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The Covington debacle: No adults in the room

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

The Covington debacle: No adults in the room

Stephen H. Provost

We see what we want to see, and we believe what we want to believe ... even when someone else offers a different perspective. It’s truer now than ever, and nothing illustrates it better than the reaction to dueling videos of a confrontation involving students from Covington Catholic High School, black activists and a Native American drummer at the Lincoln Memorial.

Images in the initial video show a student wearing a MAGA hat smiling what looked like a smug, self-satisfied smile at a Native American veteran drumming less than an arm’s length in front of him. Other students are seen jumping up and down, chanting in the background. A second video, however, shows another group (unseen in the first video): four black activists angrily shouting nasty, degrading slurs at the students.

Those who had expressed outrage at the students after seeing the first video tended to react in one of two ways upon seeing the second. They either held fast to their initial criticism of the students, or they issued mea culpas for jumping to what they now said had been the wrong conclusion.

It’s these two divergent reactions that illustrate, even more than the incident itself, how polarized we are as a society. And how entrenched we’ve become in our reliance upon dogmatic, black-and-white thinking. The facts be damned: Our side is always right. That’s why the current president’s poll numbers barely move. They’re not based on his actions or any reasoned judgment about those actions. They’re based on tribal identity and an us-versus-them bunker mentality.

Hats vs. slurs

Regarding the incident at the Lincoln Memorial, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Let’s start with the students. The MAGA hat has become a symbol that invites confrontation. To many people, it represents everything from xenophobia to racism, sexism to fascism. Wearing a hat like that doesn’t invite discussion, it shuts it down. It’s an in-your-face declaration of allegiance that encourages one of two responses: fight or flight.

Critics of the students said they heard them chanting things like “Build that wall!” in reference to Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the southern border. The students deny that, saying instead that they were shouting a school chant.

It doesn’t matter.

A wall chant wouldn’t have been surprising, but it wasn’t necessary, either: It was already plain as day how the students felt about Trump and his policies, thanks to their hats. It wasn’t the contents of the chant that mattered, but the fact that the students started chanting in the first place. Chants are, by their very nature, confrontational and intimidating.

The students said they received permission from their adult chaperones before starting the chant. The adults should never have given that approval. In so doing, they heightened tensions further and created even more room for misunderstanding. Chants, like lectures and shouted protests, are one-sided discussions that leave those on the receiving end feeling bullied, powerless and angry. They don’t defuse tensions, they heighten them.

But the adults’ culpability in the D.C. incident goes beyond this. Not only did they put the students in a situation where confrontation was likely to occur, they allowed – or perhaps even encouraged – them to wear provocative MAGA hats, all but guaranteeing that such a confrontation would take place.

The adults may very well have wanted just such a confrontation. They had come to protest, and they were itching for a fight. But is it ever OK to use teenagers as proxies to make a political statement? I don’t care whether you’re protesting against abortion, global warming, substandard wages or immigration. Putting kids on the front lines in a physical conflict is a war crime, so it stands to reason that you shouldn’t do it in a shouting conflict, either – especially when there’s nowhere to run. (The students, by their own account, had to stay where they were because they were waiting for a bus to pick them up.)

The results in any situation like this are predictable: The kids are attacked – which is exactly what happened here. The cowardly adults, meanwhile, benefit in more ways than one. They can hide behind their kids, using them as psychological human shields, while they pretend to be the grown-ups instead of manipulative instigators. Second, they can reinforce the dogma they’re trying to teach the next generation. Because, you know what? When people are attacked, they get defensive, and they tend to harden their stances against a perceived aggressor. The chaperones didn’t have to reinforce the kids’ prejudices; they allowed the situation to do it for them.

Staredown at a weigh-in

The four black protesters played right into all this, shouting homophobic slurs and calling the students everything from “crackers” to “a bunch of incest babies.” Regardless of the actions of the kids or their chaperones, this kind of language is abhorrent. Full stop. If you’re an adult, you don’t get to attack kids like this, even if they’re wearing MAGA hats, any more than a man calls a woman the “B” or the “C” word. It’s vile and disgusting, regardless of your race, religion, gender or anything else. If they’re breaking the law, have them arrested. Otherwise, leave them the hell alone.

The Native American drummer, meanwhile, stated that he tried to insinuate himself between the two groups, yet he faced the students throughout, not the four protesters. Even more to the point, he did so while banging a drum and chanting as he stared directly into the lead student’s eyes. There’s no reason to doubt that he was, in fact, trying to defuse the situation, but his actions had the opposite effect. Intentionally or not, he escalated the tensions by using the body language of challenge and confrontation (a staredown), and upped the ante by chanting and drumming.

The other students, in response, seem to have at least partially surrounded him, and the lead student’s smirking response sent a message (again, intentionally or not) that he wasn’t about to back down. He held his ground, as if daring the drummer to start something. Regardless of how he might have tried to justify his actions later, his body language said, “Bring it on!” The two looked like a couple of boxers at a weigh-in before a title fight.

The biggest irony in all this is that it took place on a weekend honoring Martin Luther King Jr., whose philosophy was the antithesis of everything that occurred. Can you imagine King yelling the kind of things the black protesters were shouting at the students? Or trying to provoke a confrontation by engaging in a staredown? King was all about nonviolent protests and passive resistance. Not a single party involved in the D.C. incident could be described as passive, and violence was very nearly the result.

Yes, the kids behaved badly. But that’s why you need adults in the room. Unfortunately, in this case, there didn’t seem to be any.