The Mayor of Covington, Kentucky, Explains What His City Stands For

Nathan Phillips (right), Vietnam veteran and Omaha Nation elder, being mocked and confronted by scores of students who had come to Washington for the "March for Life." The students, nearly all white, were reportedly from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky. (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.

[Please see Updates at the end of this post. And please see also this extensive followup post, in which I say that it was a mistake to have weighed in on any topic other than the statement from the Mayor of Covington. I regret having done so. In the days since this event occurred, the ramifying videos have been taken as “proving,” with absolute certainty, completely opposite interpretations of events. I am sorry to have said anything beyond support for the mayor’s statement.]

I don’t know who the young man in the MAGA hat in this photo is. I don’t care to know.

His name, which the internet will inevitably turn up, really doesn’t matter. It matters to his parents, of course—and to his teachers. I hope they will be reflective, and expect they will be ashamed: of a smirking young man and the scores of other (nearly all white) students from a Catholic school in Kentucky. Today, on the National Mall in Washington, they apparently mocked, harassed, and menaced a Native American man who had [reportedly] fought for the United States in Vietnam and who today represented both the U.S. and his Omaha nation with poise, courage, and dignity. [It later emerged that he had been in the USMC during the Vietnam era but did not fight in Vietnam.]

That man’s name matters. It is Nathan Phillips.

The crowd members’ names don’t matter, any more than the names of the crowd you see in photo like the ones from Arkansas in the 1950s you see here. These young men will be immortalized, as other angry young white people were: as a group, beyond their identities as individuals.

If one of the priests or teachers with the group today had stepped in to stop them—if even one of the students had said, “Come on, back off!”—that person would be remembered, too. But there is no sign that anyone, student or teacher or parent or priest, did.

Teenagers do stupid things, especially teenaged boys. I was once a teenaged boy, and my wife and I raised two sons.

But stupidity doesn’t have to mean hatred and bigotry.  Someone taught young people—in the 1950s, today—to behave the way they did.

Parents, priests, teachers, neighbors—someone taught them.

Here is another person who should be remembered: the mayor of Covington, Kentucky, Joe Meyer, who within hours of the Mall incident released a statement saying that the actions of the young people on the video were the opposite of his city’s values.

His statement is worth reading in full. A sample:

Because of the actions of people who live in Northern Kentucky, our region is being challenged again to examine our core identities, values, and beliefs. 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. Is this what our schools teach? 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?

In answer, let me—as Covington’s mayor—be absolutely clear: No. The videos being shared across the nation do NOT represent the core beliefs and values of this City.

Covington is a diverse community, in areas of race, national origin, ethnicity, religious preference, sexual orientation, and income…

We’re not perfect. More progress needs to be made, and we will continue to work diligently on making it.

In the meantime, Covington is proud of being a welcoming City where bigotry, discrimination, and hatred will not be tolerated.

Congratulations to Meyer, who I hope more fully represents the values of his community than today’s students did.

12:30am EST update: Roughly twelve hours after the original incident and widely spread video, some right-wing sources have argued that the “real” story is the opposite of what has been reported, and that Nathan Phillips was in fact aggressively approaching the young men.

I wasn’t there, and so I can’t say first-hand. But watch the widely available long videos of the events, complete with students doing “tomahawk-chop” chants while Nathan Phillips is singing, and in other ways behaving as if they are mocking him. Anything is possible, but see if this looks as if he is taking advantage of them.

10:30am EST Jan 20 update: The mainly-conservative narrative that the high school boys have been victims of a rush to judgment has intensified—despite (or perhaps because of) statements of apology for their behavior from local school and diocese officials.

This argument is essentially that the boys were caught by surprise, that they’d been provoked by other protesters, that Nathan Phillips had been looking for a confrontation, and that videos of their behavior are taken badly out of context. One statement to that effect, from someone who claims to be a high school student present at the event (but is not named), has been widely circulated.  A long and heartfelt presentation of this possibility (including the anonymous letter) is here, from Rod Dreher.

On the other side, Nathan Phillips was quoted by name, in the Washington Post, on why he initially moved toward the group:

“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’ ” Phillips recalled. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”

In another story, The Post quoted Marcus Frejo, of the Seminole and Pawnee tribes:

In a phone interview, Frejo told The Associated Press he felt [the students] were mocking the dance and also heckling a couple of black men nearby. He approached the group with Phillips to defuse the situation, joining him in singing the anthem from the American Indian Movement and beating out the tempo on hand drums.

Although he feared a mob mentality that could turn ugly, Frejo said he was at peace singing among the scorn and he briefly felt something special happen as they repeatedly sang the tune.

This long Twitter thread, by Arlen Parsa, who has spoken to many people at the high school, is very valuable. If you read all the way through, you will see why I mention it.

Photos by definition capture instants of time, and remove them from the surrounding flow. I am sure there was a story, a complication, a mitigating circumstance, an element of unfairness behind that Arkansas photo from the mid 1950s, which captures an instant in which young white men look furiously at young black men integrating a school. That image necessarily distorts by its selectivity, but also reveals.

Whatever happened just before or after the three or four minutes most widely circulated on yesterday’s videos, those minutes convey a reality that seems impossible to deny. For a sustained period, a large group of young men, who had chosen by their apparel to identify themselves with a political movement (and a movement whose leader uses “Pocahontas” as an epithet and recently made a “joking” reference to the massacre at Wounded Knee), act mockingly to a man their grandfathers’ age, who by his apparel and activities represents a racial-minority, indigenous-American group.

Any such encounter has an implicit edge of menace, intended or not, which everyone understands when younger, bigger, stronger males come close to older, smaller, weaker people. Imagine for a moment if it had been a crowd of dozens of black high school boys surrounding an older white man, laughing at him as he sang prayer songs.

There is another similarity of posture in the photo from the 1950s and the ones from yesterday: it is the stance of the minority group members. The two young black men directly facing the white crowd in Arkansas are erect, composed, hands in their pockets, in a careful balance between not looking frightened (as they must have been) but also not looking threatening. Nathan Phillips’s posture struck me as similar: not stepping back, not stepping forward.

The several minutes caught on the main videos could prove to be selective, in a way that challenges Nathan Phillips’s account. But what is on the videos is sufficient to establish that something went badly wrong, and that young people in a group behaved in a way they will regret and others will remember.

Which returns me to the original point of this post: noting the statement of what his community wanted to stand for, from the mayor of Covington, Kentucky. (Whose city is not actually the home of the school but who wrote  on behalf of the region’s identity and values.)

Update: Please see this extensive followup post, from Jan 21.