Despite rush to judgment, students at protest bear some responsibility

Despite the media’s initial rush to judgment and willingness to make a particular group represent all white people, black people and Native Americans, leading to an overly simplistic interpretation of what actually happened, I am still unsettled by the actions of the Catholic high school students.

Regardless of whether or not they were antagonized by the incendiary insults from the Black Hebrew Israelites, when approached by the Native American marchers, video footage clearly shows them doing the tomahawk chop, dancing inappropriately, and generally mocking them. One student from Owensboro Catholic High School could be heard saying, “Just because you stole the land don’t make it yours. … Y’all stole it from the aboriginals. … It’s been stolen throughout all of history. … Land gets stolen. … It’s how it works. … It’s the way of the world.” According to the Washington Post, “Jessica Travis, a Florida attorney who was at the memorial with her mother, said the students looked out of control. ‘The kids really went into a mob mentality,’ she said, adding that she didn’t see any chaperones trying to control the situation.” Many of the students were shouting, “Build the wall.”

Omaha Nation elder Nathan Phillips, the man who engaged the students with his drum prayer (a scene that went viral) said, “This is the commitment when I picked up the pipe 27 years ago. It’s for the next generation. It’s when that moment comes and you got to stand your ground. That commitment that you made to either fulfill that or you don’t. I mean, I was scared, and I didn’t want to. I really, I really didn’t want to, but nobody else was.” In a report by Rolling Stone, Phillips added, “We’re indigenous. We’re different than that. When we see our youth going the wrong way, we will go up and say, ‘You are doing the wrong thing there, nephew, or grandson. This is just the wrong way.’ I tell them, ‘This is the way you have to behave. This is wrong; this is right.'”

Furthermore, regardless of whether they were harassed by another group that day, the simple fact remains that they were donning MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) hats, which I find deeply troublesome. Maybe the president does not see an issue with that slogan, but I do. When was America great? Was it when only white males could own land and vote? Was it when a black person could be lynched without due process? Was it when women were allowed to be sexually harassed in the workplace? Was it before homosexuals and people with non-binary gender identities ran for political office? Was it before transgender soldiers were allowed to serve their country with honor? Was it when slavery was one of the most powerful economic institutions in the nation? When was America great? Was it before a black man could be president? Was it when Native Americans lacked cohesive power as a national and international movement? What does that MAGA hat mean if not discrimination and hatred of progress? In my opinion, the MAGA hat is an overt symbol of militarism, racism and xenophobia. There is no way to justify it or turn it into a benign message of patriotism and economic prosperity. If for no other reason, those students should be held responsible that day for inciting violence by wearing them.

In the timeless words of Lincoln himself, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”

George Cassidy Payne lives in Rochester.