“Hot takes left behind a hot mess.” This was the assessment in this week’s “On the media” episode from NPR of the incident in Washington, D.C., involving a Native American elder (Nathan Phillips), playing a drum and chanting, and a group of high school students from Kentucky. The initial reporting of the encounter resulted from a shared video clip that showed a white young man (subsequently identified as Nick Sandmann) wearing a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat and standing very close to Phillips and smirking. The high schoolers were in D.C. for the anti-abortion March For Life, while the American Indians were part of the Indigenous People’s March. Given the apparent disrespectful and mocking attitude of Sandmann and his fellow high-schoolers, there was immediate condemnation of their behavior on Twitter and other online platforms. This was largely tied to the non-verbals being communicated by Sandmann’s dress (MAGA hat showing support for President Trump), his facial expression (expressing amusement/disdain), body language (standing too close, seemingly challenging Phillips), eye contact (direct, non-blinking, possibly threatening), and skin color (together with the political views shown through the hat, signaling a sense of superiority over a member of a minority group). The incident carried more significance due to where it took place: in front of the Lincoln Memorial, on the same steps where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. called for racial harmony in the U.S. with his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
The reaction to the video went viral and led to many immediate actions, such as an apology from the students’ Kentucky high school and calls for the students involved to be named and shamed. However, since then, other videos and narratives have emerged that give more context and nuance to the confrontation. Most people assumed that the high schoolers had taken the initiative to approach the Native Americans. But, as Phillips explained, it was he who approached the high school group, because he feared a confrontation between them and a third group present, the Black Hebrew Israelites, who had been taunting the students earlier as “dirty cracks”, “incest babies,” and “pale-faced terrorists”. As discussed in the “On the media” broadcast, this changes the dynamics and interpretation of the interaction. It shows the problematic nature of our instant news and social media world, in which it has become commonplace to see immediate and strong reactions to events that have reported from a single perspective or without full context. That includes exposing identities of purported shooters or other individuals identified as being involved in crimes. Often such information is reported without the necessary words of caution or tentativeness, with the individuals reporting the information as absolutely factual. In too many cases, that certainty turns out to be misplaced.