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Opinion Nothing justifies what the Covington students did

Omaha elder Nathan Phillips and high school student Nick Sandmann give their versions of viral moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

There were a few lessons I only needed to learn once when I lived in New York City from 1990 to 2007. Never have the bagel-cart guy put sugar in your coffee (it’ll be too sweet). Never hail-a-cab-while-black on an Uptown avenue (they usually don’t stop). And never, ever, walk by the Black Israelites, especially with your white boyfriend (you’re just asking for trouble).

That last lesson came to mind as I watched the one hour and 46 minute video posted by one of the members of the Hebrew Israelites here in Washington. It shows the before, during and after of the now-infamous encounter at the Lincoln Memorial between Omaha Nation elder Nathan Phillips and teenager Nick Sandmann of Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School. Sandmann was in town for the annual March for Life. Phillips was in town for the Indigenous Peoples March. Both took place on Jan. 18.

As has been my experience, the Black Hebrew Israelites hurled racism, homophobia and worse at anyone and everyone who crossed their path. Before the Covington kids came on the scene, an African American man was threatened and called an Uncle Tom several times. When the students came on the scene, they were called everything but a child of God.

Viral standoff between a tribal elder and a high schooler is more complicated than it first seemed

The seeming lack of judgment by their chaperones was curious. If the ranting and raving Black Hebrew Israelites are the kind of folks who necessitate my crossing the street or altering my path before I make it into their line of sight, why would the Covington kids and their minders think it’s okay to engage crazy, hateful people raising hell in a national park? They should have ignored the Black Hebrew Israelites the way most everyone else does when they are at their usual perch outside the Gallery Place Metro stop in Chinatown.

At first, the Covington students kept their distance. By the time, Phillips drummed his way into the situation they had moved much closer to the Black Hebrew Israelites. And at various points, the young men gave as good as they got. The Black Hebrew Israelites called the young boys “school shooters,” and one asked, “What, you about to go postal?” A student clad in gray sweats and a blue hooded sweatshirt tartly replied, “No, I’m going to go take a s---.”

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When the Black Hebrew Israelites declare, “I don’t see one black person in the crowd,” the boys all turn to the one with them. What made the moment even more troubling was when the Black Hebrew Israelites said “Y’all got one n----r in the crowd.” One of the boys turned around and said, “No, we’ve got two.” Later, the Israelite yelled, “That’s the only one y’all could bring to the front?” A kid in what look like black track pants and a blue sweatshirt responded, “We got one at home but he ain’t here.”

Who are the Black Israelites at the center of the viral standoff at the Lincoln Memorial?

Having been put in that position of being singled out as the “only one” in a crowd, I can only imagine how that kid who emerged felt, especially after the Black Hebrew Israelites incessantly referred to him as “n----r” in front of his classmates. But all this took place after Phillips made his way to the crowd of boys, where he would eventually come face to face with Sandmann. Even the Black Hebrew Israelites recognized Phillips was moving in to try to keep the peace. “Here comes dad,” the main voice on the recording says as Phillips and others with him move in between the Black Hebrew Israelites and the Covington Catholic high schoolers.

A video made by the Indigenous Peoples March shows the pivotal moment, and you catch your first glimpse of Sandmann at about nine seconds into the 224 seconds of footage. At 46 seconds, Phillips moves toward an unmoving and smiling Sandmann. At about 2:23, a male voice can be heard asking, “What’s going on?” To which a woman can be heard responding, “You guys are acting like a mob. That’s what’s going on.” Adding with sarcasm, as the camera pans to her, “It’s awesome. You guys are what, 16? How old are you?”

Many on the right are using the equal opportunity bigotry of the Black Hebrew Israelites as a way to excuse the disrespectful and obnoxious behavior of the Covington boys. Others, such as Kyle Smith of the National Review, wag their fingers at the teens. But Smith added something else in reaction to the backlash received by Sandmann and his classmates that irked me to no end. “Until about ten minutes ago, it was broadly agreed in our culture that kids are allowed to do some dumb things because they’re kids,” Smith wrote. “Should these kids’ lives be ruined because some of them responded to obnoxious provocation by being a bit rude themselves?”

Let’s be clear: This assessment only applies to white kids.

As Stacey Patton wrote so eloquently in a 2014 op-ed in The Post, “In America, black children don’t get to be children.” If Smith were right, Jordan Davis, 17, wouldn’t have been killed in 2012 for playing loud music in Florida. Tamir Rice, 12, wouldn’t have been killed in 2014 for playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park. A bikini-clad Dejerria Becton, 15, wouldn’t have been manhandled by a Texas police officer at a pool party in 2015. And those are only the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

In America, black children don’t get to be children

“To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me. We had already been yelled at by another group of protesters, and when the second group approached I was worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers,” Sandmann wrote in a statement that defies the video evidence. “I never felt like I was blocking the Native American protester. He did not make any attempt to go around me. It was clear to me that he had singled me out for a confrontation, although I am not sure why.”

“Respect your elders” was a constant refrain from my mother and other relatives when I was growing up. And it was reinforced during my own years in Catholic schools. It didn’t matter whether you knew them or not, whether you were related to them or not. A child and an adult are never on an equal playing field. And yet, for me and many others, Sandmann’s actions and those of his classmates were those of disrespectful children toward an adult. No amount of rude, homophobic, racist, anti-Catholic invective from loons like the Black Hebrew Israelites justifies what they did.

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Read more:

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Why Trump is overjoyed at the Covington student controversy

The Covington students failed to act like grownups. So did the adults.