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MAGA Hat Kids

This Week in the Narrative 116

Nigel Clarke

They say a picture is worth 1000 words. This is probably true, it’s just that the words are sometimes the wrong ones.

Earlier this week, a picture, accompanied by a short video clip, started making its way through medias mainstream and social. In it, a young white man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat stands smirking at an older native man playing a drum, both of them in the midst of a crowd of phone-holding onlookers.

It seemed the picture did not need much encouragement to tell its thousand words — an entitled white kid in a MAGA hat confronts a peaceful Native-American protester, a ready-made meme for what’s wrong with “Trump’s America.”

If pressed for a contribution, I would probably caption it with something like: “Make America Great Again? Wonderful … so when are you leaving?”

Within hours of the photograph going viral, the full weight of condemnation culture came crashing down on the young man pictured. People, including journalists and celebrities, called for blood, called for the young man to be outed, shamed, punished, ruined.

Then, just as suddenly as the story had appeared, it turned dramatically, a 180 precipitated by a statement of explanation released, ostensibly, by the young man and his family.

In this statement, the young man gave his version of events which, unsurprisingly, diverged noticeably from what had initially been assumed.

He explained that he had been on a class field trip with his Catholic high school from Kentucky to Washington, D.C. to participate in a pro-life rally. While waiting for the bus that would take them home at the end of the day, he and his classmates, he claimed, were accosted verbally by a small group of adults hurling “derogatory insults at our school group.” As this was happening, according to the statement, another group of adults, led by the older Native man playing a drum, approached their group, eventually walking up directly to the young man at the center of the controversy, which left him “startled and confused.” The statement proclaims more than once the young man’s desire to “diffuse the situation,” in which he believed that “a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict,” even going so far as to point out that he “said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand,” not an antagonist, but rather someone with the desire to “try to live up to the ideals my faith teaches me — to remain respectful of others, and to take no action that would lead to conflict or violence.”

After the statement’s release, people from across the political spectrum tripped over themselves in haste to reverse course, with many apologies published, many initial tweets and headlines taken down.

Just as quickly as people had rushed to condemnation without adequate detail at first, they now rushed in the other direction, still without any kind of objective detail.

The solution to this type of behavior is, ironically, nestled quietly near the end of the young man’s statement, in a section in which he warns, “I would caution everyone passing judgement based on a few seconds of video to watch the longer video clips that are on the internet, as they show a much different story than is being portrayed by people with agendas.”

This is almost certainly a throwaway line, a platitude which the statement’s author would not expect anyone to actually follow. But there is an extended video of the incident available for anyone to view, one showing something that doesn’t necessarily line up with either initial assumptions, or the well-produced counterpoint.

In the video, a small handful of adults, later identified as members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, stand proselytizing at the foot of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as a much larger group of white teenagers files in around them. The apparent leader of the Black Israelite group takes the approach of a street preacher, booming loudly about “the blood of the children of Israel” and how “the government is still getting away with murder.” At first, the teenagers pay little attention to the “preacher,” but as their numbers grow they begin to engage, to respond and jeer. When the “preacher” asks, “When was America great?” a teenager responds, “Since the beginning!” When the “preacher” repeatedly proclaims, “This is going to stop!” the crowd begins to boo and hiss.

Soon, the group of teenagers has grown to what appears to be hundreds, encircling the handful of adults. As the “preacher” refuses to back down, hurling insults at the jeering mob while his partners unfurl batons, the teenagers begin to chant and grunt and jump up and down in the model of warriors before a battle. Some hit sticks on the pavement, others into their hands; one young man rushes to the front of the group, rips off his shirt, and, the body of a flabby pear exposed, begins to snarl and flex.

Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, a small procession appears, walking directly between the two groups headed by an older Native man playing a drum and quietly singing. His calm, slow-moving demeanor and gentle song immediately lets the air out of the balloon; that is, sucks out the volatile energy which had been threatening to turn to violence. The teenagers become quiet and the “preacher” stops yelling, starts smiling. As the Native man continues to play his song, the teenagers again begin to jump up and down, singing along to the beat of the drum with a derisive attempt at traditional native vocals, throwing their hands into “tomahawk chops,” their mockery alive but the worst of their anger assuaged. Eventually, the buses back to Kentucky arrive and the teenagers saunter off without further incident.

Understand that the sterilized version of these events as described in the statement released by the young man at the center of the controversy was not, of course, written by the young man, but by a team of lawyers with a PR firm. With this knowledge, the intent of the statement, of its manipulations and misrepresentations, is revealed, that is, just how laden it is with dog-whistles.

The statement does not describe the situation as a conflict between two jeering groups, one of which was probably 30 or 40 times the size of the other, but rather as a group of teenagers “being loudly attacked and taunted in public.” Critically, the adults carrying out said attack were not described as “counter-protesters,” or “religious fundamentalists,” or even simply “adults,” but, explicitly, as “African American,” the stereotype of the angry black man who says and does “hateful things” to virtuous and pure white youth.  

The Native man, who in reality is the hero of the story for risking his own personal health to defuse a potentially dangerous situation, is slapped with the “noble savage” trope in the statement, playing his drum with a simplistic respectability before seeking out a “confrontation” with an unassuming white teenager who could only wonder why “he was in my face.”

If it was shocking to some at first how anxious popular culture is to destroy someone before all the details of a story have been revealed, what Glenn Greenwald called “trial by Twitter mob,” then perhaps it is also shocking how anxious people across the political spectrum are to grab onto a story of white victimhood, to whitewash, if you will, over a narrative. It is an element of white privilege with a crucially tangible effect.

These pro-life teenagers were protesters, sure, but also children on a school field trip. This is not to absolve them of their inflammatory behavior but rather to contextualize it.

These were young people exploring the power of the mob mentality, examining the concept of strength in numbers, probing the parameters of their own aggression and antagonism. As teenagers, and how genuinely serious can most people really be about an issue at 16 years old, they were doing this as one might with a sporting event, through chants and mockery and hurled insults.

The problem is, telling these kids that they are not only not in the wrong, but in fact are the victims in the scenario — specifically the victims of aggressive, confrontational minorities — is exactly what allows these early experiments in arrogance and antagonism to devolve into hatred and oppression as adults. If you’re looking for the line, imagine how far from it you’d think you were if you believed you were still the victim rather than the aggressor.

It is exactly the type of thing which allows a teenager’s hate for sport to evolve into hate for life.

Quote of the Week:

Written by Nigel Clarke

Writer and notorious vagabond. From the frozen north. Follow Nigel on Twitter @Nig_Clarke.

Nigel Clarke is a Writer for Progressive Army.

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MAGA Hat Kids