students arrive — all of them guys, nearly all of them white. At least half are wearing “Make America Great Again” in some form: baseball caps, sweatshirts, winter hats, t-shirts. Some of them say things which are hard to understand. Some appear to be mimicking or mocking the native dances nearby.

What the Video Shows: Hour 2

The tone shifts in the second half of the video. One of the CovCath students removes most of his clothing (why, I couldn’t say) and leads the crowd in a chant of some kind. Most of the CovCath students join in. The guy holding the camera asks “Do y’all understand who the real caveman is now?” Referring, apparently, to Capitol Police, he adds: “We’re surrounded, and they won’t do a damn thing about it.”

It’s hard to tell who’s moving near whom, but both the BHI guys and the CovCath students exchange angry words. The distance between them shrinks, until two indigenous drummers — Omaha elder Nathan Phillips and Marcus Frejo, from the Pawnee and Seminole tribes — step between the two groups. They sing and drum for a while, until we arrive at the moment many people have already seen, with the MAGA-hat-wearing CovCath student staring at Phillips. Some students jump and dance, while others do a version of the Atlanta Braves “tomahawk chop”. Some chants of “Build the Wall” are audible.

When the drummers step in, the cameraman says “Here comes Gad”. (Apparently that’s a term among BHI believers for Native Americans.) After a minute of drumming and singing, one of the BHI guys says: “Gad, he calmed all these spirits right down.” In a later interview, Frejo seemed to agree. “They went from mocking us and laughing at us to singing with us,” he said. “I heard it three times. That spirit moved through us, that drum, and it slowly started to move through some of those youths.”

When the CovCath students begin chanting again after a moment, the cameraman says: “Mockery. You’re at a native rally with Make America Great Again hats.” The rest of the video is a series of exchanges between the BHI guys and the CovCath students, most of which is hard to hear. Occasionally a white adult (presumably a teacher) will tell the students to “back up” or stop trying to speak with the BHI guys. “You’re not going to change their minds,” one lady says. Night falls, the cameraman explains that his battery is dying, and the video ends.

What I Think

It occurs to me that I’ve spent several hours composing this post about a disturbing incident that involved no physical violence, in the same way journalists and commentators dissect videos of police officers killing unarmed black folks like Laquan McDonald. (This same weekend, the cop who killed McDonald was sentenced to just seven years in prison. Kalief Browder spent three years in prison for allegedly stealing a backpack.) I could reflect more on that oddity, but instead I’ll just note it for the record, and move on.

I will also state for the record (although anyone who knows me will know it’s a given) that I am appalled and outraged by many statements from the Black Hebrew Israelite speakers. They demonstrate a kind of sexism, hatred of LGBTQ folks, and vile rhetoric that I cannot support. I will not apologize for any of their words, nor will I minimize their role in the proceedings.

At the same time, however, I want to point out that they represent “the hate that hate produced“. Some of their points are valid. (The demonization of black anger compared to the frequency of white gunmen killing people in schools, for example.) Anyone shocked by the attitude of the BHI speakers has never studied Malcolm X or the Black Panthers or the Black Liberation Army or the Nation of Islam. The Oakland rapper Paris once said: “Don’t be telling me to get the nonviolent spirit / because when I’m violent is the only time you devils hear it”. Again, I want to make clear that I do not endorse this brand of violent rhetoric. But it is an essential part of the historical dialectic that white folks generally refuse to consider.

Many people who have seen this weekend’s incident from multiple angles are loudly chastising the media for only showing the students mocking the drummers. They want the larger video to be seen. (The YouTube page is filled with commenters urging everybody to “download this now before they try to bury the truth”.) While getting that larger context is good, I worry that most of those racing to the students’ defense are only willing to consider a medium context, and not a larger, full context.

The larger context of this incident involves centuries of white supremacy. Let’s look at the concerns of the Indigenous Peoples March, shall we?

Missing and Murdered Indigenous women – Since 2016 there are over 7,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women. Within the first 6 months of 2018 there are 2,758 women reported missing. [...]

Native Lives Matter – For every 1 million Native Americans, an average of 2.9 of them died annually from 1999 to 2015 as a result of a “legal intervention,” according to a CNN review of CDC data broken down by race. The vast majority of these deaths were police shootings. [...]

Honor Our earth…Respect Our Treaties – President Trump’s first order of business was to sign for the Dakota Access Pipeline and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Dakota Access Pipeline — The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe members have been fighting to stop the oil from flowing into the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAP).

The Keystone XL Pipeline will go along the Mississippi River and affect all of our water. Keystone scheduled to be built 2019, will illegally be scheduled to be built on Native American-owned lands and private landowners.

Big Bear Ears Monument — Trump administration and investors are disregarding treaties to gain profit from a mining project. This project will destroy our Big Bear Ears monument, a sacred site to many Southwestern tribes.

These problems were not brought about by single individuals or small groups of people. Addressing them requires ardent attention from all of us. I daresay most Trump supporters are indifferent or hostile to the concerns of indigenous communities.

And this is my biggest point: That’s not just any hat. Support for Donald Trump is not just another American political movement. Some people have suggested that MAGA is the new swastika. I don’t agree, but MAGA is not just another slogan.

Trump’s base loves the fact that “he’s not a politician”. Trump often ridicules the way presidents act. He spent years insisting that Barack Obama was not legally authorized to be President of the United States. Hopefully I don’t need to continue with this list. President Trump is willing to destroy the icons of American democracy; therefore we must understand that his movement is based on iconoclastic destruction, racism, and division.

This is the larger context we must address in this weekend’s incident. The CovCath students wore MAGA clothing as a way to make a statement, and that statement was reinforced powerfully through their mocking chants.

Of course we can’t know what that smirking student was thinking, but he made a conscious decision to stand his ground and stare down this indigenous elder as he tried to use music to calm a tense situation. As someone who has worked professionally with teenagers for almost two decades, I can say that he (and most of the other students) probably had one (or both) of the following thoughts in his head:

  1. I’m proud of this hat and what it represents. I’ve been told to hide my support for President Trump, but I refuse. I’m taking a stand against everybody who disagrees with me.
  2. lolz they are sooo triggered huahuehuahue im totally owning these libs

Either way, I’m confident that these young people have no idea why their mockery was so poisonous. I’m confident that a mini-mob mentality spurred their atrocious behavior. I’m confident that they felt attacked by the BHI speakers, and wanted to assert some pride as a reaction. I’m confident that they don’t understand the historical violence that has always accompanied White Pride. I hope that Marcus Frejo is correct when he says that a spirit of enlightenment reached the CovCath students, but I know from my own classroom that such enlightenment is rare and slow.

Some people have suggested the CovCath students are being unfairly maligned. They say that the indigenous drummers approached them, and they were merely reacting to the music. Some folks say that those of us outraged by the students’ behavior are not considering it in full context, but instead jumping to conclusions.

I think it’s important to be fair, and I’m bothered by much of the frontier/street-style justice I’ve witnessed on the internet. When it comes to issues of race and struggles against oppression, it’s true that we humans often cannot expect justice in any other form. But of course that doesn’t make it okay for people to receive death threats based on short online videos.

So how do we find a third way?

Let’s Resist Oversimplification, Shall We?

I’ve got a long history of resisting oversimplification. The only time I have ever blocked people on Twitter was because they suggested I was unwilling to keep an open mind. I believe my record proves that accusation to be without merit. I frequently play the Devil’s Advocate in my classroom. I often talk to people who disagree with me. I’m currently finishing a book about politics, in which I explain why I frequent Fox News and the Wall Street Journal:

First, I want to make sure I’m responding to what these conservative sources are actually saying, rather than what I expect or remember hearing. There’s a dangerous tendency for us to assume that we know what other people are saying — or would say — and therefore we think based on assumptions without going to the source.

But the other reason I read conservative sources is because I don’t know everything, and my vision of the world isn’t perfect. There’s always another side to every issue, and even the sources I do trust (like Democracy Now! and The Intercept) will occasionally leave things out of the conversation.

Having an open mind means that you seek out different points of view and take them seriously. As Chinua Achebe said in his 1987 novel Anthills of the Savannah: “Whatever you are is never enough; you must find a way to accept something, however small, from the other to make you whole and to save you from the mortal sin of righteousness and extremism.”

I don’t know what a proper condemnation from our society toward these students should look like. It would involve the impeachment of President Trump for a start, for his daily violations of the US Constitution. More immediately, some have called for the expulsion of students from Covington Catholic High School. I don’t know how I feel about that. Part of me finds it harsh, but another part says it’s a fair response to what the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School called, in a joint statement, “behavior [...] opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person”.

I was struck by a comment from Diné Navajo social worker Amanda Blackhorse on the issue of punishment for the CovCath students:

i do not intend to discount your fear, anger, and upset, but please keep in mind these boys are of high school age. i am tired, i am upset, and i am overwhelmed, but all i wish is for these boys to be reprimanded by their schools, parents, and friends. i posted this with the intention to spread the reality of being indigenous in 2019. we did not meet these boys with violence for a reason.

More to the point, however, it doesn’t really matter what I think about the punishment these students face. I can’t have much influence on that series of events. But I can reach a few people with these words, and that’s what I want to focus on. I want white folks to understand the nature of this insult. I want America to stop the violence facing indigenous communities, explained above. I want people to understand what white privilege is, and behave in a way that demonstrates this understanding.

I also want an immediate end to native mascots. The American Psychological Association has advocated their end for 15 years, due to the “harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people”. My friend Colleen Butler recently tweeted:

Native mascots contribute to the dehumanization of Native people. Dehumanization was just what I saw in the eyes, the smirk, and the laughter yesterday. These things are connected.

We must also (all of us) resist the temptation to engage in groupthink and blind certainty. I believe the BHI speakers were driven — as many religious folks are — by a fiery conviction that their interpretation of scripture is The Truth, and that anyone who disagrees is Evil. As Arthur Miller said in The Crucible, about the Puritans of Salem: “They believed, in short, that they held in their steady hands the candle that would light the world.” Many Trump supporters (and members of the International Socialist Organization) share a similar certainty.

I believe the CovCath students were driven — as many teenagers are, as I was in my youth — by a need to belong, and the strange surge of adrenaline that comes with being in a group united by purpose. I believe that the indigenous guys were driven by a desire to calm the tension and provide the strength of spirit their ancestors offered them, through drumming and song.

I want us to escape our silos and have painful, honest conversations that result in true consciousness on all sides. In a way, that’s what the Indigenous Peoples March and the March for Life were trying to do. The confrontation we saw here was, in a way, just an uncovering of the seething resentment that has been festering for years. I’m horrified by what this mirror showed us, but I’m also glad that things didn’t get worse — which could have easily happened.

I’ll close with this: Such consciousness is needed most among white folks. Obviously black folks and native folks and latinx folks also have room to grow, and blind spots of their own to address. But there’s a particular brand of unconsciousness among white people because white supremacy has left a unique stain on the soul of humanity. We have to understand that the violence and poverty among black, latinx, and indigenous communities is the result of a wretched history — but also that this poverty and violence continues today. We must not ignore the suffering of Kalief Browder and Laquan McDonald and Anna Mae Aquash and the unnamed 8-year-old from Guatemala who died on Christmas Day in ICE custody. This suffering is a problem for our entire species. It affects the people in the ghetto and the barrio and the reservation more than it affects those of us in the suburbs, but it’s our problem too. If you truly believe that you are not free when others are oppressed, you need to act like it.

The election of Donald Trump showed a hideous lack of consciousness among white Americans. It showed our willingness as a nation to invest tremendous power in a man who has bragged about sexual violence; mocked disabled people; ridiculed native identities; urged violence against black protesters; and shown utter disregard for the humanity of most Americans. The fact that he won the election (sort of) is a stain of dishonor, the result of a serious lack of consciousness among white folks.

One way for us white folks to raise our consciousness is to hear the voices of indigenous people. The Reddit forum /r/IndianCountry has some great resources and discussions “By Natives, About Natives & The Americas”. The Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing (who should already be in your Twitter timeline) recommended some native folks on Twitter worth a follow: Adrienne Keene, Rebecca Nagle, and Kelly M. Hayes. And of course there are countless online news sources like Indian Country Today.

Claiming that we should all “come together” in an amorphous spirit of “unity” is oversimplification. Suggesting that we should all take pride in being American, and downplay the racism we see every day, is oversimplification. White supremacy has always been based on violent oversimplification. Trump’s wall is oversimplification, based as it is on the idea that swarms of Others are coming to hurt us. Thinking of ourselves as Americans rather than human beings (what Chuck D calls “Earthicans”) is oversimplification.

I refuse to engage in that kind of oversimplification, and I hope you will too.

A luta continua.

EDIT: On Tuesday 23 January, Nathan Phillips spoke to DemocracyNow!. An excerpt:

 I was absolutely afraid. There was a group of over 200 young angry white men who were displaying mob mentality. And they were facing down just four black individuals. And it was coming to a point where just a snap of the finger could have caused them kids to descend on those four individuals. I didn’t agree with the Black Israelites and what they were saying. But what I do believe is that America is a land of freedoms. And as much as I disagreed with those Black Israelites, they had the right to be there.