By the time you read this, we’ll be into the fifth day of dissecting what happened between the boys of Covington Catholic High School, Omaha tribal elder Nathan Phillips and the group of four Black Hebrew Israelites on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

No doubt, the media is still flagellating itself for spreading the initial viral video that seemed to show a group of smarmy kids in “Make America Great Again” hats taunting an old Indian. The right-wing spin machine might be about finished whitewashing the students into the innocent flakes of snow they’d like us to think they are. I’m sure additional footage will be released between the time I’m writing this and the time you read it, some no doubt showing the boys unfavorably, others painting a picture of rowdy teens caught up in something they don’t understand.

About the only thing it seems everyone agrees on is that the Black Hebrew Israelites are troublemakers of the first order, as anyone who’s seen them preach and harangue on the streets of downtown Knoxville can attest. There’s a reason, after all, they’re considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Everything else seems to be up to interpretation, depending on which video you watch and where your political leanings lie.

From what I can tell: Everyone else, from the kids to Phillips to the media to every single one of us who jumped to conclusions and went on immediate offense or defense, has a part to play. We’re like the Schofield Kid at the end of “Unforgiven,” trying to come to terms with what we’ve seen and done, writhing around under the gnarled tree of sanity and slinging snot and muttering about how “they” had it coming.

So who’s “they” in this scenario? Nathan Phillips? I’ve watched the video and listened to his interviews and read his statements, and the video seems to bear out his claim that he genuinely wanted to come between two groups of agitators. Of course, I’ve seen the right point to his history of activism as evidence that he’s a troublemaker and generally lambaste him for walking into the middle of a group of kids. Was it a smart decision? I’ll say this: Given that most of us probably would have hunkered our shoulders and walked on by thinking, “Ain’t my business,” I’ve got to give the guy props for wanting to do something to quell tension.

What about the kids? Yes, teens are prone to poor decision-making, but let’s not sugarcoat their culpability here: They weren’t in Washington for a field trip. They went to take part in the anti-abortion March for Life, and since I’m assuming Covington Catholic doesn’t force students to attend this event, I believe it’s safe to say they went voluntarily, meaning they chose to engage in a complex social issue that’s polarizing on the surface. Now, whether they’re sexually experienced enough to fully understand their decision is another matter, but their attendance leads me to believe that they’re at least aware, on some intellectual level, that abortion is a hot-button topic around which passions run high.

That they chose to attend wearing MAGA hats gives away their political allegiance — not that there’s anything wrong with being a Trump supporter, but when the president of the United States has a history of divisive, antagonistic and racially charged commentary (inferring that some Mexicans are rapists, that the alt-right attendees of Charlottesville, Va., included “some very fine people,” etc., etc.), then no one should be shocked that a lot of folks jumped to conclusions and assumed that kids clad in MAGA hats were being disrespectful to a brown-skinned man.

And please, let’s not be willfully obtuse and cling to the ridiculous idea that they were doing “school chants.” The Covington Catholic High School athletic teams are called “The Colonels,” and unless I’m missing out on some sort of military code-speak, cheering on a team called “The Colonels” should not involve a tomahawk chop. And if you can watch Nick Sandmann’s puerile smirk as he and Phillips square off and not see something disrespectful about it, then you should probably slow your roll when it comes to judging the disrespect of any younger person in any situation, because you clearly don’t know it when you see it.

(Speaking of judgment and kids: Where the heck were the chaperones, and why in the world did they not shepherd those teens out of the area when the Black Hebrew Israelites first started directing commentary at them? The whole purpose of chaperones is to keep kids out of trouble, not stand around and encourage them to take part in it. And yes, when one of the boys takes off his shirt and starts thumping his chest like a gorilla, he’s very much taking part in it.)

So who else is “they?” The media? Most definitely, but my buddy Bill Foster made an excellent point on Facebook: “Dishonest media started this kerfuffle. Honest media fixed it. None of you ‘did research.’ You watched other media that told a more complete story and all the media outlets that did that and corrected it deserve praise … The (New York Times) and (The Washington Post) corrected their original stories. That is what journalists do. When they get something wrong, they fix it and they examine why they got it wrong in an attempt not to in the future. Please show me when Fox or Breitbart or Drudge engaged in that process.” I’ve seen enough mea culpas on the part of journalists and hand-wringing liberals to last a lifetime, and I truly do believe there’s such a thing as backpedaling over a cliff of factual revision.

Because no one is in the right here, and no matter how much we may want one side or the other to come out as some sort of moral victor, let’s not kid ourselves: There isn’t one. The whole nasty affair is Kabuki theater, a living embodiment of the churlish, nasty, visceral divide that’s eating us up, left and right, from the inside out, like some flesh-eating socio-political bacteria. It’s a carnival freak show of Lovecraftian proportions, and the more videos I watch, the more disgusted I grow over what we’ve become.

So who has it coming? Like Will Munny says in “Unforgiven:” “We all got it comin’, kid.” Damn if that ain’t the sorry truth.

Steve Wildsmith was an editor and writer for The Daily Times for nearly 17 years; a recovering addict, he now works in media and marketing for Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Blount County. Contact him at

Award-winning freelance columnist and entertainment writer Steve Wildsmith is the former WeekEnd editor at The Daily Times.

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