Leonard Pitts Jr

The story might not be as it originally seemed, but that teen’s smirk sure is

KC Noland/YouTube

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. We’ll have to make do with 600 or so.

The picture in question — the video, actually — electrified social media over the weekend. In it, a white high school boy wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap, confronts an older Native American man who is beating a ceremonial drum and singing a Native song. The encounter took place Friday on the National Mall. The man was there as part of the Indigenous Peoples March. The boy was with a group from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky that was participating in the “March For Life” anti-abortion rally.

The man sings. The boy smirks. Some of his classmates mock the Native man. Someone yells, “Build the wall!” And there was, for many of us, something starkly symbolic in all of it, something that spoke of American fracture.

Yes, the story grew more complicated as details emerged over the weekend. It turns out the students had been drawn to the spot by a small group of black protesters — so-called “Black Hebrew Israelites” — using their First Amendment rights to curse and insult essentially everyone who was not them, including Catholics, whites, Native Americans and, at one point, a black person who disdained their toxic beliefs.

The students began what they described as a school spirit chant to drown out the black men. Tensions were high. And into this cauldron of ideology and identity stepped Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old elder of the Omaha people and a Vietnam veteran. His aim in walking through the crowd, he said, was to settle things down. As he told The New York Times, “I stepped in between to pray.”

The crowd, he said, parted to let him through. All except for the boy, since identified as Nick Sandmann, a junior. Phillips said the boy blocked him when he moved left. When he moved right, Sandmann did the same.

In a written statement, the boy denied blocking Phillips. “To be honest,” he wrote, “I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me.” But the boy in that video, smirking, trying not to laugh, is not startled or confused. He looks, rather, entitled and smug.

Indeed, what gave the image its initial, visceral power was the sense that his expression was one we have seen before. It was on the face of an SS man as he cut off a rabbi’s beard on a Warsaw street, on the face of an Alabama state trooper waiting at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Heck, it was on the face of a hulking high school boy as he prepared to dunk a smaller kid’s head into the toilet. It was the eternal expression of the bully at the head of a mob.

Now here it was on this boy, using his First Amendment right to wear a hat many of us consider the functional equivalent of a pointy white hood, as he faced down a child of the people who named the Mississippi River and left the first footprints in the virgin soil of the Blue Ridge Mountains. All while someone yelled about building a wall. And if the story has grown more complicated, what hasn’t changed is the sense that those images capture a nation at the breaking point.

As it happens, this story unfolded over the weekend we set aside to honor Martin Luther King, the confrontation itself occurring near the spot where he said, “I have a dream.” That, of course, was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a monument to the president who led this country through a war in which 2 percent of the population — the modern equivalent would be over 6.6 million people — died fighting over the meaning of freedom.

And Nathan Phillips’ prayer? It was for unity, he said.

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