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Believing What We See: The Covington Catholic Video And Competing Narratives

A screenshot from the ABC News coverage of the video.
Screenshot/ABC News
A screenshot from the ABC News coverage of the video.

A viral video of white male teenagers surrounding Nathan Phillips, a member of the Omaha tribe went viral over the weekend.

Nick Martin, writing for Splinter, said “that teenager in the video, standing so emboldened in front of Phillips, was doing exactly what he was taught to do, by his school, by his friends, by his country.”

But longer videos, released on Sunday, sparked a conversation about the context in which the original video was released.

From BuzzFeed:

The videos piece together a chaotic, confusing, and tense encounter between the three groups, who have all said that they were targeted and standing up for themselves. Conservative sites have been citing Banyamyan’s video as an example of how the students’ behavior was taken out of context and arguing that the shorter videos sweeping across social media did not tell the full story.

Here’s another, unedited angle on what happened, from Indian Country Today.

For days now, the interpretations of these videos have become a political argument. Personal politics shape what some viewers say they see.

Here’s Laura Wagner, writing for Deadspin.

One lesson of the past two days is that you will see what you want to see here, if you are determined to do so; that does not mean that there is anything to be seen but what is there. I see a frothing mass of MAGA youth—who, since we’re taking in all angles here, go to a school where students fairly recently wore blackface to a basketball game—frenzied and yelling and out of control. I see four black men who seem to belong to the Black Israelites—a threat to women in their orbit, but not to random white people they’re heckling—yelling insults at the students. Then I see Phillips, as he has stated from the beginning that he did, walk up to the teens, in what seems to be an attempt to diffuse the situation. I see them laughing and dancing, red MAGA hats bobbing up and down in glee. I see them yell in Phillips’ face, and I see that he doesn’t falter. I see the smugness of a group secure in its relative power over someone more vulnerable than they are. Nothing about the video showing the offensive language of Black Israelites changes how upsetting it was to see the Covington students, and Sandmann in particular, stare at Phillips with such contempt. I don’t see how you could watch this and think otherwise unless you’re willing to gaslight yourself, and others, in the service of granting undeserved sympathy to the privileged.

But some questioned why so much attention was paid to the video at all, as writer Julie Zimmerman put it, in The Atlantic:

The story is a Rorschach test—tell me how you first reacted, and I can probably tell where you live, who you voted for in 2016, and your general take on a list of other issues—but it shouldn’t be. Take away the video and tell me why millions of people care so much about an obnoxious group of high-school students protesting legalized abortion and a small circle of American Indians protesting centuries of mistreatment who were briefly locked in a tense standoff. Take away Twitter and Facebook and explain why total strangers care so much about people they don’t know in a confrontation they didn’t witness. Why are we all so primed for outrage, and what if the thousands of words and countless hours spent on this had been directed toward something consequential?

This is just a sampling of the many, many takes published on these videos. How can something so well-documented spark so much debate about what really happened?

Produced by Stef Collett. Text by Gabrielle Healy.


Celeste Headlee, Journalist; author, “We Need to Talk;” @CelesteHeadlee

Charlie Warzel, Writer-at-large for NYT Opinion, former senior technology writer, BuzzFeed News; @cwarzel

Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of African and African American Studies, Duke University; @NewBlackMan

For more, visit https://the1a.org.

© 2019 WAMU 88.5 – American University Radio.

Copyright 2019 WAMU 88.5

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