In 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. In 2019, a racialized confrontation between three groups unfolded at these same steps — showing that MLK’s dream, under the reign of Trump’s presidency has transpired into a nightmare.
Nathan Phillips, a native American elder, member of the Omaha Nation, and Vietnam veteran, was visiting Washington, D.C., to attend the Indigenous Peoples March; a march that coincided with the March for Life protest against abortion rights on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
A video that shows Phillips having a stand-off with a young white male teen, Nick Sandmann donning a red “Make America Great Again” hat went viral on Saturday. The video depicts Phillips chanting and beating his ceremonial drum inches away from Sandmann and a group of young white male teenagers also wearing MAGA apparel.
Footage of the incident quickly went viral and sparked outrage among viewers. The all-boys Kentucky Catholic high school that the teenagers attend is now facing backlash as a result of the video. The school insists they are currently considering different means of punishment, and are considering expelling the students for their behavior.
A longer video released on Sunday, however, provides more context on the moments proceeding the stand-off between Phillips and Sandmann.
The incident began when a group identifying themselves as the Black Hebrew Israelites began to shout disparaging comments towards Native American demonstrators that was later followed by anti-Trump remarks towards Sandmann and his MAGA-hat-wearing peers.
As tensions built and appeared to escalate, Phillips and other Indigenous people stepped in between the two groups in an attempt to defuse the situation.
Yet as the Omaha elder sung the American Indian Movement (AIM) song, beating his drum, the teenagers around him chanted and mocked the sounds and hums of the Indigenous’s elders performance of the song of resistance.
Sandmann’s smugness and patronizing attitude towards Phillips drew a lot of attention and produced an impassioned response online.
Like most things that go viral, the footage produced discursive divisions. Some wrote in defense of the young teen’s actions, proclaiming “boys will be boys,” while others denounced the behavior as racist and a symptom of derogatory behavior exercised by the President of the United States.
While the incident was prompted by a confrontation between the Black Israelits it does not excuse the actions of the teens and their Jim-Crow era mob-like behavior. The video of the MAGA kids harassing and jeering at an indigenous elder and veteran exposes that when violent, racist and bigoted rhetoric is enacted from the highest position it incites violence and bigotry.
Trump recently mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren, for her Instagram live Q&A where she spoke on the Wounded Knee Massacre — one of the deadliest attacks of Indigenous people by the United States military.
Additionally, the President has repeatedly called the Massachusetts senator “Pocahontas,” due to her Native American heritage.
If Elizabeth Warren, often referred to by me as Pocahontas, did this commercial from Bighorn or Wounded Knee instead of her kitchen, with her husband dressed in full Indian garb, it would have been a smash! pic.twitter.com/D5KWr8EPan
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2019
Reflecting on the incident, in an interview with CNN, Phillips asserted that he has,
“Fear for those youth, fear for their future, fear for their souls, their spirit, what they’re going to do to this country.”
A video after the incident show Phillips wiping away tears as he expresses,
“This is Indigenous land you know, we’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did for millenniums — before anybody else came here we never had walls. I wish I could see that energy in that young mass of young men down there. To put that energy into making this country really, really great — helping those that are hungry.”
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The footage of the stand-off between Sandmann and Phillips ultimately exposes that Native Americans continue to be overlooked as a people and community. Their humanity has been denied for centuries and the population has endured violence, the mass dispossession of land, the generational trauma of having lost ancestors, and the passing down of crucial knowledge and cultural identity.
Americans continue to celebrate Thanksgiving and Columbus day holidays that whitewash the mass killing of millions of Native Americans and the violent project of imperialism.
Indeed, the legacies of imperialism continue to plague the community today — with Native Americans lacking access to health care, encountering voter suppression, having their land stripped for corporate use, the human trafficking of indigenous women and much more.
While Trump’s wall is a severely misguided attempt to ensure ‘border security’ we must not forget whose land this really belongs to.