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The inherent flaw of a rush to judgment

His is the face that provoked untold millions of posts on social media, the teenage boy from Kentucky face-to-face with an aging Native American man playing a drum, the two of them surrounded by a group of shouting boys, many of them in those red “Make America Great Again” hats.

We see the boy smiling. Is that a smug smirk, or the smile of a boy who has no idea how to react to what is happening in this moment? What does it “mean,” what does it “say?” The imagery itself is so fraught that it is all but impossible to view the photograph without experiencing waves of emotion, immediate and visceral, but also deeply embedded in a painful and resonant history.

Then came a video clip, providing a more damning context. We see the boys in a frenzy now, dozens of them, jumping around, mugging for the camera, some taunting the Native American with tomahawk gestures, some mocking him with exaggerated versions of a chant, many of them looking to each other for validation of their behavior and permission to push it a bit further, as boys will when each is trying to impress his peers. It’s a frenetic scene, bordering on mob behavior, volatile and potentially dangerous, despite the boys’ ages.

But the boy at the center is motionless, implacable, just smiling as the older man pounds away on his drum, just inches away. This goes on for several minutes. It appears that this Native American elder in full regalia has been surrounded by a bunch of foolish young men in their Trump regalia. It appears that they are harassing him, the many against the one.

It is an infuriating clip, and millions of people across the country were, in fact, infuriated when they saw it. Within a few hours, the clip had gone viral and there was a tsunami of outrage sweeping across the internet. Firsts the posts, then the memes, then the commentary, eviscerating the boys, their parents, their teachers, the private Catholic school they attend, and the entire “culture of Trump.” Just like that, the boys were cast as the villains, the embodiment of everything that is wrong with this country — racist, entitled, brazen, mindless, you name it.

By contrast, the Native American man remained stoic, continuing to beat his drum and chant, not yielding his place but neither displaying any signs of anger or aggression. He was cast as dignified, resolute, and courageous. Within hours, there were memes all over social media with his name and photograph, some providing background information on his life.

People rendered their verdicts. Apologies for the boys’ behavior began to trickle out, one from the mayor of Covington, Kentucky, where the school is located. Another one from a spokesperson from the school itself. The more generous among the commentators fretted over the boys’ future. The less generous said they deserved whatever public censure was coming their way, “reaping the whirlwind” of their odious, sub-human behavior.

Photos were posted comparing the boys to photos of whites pouring sugar and syrup on the heads of black people sitting at lunch counters during the Civil Rights era. Within a period of six hours, they had already been assigned their place in history, the video clip now and forever a part of the shameful iconography of racism and white privilege.

And then…

The next day, another round of video clips began to appear, longer videos of the very same incident shot from different angles. These videos included a new group of characters not seen or heard from in the first clip, several black men — later identified as Black Hebrew Israelites — trading insults and epithets with the Covington boys.

In the longer video, we see the Native American man initially at some remove from this stand-off, perhaps 50 feet away from where the boys were assembled at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, and then approaching the group while playing his drum and chanting, essentially positioning himself between the black Hebrew group and the Covington group, but facing the Covington group. It seems clear that there is considerable tension between these two groups, a context completely missing from the first video clip.

Now, we have a different context, an expanded context, MORE context. But is it really a clearer context, or just a different context? Things were no longer as they first appeared. Did the Native American man instigate the confrontation, or escalate it? What were his motives for approaching the boys? And how about the group of black men, adults trading insults with school boys?

Once again, millions of people seething with anger took to the internet to defend the boys, demanding that the original apologies be retracted and new apologies issued to the boys, their parents, their teachers, and the school.

Just like that, all of the actors on the stage were instantly recast. Now the boys were victims, rather than villains. We were informed that they should be applauded for their “restraint.” Here at long last was definitive proof that the media is ALWAYS out to get anyone on the right. The whole thing was rigged from the get-go to make the boys look bad. They were set-up. 

Conspiracy theories were launched. The Native American man — a Vietnam veteran — was now cast as the villain, a phony with a history of starting trouble. Anyone who believed what they saw yesterday in the shorter clip was revealed as a fool, a snowflake, a sheep being led to slaughter by the media, which is controlled by the Deep State and a shadowy pack of globalists. George Soros had surely arranged the entire thing. This is only a small sample of the comments I read on social media.

So what is the truth in any of this?

One day soon — and then for years to come — these videos will be shown in college classes as examples of how easy it is to form narratives and accept “evidence” based on video footage that seems clear, when it is anything but. The video clips — both of them — are the video equivalent of a Rorschach test. We watched and saw what we were inclined to see, making assumptions based on what we were already inclined to believe about the different people involved, willing to settle for a photograph, 45 seconds of footage, or five minutes of footage, to draw ironclad conclusions.

The more you watch the footage, the more ambiguous it becomes, at least in terms of how these events unfolded, and why. The news was not fake. It was not staged. It was just more complicated than it seemed. We may live in an age of instant news and immediate access to it, but that doesn’t mean that there should also be a rush to draw conclusions. Nor does it mean that eventually, in the search for truth, that conclusions cannot and should not be drawn. The truth is out there.

For example, someone found yet more footage of Covington Catholic High students, this from a basketball game in 2012 in which several of the school’s students were dressed in blackface. There is a photograph of them taunting a black player attempting an inbounds pass. What additional footage may eventually appear that would cast that clip and that photo in a different light?

(Chris Cox is a teacher and writer. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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