Sunday, January 20, 2019


When my friends and I were high school freshmen and sophomores -- in other words, probably a year or two younger than the kids we've all seen in those Covington Catholic videos -- we'd spend a lot of time just walking around the city of Boston. This was 1973 or so. I was from a neighborhood of the city that was monochrome and provincial; downtown was where we could have encounters with oddballs and unusual ideas.

We'd see half-crazed protestors, like the woman with an inexplicable animus against CBS ("Columbia Broadcast System sells the dope! And then the news. How you gonna lose?") There were proselytizers preaching hippie Christianity (the "Jesus freaks" of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," a widespread phenomenon at the time), some of whom were more unsavory than we realized. (The Children of God, later known as the Family, were a pedophile cult; I still have some of their flyers.) There were the Scientologists, whom we knew even then not to get involved with. (Although a couple of friends, when I wasn't around, did take a Scientology personality test on a lark. They then found it extremely difficult to leave Scientology headquarters without surrendering an address, so one friend gave a fake address -- mine, except with a house number that didn't exist on my street. The ruse worked.)

I think back on us and I like us. I like our curiosity. We made value judgments -- we knew the CBS woman was not in her right mind -- but mostly we wanted to see the show.

Years later, after I'd moved to New York for school, I'd see the Black Hebrews near Times Square, or just north of Macy's. This would have been around 1980. Obviously, none of the Black Hebrews who appeared on video with the Covington Catholic kids were the same ones I'd seen nearly forty years earlier, but the act was the exactly the same: bait the crowd with racial rhetoric and toss in some sexual innuendo for good measure. One man does the haranguing, but he occasionally calls on a subordinate to read a Bible verse as supporting evidence. There's a lot of pseudo-science, and a simultaneous use of and disdain for racial labels. (Caucasians are "so-called white people.")

The Black Hebrews were (and are) the insult comics of streetcorner prophecy. I recall briefly arguing with them (until I grasped how pointless it was), but I don't recall trying to bait them or silence them. I was generally a solo city walker at this point -- I wouldn't have been at all intimidating -- but I can't imagine wanting to do them harm. What was the point? They didn't seem to be getting through to anyone.

These were my thoughts as I watched the videos conservatives told me would compel me to rethink my view of the Covington Catholic incident. My initial reaction to the incident wasn't "Doxx them! Expel them! Never let them hold a job or appear in decent society again" -- they're teenagers, and they might become very different people one day. (On Twitter, Arlen Parsa makes this argument well.) On the other hand, I didn't think the kids were blameless, and I still don't. I think that smirk is exactly what it first appeared to be.

What we know now is that the kids were watching the Black Hebrews in the minutes before their encounter with Native drummer Nathan Phillips. The lead Hebrew preacher sees them and immediately insults them -- "A bunch of incest babies. A bunch of babies made out of incest." He expresses contempt for the MAGA slogan. An associate says, bizarrely, "If you're the best nation, get rid of that lice on your back."

The kids react by trying to make their own spectacle, alongside the Hebrews but at some distance. They seem to be doing school chants; one kid strips off several layers of clothes and stands shirtless in the cold, to his classmates' delight.

This goes on and Phillips enters. I don't know if the kids think he's associated with Hebrews, whom they're still keeping at some distance. But Phillips and another man walk right up to them, drumming and chanting. The kids' right-wing defenders think the Native drummers are the ones being hostile and aggressive.

But Phillips thinks he's bringing healing music to these kids (as one of the Black Hebrews says on their video); he's also, in a way, acting like a pop star who's decided to stage-dive into the crowd; and maybe he's imagining this as Tiananmen without the tanks. What he's not doing is taunting anyone.

The smirking kid seems to think he's the Tiananmen hero, refusing to give ground. But come on, kids -- this isn't a threat, it's a drummer. Register what you're seeing and respond accordingly. Either watch or walk away, but don't try to turn it into a confrontation. (Phillips, I think, tries to turn it into an encounter, which is not the same thing.) The man with the drum doesn't mean you any harm.

My friends and I would have watched. Maybe we'd get bored, or bewildered. Maybe we'd have been dismissive or contemptuous afterward. But it would be one more thing that happened to us because we were out in the city, where anything could happen, so why not experience it?

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