The ugly facts about the MAGA hat kids

January 23, 2019

Brian Ward provides the backdrop to the viral video of a confrontation between a mob of Trump-supporting white high-school students and an Indigenous elder.

BY NOW, everyone knows about the viral video of a crowd of 50 to 100 teenage students from a Catholic high school in Kentucky, many wearing “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hats, who surrounded and mocked an Indigenous elder in Washington, D.C., last weekend.

A day after the video made national news, the story took several more turns after a concerted campaign to try to shield the youth from blame.

But the mainstream media’s coverage of the story failed to report the reason that a crowd of Indigenous people was on the National Mall in the first place — namely, that Friday was the one of the first national marches of Indigenous people since the 1970s.

The inspiring event brought together thousands of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to highlight struggles against pipelines and the government shutdown, which disproportionately affects Indigenous nations, along with campaigns about missing and murdered Indigenous women and sovereignty.

Indigenous elder Nathan Phillips is harassed in front of the Lincoln Memorial
Indigenous elder Nathan Phillips is harassed in front of the Lincoln Memorial

The march started at the Department of the Interior, which houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs and ended near the Lincoln Memorial.

That’s where the standoff took place between Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann, who along with dozens of his classmates was in Washington, D.C., for the annual anti-choice March for Life, and Nathan Phillips, a Vietnam veteran, elder of the Omaha tribe and longtime Indigenous rights activist.

Sandmann smirked at Phillips, while his classmates chanted school cheers in unison and made fun of the Indigenous songs that Phillips and others were singing. Many of the youth wore red MAGA hats.

By Saturday, the mainstream media picked up the story and were reporting on it as a disturbing example of a mob of young kids with the confidence to taunt Indigenous people. So how and why has the story shifted since then?


FIRST, Sandmann’s parents hired a well-connected public-relations firm in Louisville, which released a statement by Sandmann shifting blame for the confrontation to a small crowd of Black Israelites who were also near the Lincoln Memorial. This led the media to revise the narrative, using other video footage.

To be sure, the Black Israelites used coarse language and even a homophobic slur to try to provoke the high school students. But it’s hardly surprising why they shifted from denunciations of the Indigenous gathering as “heathens” to a crowd of white high school students sporting MAGA hats.

In fact, it was the escalating tensions between the Black Israelites and the Catholic school kids that led Phillips to intervene in an effort to de-escalate the situation, as Phillips later explained:

I was there and I was witnessing all of this...As this kept on going on and escalating, it just got to a point where you do something or you walk away, you know? You see something that is wrong and you’re faced with that choice of right or wrong...So I put myself in between that, between a rock and hard place...

There was that moment when I realized I’ve put myself between beast and prey...These young men were beastly, and these old Black individuals were their prey, and I stood in between them and so they needed their pounds of flesh and they were looking at me for that...

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.” I started going that way, and that guy in the hat [Sandmann] stood in my way, and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.

As Phillips later said of the boys’ chants of “build the wall”:

This is our reality...A swarm of young, unattended Trump supporters gathered to cause a scene, disrespect our cultures and put fear into us. I was pushed and laughed at by teenage boys who grew up to believe their lives are more important than ours. They shouted things like “Gone in 2020” and mocked us. I am still in shock.

As he reflected further on the idea of a wall, a video interview with Phillips shows tears streaming down his face as he says: “This is Indigenous land. We’re not supposed to have walls here.”


WITH THE entrance of the Black Israelites into the media narrative, Donald Trump weighed in, seeing the opportunity to attack two of his favorite targets simultaneously — Black people and Indigenous groups.

“Looking like Nick Sandman [sic] & Covington Catholic students were treated unfairly with early judgments proving out to be false — smeared by media,” Trump tweeted. “Not good, but making big comeback!”

Last week, Trump had trolled Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who claims Native ancestry, but has clumsily buttressed Trump’s racism. Trump made jokes about the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

Given this, it’s hardly surprising that young boys wearing MAGA hats have the confidence to harass a Native American man attempting to defuse a situation they themselves helped to inflame.

But that’s just the start. As Trump holds the country and government hostage over his $5.7 billion border wall, Indian Country is suffering over lack of funds for food, medicine and other necessities during the government shutdown. All of which should not be negotiable during a shutdown because of treaty rights.


THE FINAL leg of the story concerns a protest organized on the morning of January 22 by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) outside the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington, Kentucky.

Ashley Theissen, a member of the International Socialist Organization who lives near Covington Catholic, attended the rally, and described it this way in an e-mail:

While I was there, it grew to about 50-75 people, but more people were arriving when I had to leave. There was so much press, including national press like CNN. There were several speakers as well as a song and prayer, a ceremony for peace. There were a few counterprotesters. One was holding a sign that said, “Saint Xavier/St. Ursula Parent Proudly Supports Cov Cath, Stand Your Ground.”

Another “unfriendly,” a woman who seemed to be live-streaming the event, interrupted one of the speakers at one point, asking, “Excuse me, so are you saying that they disrespected you first? I’m kind of confused.” The speaker responded, “We’ve been disrespected since the beginning of time, so...”

Theissen also noted the words of Thomas Pearce, co-chair of AIM in Indiana and Kentucky, who spoke at the rally:

Let’s be very clear here. Donald Trump attacked us last night. Our message is getting through. This is all caused by the climate of racism in this country. Donald Trump is a symptom of racism in this country. What those kids did, they were just doing what their parents taught them.

We are here to have a dialogue with the diocese, asking them to hold the chaperones accountable. We’re asking them to adopt a curriculum that teaches the kids the true history of the Catholic Church with the Indigenous people. We’re asking them to teach the true history of the Catholic Church’s relationship to all people of color, not just us.


FOR ITS part, the Catholic Diocese issued a statement condemning “the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically.”

According to the school’s code of conduct, the students could face suspension or expulsion — though the shifting media narrative and the support of Trump and Rep. Thomas Massie, who represents Covington in Congress, may weaken the Diocese’s resolve.

This story, however, is about more than young Trump supporters taunting a Native American elder. The students were in D.C. for the March for Life rally, a massive anti-choice rally that annually brings thousands of young people to the capital from various high schools and churches around the country.

According to multiple reports, fascist and white-supremacist groups have found fertile ground to recruit to their cause at events organized by the anti-choice movement. According to two journalists from Rewire News:

In 2016, ostensible neo-Nazis targeted an online fundraiser run by the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF), a group that raises funds for people who need financial support to receive abortion care. Cyber-attackers hacked the NNAF fundraiser and sent messages to donors containing explicit anti-Black and anti-Semitic threats, and made “fraudulent donations” using Hitler’s name, according to the lawsuit filed by the NNAF and other abortion funds providers against the attackers in March.

These disgusting acts aren’t isolated, but part of the larger right-wing movement.

“Anti-abortion organizing is fertile ground (and ‘safer’ territory) for mobilizing and integrating a younger generation into right wing politics, with anti-immigrant, anti-Native, anti-Black and anti-Muslim politics hidden in open sight,” wrote Sofia Arias, a socialist and activist, on Facebook.

Then there’s the role of the Catholic Church. To many Natives, it’s no surprise that these boys attend a school run by the Church, which has played a central role in the oppression and dispossession of Natives since the time of Christopher Columbus.

Church leaders long regarded Natives as savages. In 1892, Jesuit priest Lawrence Benedict Palladino argued against the withdrawal of the Catholic Church from reservations, saying “to eliminate Christianity from Indian education is to eliminate the one factor without which the civilization of the red man is an utter impossibility.”

The recent canonization of Junípero Serra, the founder of the California mission system who sought to enslave and violently convert Indigenous people in California, again demonstrated the refusal of the Catholic Church to take responsibility for its crimes.

Three centuries later, it’s shocking — but not surprising — that students from a Catholic school in northern Kentucky are mocking Indigenous people while on a field trip to Washington, D.C., to oppose women’s control over the own bodies.

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