It had all the trappings of a major scandal: Footage of a large group of young white Catholic school boys, many of them wearing Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hats, apparently taunting an elderly Native American man at the Lincoln Memorial. The young men appeared to be bullying, intimidating and ridiculing the older gentleman, with one boy standing several inches from his face and smirking while numerous others hollered and hooted around him. It was, on its face, a disgraceful display of nastiness, the sort of thing that would quite reasonably make anyone enraged.
But it wasn’t that simple. The full footage of the event is confusing and for the most part appears to exonerate the boys. As the lengthy video shows, the incident between the boys and the Native American man arose due to the presence of a bizarre extremist black religious group that had been loudly preaching at the Lincoln Memorial for around an hour. This group was spewing invective about “faggots” and “crackers,” some of it directed at the Catholic students.
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For much of the time, the students actually stand at a distance away from the group; after a while they move closer and begin to perform a series of school cheers to counter the group’s bizarre street ranting. Both groups kept their distance from each other. The interaction between the two is harmless, and resembles the sort of back-and-forth street dialogue you see many times a day in cities like Washington.
The Native American man, Nathan Phillips, told The Detroit Free Press that he believed the “beastly” teenagers “were in the process of attacking these four black individuals” and he consequently intervened. The interaction between the boys and Phillips followed, with Phillips beating his drum in front of the crowd of high schoolers for a few minutes. As the footage indicates, it was actually quite logical for the boys to believe that Phillips was on their side, and the video apparently depicts them responding to his presence with goofy, jocular warmth.
Tomahawk chop is worst offense in video
It was all over rather quickly, in any case, and overall the students behaved more or less unremarkably. The most offensive sight in the video footage is of several students doing a stereotypical “tomahawk chop,” a rude and disrespectful gesture to be sure. (Phillips said he heard students chanting “build the wall,” but the video evidence that has emerged so far does not support this claim.)
The media narrative that had arisen over the previous 24 hours — that the boys had targeted, mobbed and harassed the Native American man as part of some hateful display of racism and white supremacy — appears to have been woefully misguided, spurred by an out-of-context video clip.
No matter: By the time the full footage surfaced, the fury of social media had already done its damage. On Twitter, the writer Reza Aslan posted a picture of one of the teenagers, later identified as Covington junior Nick Sandmann, and said: “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” His tweet went viral. Numerous media outlets and pundits urged people to call the Catholic school to which the boys belong (at least one person encouraged people to target the school’s corporate sponsors).
In an insanely viral tweet, comedian Patton Oswalt called the students in the video “bland, frightened, forgettable kids who’ll grow up to be bland, frightened, forgotten adult wastes.” Writer Michael Green, referring to Sandmann’s apparent smirking at the Native American man, wrote: “A face like that never changes. This image will define his life. No one need ever forgive him.” Huffington Post reporter Christopher Mathias explicitly compared the students to violent segregationists.
Comedian Kathy Griffin, meanwhile, called for the kids to be doxxed, writing: “Name these kids. I want NAMES. Shame them.” Her tweet went viral, as well.
And that is just a small sampling from the Twitter accounts of the famous. Thousands of average, everyday people joined in on a comprehensive smear campaign of young men who may have done little or even nothing wrong.
Details come fast these days. Why not wait?
This needs to stop. Our social media dystopia has to come to an end. These online services, while admittedly fun and sometimes useful, have also brought out the worst in many of us. We are regularly in the midst of full-blown social media mob incidents, where underinformed pundits and commentators are rushing to the quickest of snap judgments before the facts are barely known.
What’s frustrating is that, in this age of instant digital information, we often get a fuller picture of incidents like these within a matter of days or even hours. Gone are the times when substantive news updates only occurred on evening broadcasts or with the morning newspaper. If you hold off on joining a social media mob, you can probably expect more information before the day is out, and you could save yourself the trouble of targeting innocent individuals.
This sort of thing isn’t just unpleasant for a minute or an hour; it can ruin lives. It is indeed very possible that the young man in the video will be remembered for a long time; that image of him may very well “define his life” for years to come. This was troubling enough when the story first broke. Now that it looks like the event may have been wildly mischaracterized, the possibility is horrifying. Imagine being known as a despicable racist for a decade or more because of a brief, confusing incident that occurred when you weren’t even old enough to vote.
There is no need to broadcast an uninformed opinion about a complicated event. You can wait. We all can. The other option, of course, is to join the hordes of furious internet users, cursing and smearing and blaming people whom you’ve never met and pronouncing confidently on incidents with which you are not familiar at all. This sort of behavior is destructive, and hateful, and ultimately pointless. And, of course, one day it could be you on the receiving end of it. Better to stop it now.
Daniel Payne is an assistant editor at “The College Fix” and blogs at at TrialoftheCentury.net.