The Confrontation on the Mall

Nathan Phillips, seen at a 2017 protest. (Terray Sylvester / Reuters)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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.   

  • A referee told the wrestler to cut the crap and imposed constraints on violence in the match.
  • The girlfriend of the young man in the McDonalds told him he was behaving like a jerk.
  • A brave cashier slowed up the guy in the diner by insisting that he pay for his breakfast, giving me time to reach my car.
  • A seasoned bartender tried to calm the drunk officer, then asked him to come back another night.  

Unfortunately, the teachers, parents, and students on the Mall did not intervene.

I hope that the MAGA wearing tomahawk-chopping smirking young men of Covington will think of what they want to stand for.   

More realistically, this incident will make bad behavior slightly less likely in the future.

People contemplating bad behavior in an era of mobile phones with cameras and social media will have second thoughts.  

And essays on the incident will prime third parties in similar situations to speak out.

I have known this person for a long time, have seen him in his full professional respect and success, and had never before heard from him about these experiences of growing up as an Asian American in a small town on the East Coast.

4) Similarly, on what this reader, from Canada, recognized in Nathan Phillips:

Start with bunch of students on the mall wearing the emblem of a president who… has openly mocked the memory of the atrocity committed against the Lakota at Wounded Knee. Then when an Indigenous elder, protesting that breach of faith, and the racism behind it, attempts to walk to the Lincoln Memorial, these young men stand in his way. They don't move.

It seems their excuse is that they didn't know enough to defer to an elder with a drum. I would invite them, and anyone who defends them, to consider a different situation.

Imagine a group of young secularists going into a church. They walk around, they comment on the funny wood seats and the kitschy glass art, and then the organ starts playing and the priest and crucifer and taperers come in and they just stand in the aisle. Smirking, if deer caught in the headlights could smirk. And they don't move. They just stand there, disrupting the service.

Would those who defend these young men’s behaviour toward an Indigenous elder even remotely consider not knowing what to do an excuse in a church? Leave aside that ordinary decent politeness dictates moving aside for people who want to come through, particularly in a public place.

If you go into a church, it behooves you to know enough to sit down or leave when the service begins. If you live on this continent, surely it is not too much to ask that by high school you have enough of an understanding of the Indigenous culture that you give space to an elder singing a drum song. If not knowing better excuses these young men, it merely places a double indictment on their teachers and parents for not teaching them anything about indigenous cultures.

5) In a similar vein, from a reader who says that she, too, saw something she recognized on the Mall:

As a woman, the thought of as many as 150 high school boys, wearing not their school colors, but dressed in in-your-face MAGA regalia, loaded onto buses to interject themselves into a debate, that I believe, should be between a woman and her doctor, fills me with terror.

The decision to have an abortion is not one women take lightly. In fact, it is often the most difficult one a woman will ever make. The teen-party excursions Covington Catholic organizes to oppose reproductive rights, trivializes the agony many women experience when making that choice.

There is enormous injustice everywhere in this world, and many causes Covington Catholic could take up that would teach their young men humility and the value of public service. That they have chosen this issue, one that will never affect them personally, speaks to an arrogance that will only perpetuate the suffering of others. It does not surprise me that these young men were so clueless about the feelings of those around them that looked different than them. It is what they have been taught

6) And, from a reader in Texas who is politically conservative:

Can you think of anything dumber than taking a bunch of Catholic parochial high-school boys to a political protest in Washington, DC?…

“Black Israelites,” an activist Indian pow-wow, and feminist-abortioniks on parade…WTF were the priests and parents thinking?

7) Now, from the “you have made a serious mistake” category. The next message had an extended forensic analysis of who-did-what-when, which I have abbreviated because it is covered in the threads mentioned in #2. This reader writes:

I'm a longtime Atlantic subscriber and read your recent blog posts on what supposedly transpired Friday evening at the Lincoln Memorial, when a group of high schoolers were apparently waiting for buses after the March for Life.

I was not there,  but I think you've done those boys a great disservice by jumping into the media scrum condemning them. I urge you to watch the 2 hr. video shot by a member of the Black Hebrews sect for context: [JF note: yes, I have seen all of these. ]

What it shows is that much of the Covington group—minors, by the way—were subjected to at least an hour of racist, anti-Catholic, anti-gay taunts and rhetoric from the Black Hebrews contingent, including f-bombs and repeated racial insults directed at them, before Mr. Phillips and his friends ever showed up….

Who knows, since there was no dialogue beforehand, but it is clear that Phillips and co. initiated the encounter, as they headed straight for the boys and waded into the middle of group, cameras aloft the entire time. There is no apparent fear or concern on their part, and the boys did not approach and surround them. Phillips just wades into their space, drumming and chanting loudly in an unknown tongue.

It's hard to know what the boys made of this scene. Most seem to be ignoring it. Did some think it a reaction to their football chants? Or an aggressive act after the barrage of abuse from the Black Hebrews, some of whom appear to be following Phillips closely into the mass of boys, cameras rolling the whole time?

This is not what's been portrayed. These are kids, encountering professional agitators for an hour, who then appear to be joined by Phillips, who extends the confrontation by approaching the young group directly and invading their space, not vice versa. Did Phillips know what the Black Hebrews had been up to for the prior hour? Who knows, but it is obvious that Phillips is mischaracterizing the events, and few media outlets are truthfully describing the Black Hebrews' rhetoric.

The kids are restrained throughout. There's nothing hinting at violence, threats, epithets, anti-immigrant statements, or even cursing from them. Some act like silly HS boys because they're kids, apparently led by adults who don't plan trips well. All have been hanging around outdoors in the cold waiting, idle, for over an hour.

The school and chaperones deserve some criticism, however. They should have told the kids to leave the MAGA gear home; it was a March for Life, not a Trump rally. They should have coordinated bus pickups better. They should have had more chaperones apparently. And they should have moved the kids away from the Black Hebrews taunters and aggressors within minutes.

8) Similarly:

By now, we have all learned that the initial media reporting of the incident on the Lincoln Memorial has been covered inaccurately, and the rush to judge these high school kids (mostly because of their skin color, gender, and choice in hat attire) has carried the narrative into dark corners of our public discourse.

It is disheartening to see so many people in our media rush to condemn fellow Americans based on misleading cell phone video snippets. Is the obsession with our post-Charlottesville sensitivity that chronic that we are OK with resorting to social-media justice devoid of context and all of the facts?

This incident provides a real opportunity for someone like yourself, whose initial response on the Atlantic’s website remains posted as of this email, to engage in the broader discussion of the conversation we really need to have right now.

Why is our culture OK with victimhood? Why is the media OK with deceiving viewers for the sake of being the first to report a story? Why is the media incapable of showing gratitude when proven wrong, and even more incredulous when an apology is warranted? The continued failure of writers and figures in the media to do this gives more ammunition to the voices who now view you and your ilk as illegitimate. As much as the media wants to bring down Trump (after creating him), the more people in the media flaunt their arrogance and refusal to be held accountable, the more average Americans buy into the “fake news” mantra. This story, along with the BuzzFeed story, proves it….  

This incident involving these boys from Covington Catholic proves that our media culture is rancid with deception. Perhaps now is the time for someone like yourself to address it head on. After all, I can think of no better platform than the Atlantic. If I had given up entirely on her journalistic integrity, I wouldn’t be writing this.


9) I think about my own days as a high school student. I was 14 years old when Barry Goldwater got the GOP nomination for president, and—like most people in my home town, which gave him a majority—I was hoping for his (imagined) victory over LBJ. I even went to a nighttime Goldwater rally at Dodger Stadium, 60 miles away in Los Angeles, with a friend who was old enough to drive. There the organizers passed out T-shirts and bumper stickers that said AU H2O—the chemical symbols for Gold Water, of course.

Southern California was brimming with racial tension in those days—it was less than a year before the Watts riots of 1965 in Los Angeles. The racial axis of the Goldwater-Johnson election was no mystery to anyone. Barry Goldwater got the GOP nomination just weeks after LBJ and his Democrats had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The only states Goldwater ended up carrying, apart from his home state of Arizona, were five from the old Confederacy: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. (This was the beginning of the switch from the old “Solid South” Democratic majority in such states, to the modern “Southern Strategy” voting pattern of the South as the GOP’s base.)

I was capable of a lot of activities, with my friends, that fill me with remorse in retrospect. Among the least of them is that we cheered, as teenagers, at the Goldwater rally the way some teenagers cheer at Trump rallies today.

If we’d encountered an older black or Latino protester in the Dodger Stadium parking lot after the rally, while we were wearing our AU H2O T-shirts (knowing what those would symbolize to non-whites, at the time), would I have stood with a group of friends directly in the older man’s face and stared him down? I don’t think so, but there is no way to know. These tests come unannounced. We might have been capable of it—in those times, with those passions, with that cocksureness of young men in a group. Still I think someone would have broken it off and walked away.

My wife and I escorted or chaperoned many sports-travel or other school-group events with our sons, when they were teenagers. Would the parents and teachers we saw at these events have let this kind of confrontation go on, without stepping in or moving the kids somewhere else? Again, I don’t think so, but I can’t know.

10) On the ongoing challenge of distinguishing what we expect from what we perceive:

I'll preface this by saying in most ways, I'm as progressive as they come. I mean, I'm from [a big city] that went over 90 percent for Clinton—and I moved to Europe in part because I can't stand to live in Trump's America. (And yes, I'm woke enough to recognize a huge amount of privilege in that set of circumstances.)

But the longer version of the video I saw shows a different story, and I think that the "story" someone comes away with depends heavily on their notions going into it in the first place.

In the longer version of the video, the kids are in a big group, mostly sitting around talking, playing grabass, typical teen boy stuff while waiting for a bus. There's a group of black folks maybe 10 or 20 yards away, with signs and protesting and yelling something; in the video, there's enough commotion and indistinct background noise that much of what people are actually saying is unclear.

And there's Mr. Phillips, with his drum. He moves between the two groups, then walks slowly over more in the direction of the boys. Many of them get up, and then they start yelling stuff- again, indistinct. Some start clapping and many start jumping in time with the drum. The commotion intensifies. I personally think I hear someone yelling about a wall, but can't tell.

Now, the bigger point here is that depending on our paradigm going in, we're going to see different things in the video. Some people say that he moved "aggressively" towards the boys—that's plainly not true. But it's also not true that they "surrounded" him, as though he were just standing around and they moved to him; he plainly moves himself between the two original groups and then closer to them.

Perhaps the most telling part (for me) about seeing what we expect to see was this: The mother of one of the boys was reported to have contacted a media reporter and she claimed that the true instigators were the "Black Muslims" who were harassing the boys.

While I have no doubt that the black folks were yelling stuff, it's been more recently reported that they are a group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites. And in the video, they're plainly not getting in the boys' faces; they're standing around hollering stuff, but there's no aggression.

And the fact that a group calling itself "Israelites" is confused for Muslims strikes me as pretty telling. She saw what she expected to see.

So... what does anyone see in the video? A smirking face that typifies white privilege and white supremacy, or a kid who was there to peacefully protest and just held his ground? A noble veteran Native trying to promote peace, or a guy who instigated something trying to get a rise out of someone?

I'd prefer to remain anonymous... which alone tells us something, that I feel like I can't be identified, because I don't want to put up with having to defend my "weak centrist" position.

11) As this last note #10 suggests, the response to this episode strongly reminds me of the controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation for the Supreme Court. What people saw in that case, and who they believed, depended very heavily on what they had grown used to seeing over the years. Everyone recognized a pattern, but the patterns completely differed.

After Christine Blasey Ford and others accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when he was a Georgetown Prep student about the age of the students in the National Mall video, the cleavage in reactions followed lines of intellectual and emotional imagination. Whose suffering and unfair treatment could each of us more easily envision: The person who said she had been attacked? Or the person accused of the attacking?

In the Kavanaugh case, of course this meant whether each person more fully empathized with Christine Blasey Ford, for the damage she said she had endured—or instead the suffering and (possibly) unfair reputational damage inflicted on the accused, Brett Kavanaugh. In the current case: Is it easier to imagine and identify with the disrespect inflicted on Nathan Phillips? Or with the social-media pillorying of the high-school boys?

12) I know what I, personally, believe to be the reality of that encounter on the Mall, and how it fits into patterns of American history. But I should have realized how contested and ambiguous it would be. In those circumstances, I should have quoted the statement from the Mayor of Covington and not said more. I regret doing otherwise, am sorry for the consequences, and will do my best to learn from and not repeat this mistake.

13) On Martin Luther King’s birthday I offer a closing quote not from him but from C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity. (I have encountered this in a citation from Andrew Sullivan, in his blogging days, quoting Hilzoy in hers.)  Lewis wrote:

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.