“Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life.” – New York Times, August 24, 2014
“Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be. They have captivated the attention of the world, and I know they will use it for the good – maybe even to bring people together. It started off unpleasant, but can end in a dream!” – President Donald Trump, January 22nd, 2019
During the Indigenous People’s March over the weekend, a group of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky went viral for antagonizing an elderly Native American man named Nathan Phillips. The teens, most of them wearing MAGA hats, were shown gathering around Phillips like a mob, mocking his chants and yelling at him.
The clip spread across the internet has prompted a dispute about the origin of the confrontation – including videos of the students being yelled at by a group of Black Israelites – largely in defense of the kids’ actions. However, for every piece of evidence available to make the kids look like innocent bystanders, there’s a video to make them look exactly like the people we thought they were. Like the video of one alleged student yelling while smirking, “it’s not rape if you like it,” or others catcalling and harassing two women walking down the street.
Back-and-forth arguing over the exact catalyst for the boys’ berating a man peacefully playing music presupposes that there needs to be anything beyond them wearing a symbol of hate – and let’s be very clear, a MAGA hat and all of the Trumpism that it encapsulates is a symbol of hate – for us to find a problem with what they were doing.
Before even antagonizing the elder, the boys decided to put on hats that symbolize locking children in cages, calling Mexicans rapists and thieves, calling African nations “shithole countries” and siding with racist murders in Charlottesville. These boys are no angels.
Since the video footage has gone viral, the boys have been criticized for their actions but also have gotten an overwhelming amount of support. In the last 24 hours, Sandmann has had the benefit of a statement being released by a PR Firm, a tweet of endorsement from the president of the United States, an invite to the White House and an interview for a major morning news TV show. The media has repeatedly referred to him and his classmates as children.
In stark contrast, five years ago, Mike Brown was gunned down by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting, of course, became a major international story and one of the telling issues to come out of it was how so many were quick to justify Brown’s death due to a perceived checkered past (The same thing, if you recall, happened to his fellow teenager Trayvon Martin when images trying to portray him as a gang member circulated). Security cameras showed Brown in some sort of altercation with a convenience store owner, with early stories claiming that he was robbing the store for cigarillos — a story that has since been widely disputed. Either way, the New York Times opted to frame Brown as someone who wasn’t an “angel” a mere three weeks after his death. Police reports described Brown as a hulking figure with superhuman strength that scared officer Darren Wilson.
Mike Brown was 18 years old, merely days removed from high school graduation. Nick Sandmann is a junior in high school, no more than a couple of years younger than Mike Brown when he was killed. Yet the way they are treated is markedly different. The calls for mercy and forgiveness for Sandmann and his peers have been widespread from both sides of the political aisle. Boys will be boys, I guess. But Mike Brown didn’t get that chance. He didn’t get to be a boy. Trayvon Martin was 17 when George Zimmerman gunned him down. Zimmerman, a grown man, then convinced the world that the boy could overpower him and leave him fearful for his life. Tamir Rice was 12 when he was shot by police who said they did not realize he was just a boy. And so on and so on.
Black kids don’t get to make the “mistakes” that everyone is asking us to forgive the Covington High kids for making. There are no learning experiences for black kids. No chances to right wrongs or change their beliefs or behaviors. White kids can harass people who look different and get invited to the White House. Black kids make mistakes and get sent to the morgue.
The Covington boys will be forgiven. Their lives will go on. They’ll become senators, Supreme Court judges, presidents, business owners and employers. They’ll inherit wealth. They’ll get second and third chances. Some will change. Some won’t. And it won’t matter. Because the world is run by kids just like them, who grow up to be men who kill Black boys and excuse men who kill Black boys for simply walking down the street.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.