I am familiar with the ambiguities of video evidence—for example, through this piece I wrote from Israel more than 15 years ago, “Who Shot Mohammed al-Dura,” about the battle over the meaning of an inflammatory video there; or these two separate Twitter threads, first here then here, in the past few days from James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor for America magazine, about the meanings of the multiple videos from the confrontation on the National Mall this past weekend.
I now believe that the “meaning” or “truth” of this recent encounter is likely to remain as contested as anything in the al-Dura case. The more additional evidence comes in, the more clearly it is taken to “prove” one interpretation of the case, or its opposite. “You must not have seen the full videos” is meant to be a conclusory statement, either way.
The more I have looked at the evidence—the many, many videos, and the many statements, and the many timeline-analyses, and the many interpretations—the more I have recognized what I believe to be its reality, and the more I have understood that many others won’t see it the same way. Thus I regret weighing in on the case at all—or saying anything more than what I originally intended, which was admiration for a statement by the mayor of Covington, Kentucky, reaffirming his community’s belief in openness and inclusivity. Saying more was a mistake, which I would undo if I could.
The heart of this mistake was forgetting the difference between what I think or believe or conclude, on the one hand, and what will be provable to others. Here is a set of points about that frontier, which I’m numbering so I can refer back and forth to them:
1) The young man who was most prominently displayed in the video from the confrontation has released a statement about his intentions, saying that they were entirely peaceable and respectful. All he meant to do by standing in front of tribal elder with a drum, Nathan Phillips, for several minutes was to prevent further confrontations.
You can read the statement here.
The statement describes many background aspects of the event, from this student’s perspective. As a factual point, it doesn’t mention that a large number of the young men present, including the one issuing the statement, had chosen to wear MAGA hats.
2) As a complementary analysis of what the overlapping videos of the event show, this extensive Twitter thread by Lisa Sharon Harper matches what I believe the videos show. Similarly with this long thread from TBQ. As with the al-Dura case, there are long, detailed chronologies “proving” completely opposite interpretations of events. My point is that the two chronicles I’m mentioning seemed consistent with what I thought the videos showed. Update: Josh Marshall of TPM has also posted a careful, dispassionate, and in my view convincing analysis of the videos.
3) The mail that has come in has been voluminous, and in three distinct categories.
Much is outraged, personally abusive, and profane. I won’t give examples.
Some is impassioned and angry, but inclines toward offering a denunciation of the “rush to judgment” by media members, including me, in this case. I’ll give samples of them below.
The rest is in the vein of this following message, usually from Americans and others who mention that they are non-white. This one comes from a well-known American academic, of the Baby Boomer era. He writes:
Nathan Phillips deserves both respect and emulation. He stepped in to prevent violence. [According to Phillips’s interviews, he was trying to avoid conflict between the students and a taunting group known as the Black Hebrews.] And he kept his cool in difficult circumstances.
Nathan Phillips had seen that smug smirk before, he knew what it stood for, and he acted with courage, dignity and self-control.
We have all seen that smug smirk. It is often a prelude to worse.
- I saw the smirk while weighing in for a high school wrestling match. It was followed by trash talk with racial invective.
- I saw the smirk while sitting in a McDonalds in Indiana. It was followed by a slow-walk staredown with filthy racist remarks.
- I saw the smirk in a diner in Tennessee. It was followed by a man emptying a salt shaker on my eggs, flipping the food in my face, and following me as I headed toward the parking lot.
- I saw the smirk on the face of a drunk off duty police officer in a bar in my home town. It was followed by chest bumping and a threat to beat me if I did not go back where I came from.
In these instances, nothing too bad happened because others acted.