Encounter between Native American marchers, Ky. high school students

Published 8:13 am Thursday, January 24, 2019

It’s worth thinking about the rush to harshly condemn a Kentucky high school student on the basis of some cellphone images and his red MAGA hat.

The episode, which has produced threats of violence, is both a sign — and a cause — of our country’s powder keg of political division.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, which exists to protect the Bill of Rights, quickly tweeted out its disapproval. The ACLU assumed the students from Covington Catholic High School had committed “racial intimidation.” Yet, as the ACLU well knows, displaying political slogans (including those of our noxious president) and “taunting” are forms of expression protected by the First Amendment (if, indeed, taunting occurred).

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The teen who came in for the most vilification was savaged for smiling — quickly labeled a “smirk” — at a Native American activist who was drumming and singing.

Our goal here is not to assign blame but to suggest that perhaps no one who joined the cacophony of voices at the Lincoln Memorial on Friday had malign motives. Maybe none of them deserve the virtual tar and feathers.

We’re all for holding the powerful accountable, especially the cowering politicians riding the coattails of President Donald Trump’s demagoguery and race-baiting. But can’t we stand up for what we believe without tearing each other apart? Surely, we can grant kids (even kids wearing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hats) some slack.

The snap judgments were based on a provocative image. But as more video became public and news reporters had time to work, a fuller picture emerged that made the harsh condemnations look premature, simplistic and a massage for preexisting beliefs and biases.

The Native American activist, Nathan Phillips, 64, … said that he walked into the crowd of students, while earlier accounts on social media suggested the students, waiting for a bus to take them home, had mobbed Phillips.

Somehow social media strips any benefit of the doubt. People shared vile conclusions, even before hearing the students’ accounts. Compassionate people who in person would probably engage a young Trump supporter in a spirited respectful conversation were happy on social media to throw the kids like chum to sharks, inflaming the kind of people who threaten schools.

The Diocese of Covington, which sent teenage boys to march against the rights of adult women as part of an annual anti-abortion rally, quickly condemned its own students — including for making the anti-abortion march look bad.

That all this unfolded on the long weekend when we celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. should remind us that King, a warrior for human rights, also extended the hand of peace to his enemies. …

The Lexington Herald-Leader