Covington Catholic incident: no need for police or censorship

Covington Catholic dominated the news cycle in American media for several days through last weekend and beyond. The incident, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, may not seem relevant to Singapore, but I think there is one take-away we can draw from it — and an important one too. It is that despite the wildly differing accounts of what happened and the extremely provocative spins applied to the most isolated-from-context of moments, despite the racial antipathy displayed within the incident and augmented by the media storm that followed, there was neither government nor police in sight.

There were no calls to arrest people on account of “fake news” or “hate speech”.

It might have taken a day or two longer than the initial burst of war cries, but free media soon did its job. It called out the hate-mongers for their vile spins; it traced the sources of misinformation; and it began to collect a more complete and nuanced account of the incident.

For Singaporeans, what this example shows is this: You don’t need a heavy-handed government. A free media can take care of heated controversies. Trust your fellow citizens’ sense of fairness and civility, and you’d have a more solid social peace than anything externally imposed by power.

Below, I will provide a brief timeline of the 18 January 2019 incident.



That Friday, a large group of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky were in Washington DC to participate in an anti-abortion demonstration, named March for Life. It’s an all-boys school, and apparently participating in the annual March for Life is a sort of tradition. From various videos, the boys were virtually all White.

To be clear: the incident had nothing to do with that demonstration. The demonstration was well over before the controversial events began to unfold. After the demonstration, the boys got to do a little bit of sightseeing around Washington DC, and were returning to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — they were previously instructed to be there by 5:30pm — so as to catch the bus (or buses) that would take them home to Kentucky.

A screen capture from a video (shown at the top) went viral the next day. Accompanying the picture was a description of how a White student, wearing a “Make America Great Again (MAGA)” baseball cap, rudely blocked a Native American elder from proceeding up the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, and how the student was giving a smug smile to the older man. Implicitly or explicitly, the many different variations of the message were about the boorishness and racism displayed by White boys who were fans of President Trump.

The Native American, later identified as Nathan Phillips from the Nebraska Omaha tribe, was in the area to mark Indigenous People’s Day, along with several others.

The storm exploded so powerfully that the the Diocese of Covington and the Covington Catholic High School immediately issued a statement condemning the actions of the students. They also extended their “deepest apologies” to the Nathan Phillips. The student in the picture, Nick Sandmann, was threatened with expulsion.

Phillips himself was issuing statements. He said the pictured scene followed his deliberate action to insert himself between the boys and a third group in the area, the Black Hebrew Israelites (“BHI”). He said he had noticed the boys and the smaller BHI group becoming antagonistic toward each other and thus he walked in to separate them. However, his comments seemed to put more of the blame for the increasingly tense situation on the  Covington boys, even saying that the boys were chanting “Build that wall” — another phrase associated with Donald Trump.

Many of the early viral messages highlighted that fact that some of the boys (including Nick Sandmann) were wearing MAGA hats and had participated in an anti-abortion demonstration just hours earlier. That a gay student was prevented from being the 2018 valedictorian for the school was widely mentioned too. All these built a picture of White boys with privilege espousing deeply conservative, even hateful, values.

Within a day or two, more videos appeared, and the nuances of the situation became apparent.


Revisiting the incident through videos

A long video shows nearly two hours’ worth of events. This video was likely taken by a member of BHI. He was documenting their protest on the afternoon of 18th January. The first 44 minutes of the video will show you what BHI was saying to mostly uninterested people around them.

  • At the 8th minute, you hear some drumming in the background — probably the Native American group.
  • At the 10th minute, you hear the BHI telling the Native Americans to “stop drumming, you always want to take our culture”.
  • At the 33rd and 34th minute, there are a few quick shots of the Native American group.
  • At the 44th minute, there’s a Native American arguing with the BHI.

Throughout the entire first hour of the video, you see BHI trying to provoke people around them with their rhetoric.

  • At 1:03, there’s the first glimpse of the Covington schoolboys in the background. Four minutes later, the BHI turn their attention to them in their usual provocative way.
  • At 1:12, the Native American group comes back in. The boys jump and chant (?) to the beat of the drums. One or two minutes later, Nathan Phillips wades into the crowd of boys.

This video by a BHI member does not show us what then happens within the crowd but it helps set the context.

This other video gathers footage from a number of sources to build a different (and probably truer) picture. The boys were generally well-behaved; here and there you will see the Native Americans being provocative instead. In fact, at 7 minutes 32 seconds, you see Nick Sandmann indicating to a fellow student to cool it. I found this video in this blogpost. It’s worth reading.

The overall consensus emerging is that it was the BHI and the Native Americans who were trying to provoke — initially each other, and then the students. The boys (and Nick Sandmann, at 17, seemed to be among the older ones) were largely confused what was going on. Despite the many videos, none shows the boys chanting “Build the wall” as alleged.

One thing I found absent in the media stories is emphasis on the fact that they were teenage boys. At that age, they may be boisterous, clever and quick with rejoinders, but to accuse them all, as a group, of malevolence, is quite a stretch.



Then CNN Business had a piercing story. It traced the controversy to a Twitter account with a username “@2020fght”, but the identity behind that account seemed suspicious. CNN reported:

Late on Friday [18 January 2019], the account posted a minute-long video showing the now-iconic confrontation between a Native American elder and the high school students, with the caption, “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protester at the Indigenous Peoples March.”

That version of the video was viewed at least 2.5 million times and was retweeted at least 14,400 times, according to a cached version of the tweet seen by CNN Business.

The video shared by @2020fight did not show what preceded the confrontation between the Native American elder and the high school students.

The video had been posted earlier on Instagram by someone who was at the event, but it was @2020fight’s caption that helped frame the news cycle.

After Twitter was alerted to this account, they closed it.


Our take-away

As I said, nowhere in this story does one find the government or the police. Instead it’s a story of civic good sense — generally speaking. Even during the incident itself, adversaries kept a distance from each other despite much baiting. In the days that followed, there was hate-speech and gross misinformation. Emotions ran very high. And yet, a more complete picture soon emerged — helped by the many videos from different angles — and a more balanced narrative formed.

In Singapore, the police would have rushed in, arrests made and prosecutions planned. Possibly there wouldn’t even be videos from multiple angles that would let a truer picture emerge later because we have a (bad) law that permits the police to ban any filming while they are in action.

In terms of cost-effectiveness alone, the American approach — truth birthed from free media, social peace from collective good sense — is way, way superior.

One week after the incident, on 25 January, the bishop of the Covington Diocese apologised to Nicholas Sandmann and the other students for the initial statement of condemnation.



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