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
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
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
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
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
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.