The 1990s sitcom Seinfeld was bemusedly said to be about “nothing.” Having watched over two hours of videos from Friday’s events at the Lincoln Monument, they also seem to have been largely about nothing. But social media projections and hype have made them about everything.
There was no social media when I witnessed my first DC demonstration at age six when my mother took me to the massive May Day 1971 anti-war mobilization that tried to shutdown the federal government. Across decades I’ve seen lots of protests. Iranian students were tear gassed outside the White House protesting the Shah. Labor unions and anti-nuke activists marched against the Reagan administration. Hundreds of farmers protesting foreclosures parked their tractors on the Mall for weeks, creating great damage. The KKK, all two dozen or so, tried to march down Pennsylvania Avenue but was confronted by thousands of counter protesters. So the Park Service instead put them on a Metro bus. Frustrated opponents rioted in response, smashing windows.
Protesters have been outside the White House for as long as I can recall. One troubled woman, recently deceased, parked herself there for 30 years with signage claiming the government had radiated her. The last time I gave money to a beggar, about 30 years ago, he ran across Lafayette Park to encamped marijuana rights protesters and bought a cigarette with my dollar.
When I worked at CIA as a young man, Amy Carter led protests there against USA policies in Central America. One woman waved a sign at me alleging my colleagues and I were murdering children. As a boy I marched to the White House and elsewhere to protest construction of highway I-66 near our home. One fellow marcher unselfconsciously led a chant of “I SICK SICK!!” Another marcher began shouting at the White House as though Jimmy Carter were listening.
The last time I joined a full march was over 25 years ago to oppose Disney’s planned history theme park in Northern Virginia. As we approached the White House a passing driver shouted: “Get a life!” It’s good advice for many chronic protesters. Marches can be noble and sometimes achieve historic results. Protests propelled the Civil Rights Movement in America and helped collapse communism in Eastern Europe. The annual March for Life is laudable, though I confess the cold weather usually prevents my full participation. I’m grateful for heartier souls. Even for good causes I’ve noticed demonstrations can attract zealots and odd people.
Almost every demonstration offers its own drama and street theater. Events at the Lincoln Monument on Friday after the March for Life were in this way unexceptional. Catholic schools boys were awaiting their bus home and were jeered by several loud Black Hebrews, a crazy sect believing itself a lost tribe of Israel and obsessed with opposing sodomy. They’ve performed in DC’s streets for many years.
Meanwhile, native activists who claim America is a corrupt and genocidal colonialist project were concluding their own small protest in front of the Lincoln Monument. Among them was Mark Charles, a speaker sadly popular in evangelical circles. With the great man’s statue behind him, he denounced Abraham Lincoln for genocide. Contrast this shoddy claim with Martin Luther King’s majestic embrace of Lincoln’s legacy while orating at the same spot.
Such majesty was not present there on Friday. Nathan Phillips, an apparently professional activist for native causes, for several minutes interposed himself between the Black Hebrews and the Catholic school boys, beating his drum as he approached the boys. Initial videos implied the school boys had surrounded him. Later, longer videos showed he initiated the encounter, with fellow native activists, one of whom told the boys they should return to Europe. (They’re from Kentucky.)
This encounter between Phillips and the boys was only minutes but has ignited an ongoing social media frenzy. Many initial critics of the boys have retracted their critique. But others still doggedly insist the boys were racist for supposedly disrespecting the native drummer. These critics have not explained what the correct protocol is when approached by a protesting stranger beating a drum, but apparently great reverence is expected.
Phillips later claimed he was protecting the supposedly threatened Black Hebrews, who for over an hour had been jeering the Catholic school boys as “dusty assed crackers” and “child molesting faggots.” The insults were so absurd and delivered with such aplomb that the boys reacted with smiles, laughter and school chants. As I watched the exchange on the lengthy video posted online by the Black Hebrews themselves I often laughed aloud, especially when they warned the boys: “Christ is coming back to kick your red cracker asses.”
The Black Hebrews were also unsparing with the native activists, whom they prophetically warned: “You’re not supposed to worship eagles, buffalos, rams, that’s why the Lord took away your land.” When some native women protested, the Black Hebrews responded: “There are always women thinking they can distract things with their loud assed mouth. They’re not used to dealing with real men.”
Contra Phillips’ claim that he was interceding to protect them from the teenagers, the Black Hebrews later in their video told the police when asked about problems: “We’re good. It was okay dialogue. Sometimes stuff gets like that. We didn’t feel threatened.”
By that point the Catholic school boys had been herded back to their bus for the ride home, no doubt unprepared for the media storm crashing against them. They would be defamed as KKK-style racists who had surrounded, mocked and threatened a solemn native elder. These indignant critics would claim a few minutes in front of the Lincoln Monument had encapsulated the ugly face of racist, fascist America.
Such critics ignored the racial views of the Black Hebrews, who believe all white people are cursed “Edomites.” And they ignored the racial views of Phillips’ native demonstrators, who think ideally all Europeans, Africans and Asians should leave America so that pure native people are liberated from colonization.
Of course neither the Black Hebrews nor the native zealots are more than tiny grievance groups. And they’re entitled to demonstrate and tout their craziness no less than anybody else. Washington demonstrations have always attracted crackpots. Their encounters with the Catholic school boys were unexceptional except that social media created mythical narratives onto which the politically aggrieved projected their angry polarities, chiefly demonizing the school boys.
Hopefully the boys and their school will emerge from their defamation with increased fortitude. And hopefully they and other young people are not deterred from future Marches for Life, now knowing they are culture war targets.
What should have been merely uneventful faux protest theater at the Lincoln Monument, as I have witnessed in DC all my life, was instead twisted into a national psycho political drama. That it occurred at the feet of Lincoln, a martyr of democracy and human equality, is ironic but maybe appropriate. He would have understood the power of twisted narratives and defamation, while still maintaining his confidence in American ideals. So should we all.