I Was Wrong About The Covington Catholic School Boy Story, And You Probably Are Too.
I’m a liberal Democrat. Let’s just get that out of the way right now.
Like a lot of people, I saw the Covington Catholic school video that went viral this past weekend all over the internet. And, like a lot of people, I posted about it on Facebook. It was something more or less consistent with what a liberal Democrat would post. It went a little something like this:
After posting this, a lot of my friends approached me, insisting that there was context that would change my opinion of the video. Normally I’d be skeptical of this, but many people I trust insisted on this and they were ready with links to an unedited video.
They were absolutely right. So I’m here to eat some humble pie and provide what I hope might be some context for this particular piece of viral outrage. I hope this is of value to people who are more interested in learning the truth of things than reinforcing their existing ideological narratives.
I watched about 50 minutes of the entire Facebook live video, to try to make sure I had a deep contextual bookend on either side of the incident. I’m going to try to separate my impressions into two categories: my direct, unbiased (as much as possible) impressions of the video, colored only with factual research from the internet on confusing elements. After that I’ll put my subjective interpretation of the video. I figure this way I can talk about the video as factually as possible first, and those who are not interested in my more subjective impressions won’t have to read them and can bail after getting the factual stuff. This is the video I watched and will reference, and timecodes are from this video. https://youtu.be/t3EC1_gcr34
This encounter is typical for the sort of encounter that occurs when multiple protests are going on at the same time. That is to say: messy. Really messy. Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan, the man who originally posted this video, is a member of the Black Hebrews, a group of black Americans that believes they are descended from Israelites. It seems like their purpose is simply to loudly proselytize at either the March for Life or the Indigenous People’s March, or both. In the video they visibly wear Jewish paraphernalia like prayer shawls, and their signs are a mish-mash of Christian, Jewish, and tribal imagery.
Banyamyan is not an impartial observer in this video. He either agrees with or shouts slogans many would find offensive. For example, when one of the Black Hebrews shouts “look at what America produces . . . a bunch of child-molesting f — — ts,” Banyaman can be heard to enthusiastically agree. This turns out to be one of the less offensive parts of a longer homophobic tirade. (47:00).
Banyamyan’s neighbor begins a tirade directly calling out blacks and Hispanics who have joined the Catholic Church, claiming that they have no right to call themselves black or Hispanic (47:40). As he does this, a black man who has been trying to engage him becomes agitated and takes offense (47:54). Banyamyan accuses him of being an “Uncle Tom” (48:00) Tensions begin rising rapidly between the Black Hebrews and black people in the crowd. It’s difficult to identify which protest the black people in the crowd are affiliated with, or if they’re random passers-by. Either way, it’s easy to see why they’d be agitated.
(49:13) Tensions escalate further when Banyamyan himself starts directly and inflammatorily associating the black people in the crowd with the obvious Trump supporters behind them. Definitely not interested in repeating his exact words here, but they’re direct and laced with racial epithets.
(50:34) Banyamyan’s buddy continues baiting and shouting, but the people arguing with him and the Trump supporters leave. Applause can be heard, but it’s difficult to tell if it’s connected or not. He continues shouting in a more generalized way.
(54:34) Banyamyan’s buddy chastises people who believe in a white Jesus, pointing to a caricaturized picture of Christ, calling Jesus a “f — — t child-molester.”
(55:10) A woman off camera starts asking questions about the imagery on the Black Hebrews’ signage, which includes “a dream of a white man on a horse, with an indian man on one side, and a black man on the other side.” When he brushes her off, she says that someone should tell Banyamyan’s buddy to “tell these Indian people that,” apparently referring to the indigenous marchers.
(57:05) Banyamyan directly threatens a man with a camera with violence if he “gets too close,” and he and his buddy both shout racial epithets at him as he backs away.
(58:11) Banyamyan retrieves a staff, audibly promising to use it as a club if the guy with the camera gets too close again.
(59:20) Banyamyan points out a crowd gathering again.
(1:00:23) Banyamyan calls the crowd “a bunch of Make America Great Again crackers.” It’s hard to tell from the video if that’s what the crowd consists of, but one can assume from context that they are marchers from the March for Life and not affiliated with the Indigenous People’s March.
(1:04:15) An incoherent protester appears, wearing faux-tribal clothing and a banner on his back that reads “water.” It’s unclear who he’s affiliated with. Maybe Standing Rock? He appears to be white and is shouted down by Banyamyan’s buddy for dressing as a native.
(1:05:36) Banyamyan explicitly threatens violence again, saying “as soon as he makes a mistake I’m gonna tear his ass up,” repeating this sentiment several times. It’s hard to tell who he’s referring to, if it’s the photographer or another guy who has been zipping around on a hoverboard. At 1:06:49 we get a good look at the staff Banyamyan is brandishing. At this point his buddies start asking if Washington DC is a “stand your ground” state (mistakenly calling it a “stand your state ground”). Banyamyan insists that “no, it’s a keep your personal space ground” [sic].
(1:07:00-ish) Banyamyan’s buddy taunts the white crowd standing what looks to be about 40 feet off, calling them “incest babies.” At 1:08:40 Banyamyan taunts “if this is the best nation, why can’t you get rid of your lice season? Get rid of the damn lice on your back!” At this point the crowd starts booing and taunting back.
(1:09:45) The crowd starts getting more aggressive and one guy comes down, stripping off his coat. He is wearing a red hat and appears to be spoiling for a fight. The crowd cheers as he does this. Another guy comes down and strips off his shirt. He jumps in the air and the crowd roars. At this point he and a group of guys in red hats (a big group, at least 30 guys) start doing a chant in unison that seems to be a faux-native chant. When they finish, the energy dissipates and nothing happens.
(1:10:38) Banyamyan seems amused and asks “do y’all understand who the real cave man is now?” He then points out that “we’re surrounded and they won’t do a damn thing.”
(1:11:29) The men in the crowd start doing a football chant in unison. The energy gets aggressive again as they get closer and closer.
(1:12:00) The energy dissipates again and nothing happens.
(1:12:20) Indigenous protesters appear, the one in the lead beating a drum. It’s important to point out that these are the first indigenous protesters I recall seeing in this entire video. They are accompanied by a MAGA protester with a video camera, who aggressively paces them and immediately gets in Banyamyan’s face.
At this point, the entire scene is incoherent. The men in the crowd are still doing their football chant. It starts blending with the drum beat of the indigenous protesters. Black Hebrews are shouting. MAGA guy is shouting. The guy beating the tribal drum almost seems to be smiling, and the guys at the front of the crowd start jumping up and down to the beat. As the scene calms down, the guys at the front, clearly teenagers, just start dancing and laughing along with the tribal drum.
(1:13:26) Banyamyan yells “ya’ll better not touch him!” The tribal drummer advances a little bit into the crowd, which encircles him, still jumping and chanting. He slows down drumming a little, and the dancing calms down. As he starts back up, they start dancing more.
The scene seems clearly calmer. The aggression seems to have dissipated into mostly awkwardness. At 1:13:49 another buddy of Banyamyan says (referring to the drummer) “he calmed all them spirits down” (referring to the crowd). Banyaman laughs and seems relieved. Banyamyan’s buddy repeats the sentiment several times.
(1:14:26) Banyamyan & co. go back to accusing the crowd of “mockery” and general rabble-rousing speech. Banyamyan has moved closer at this point and you can see the MAGA hats clearly.
(1:14:45) Banyamyan & co. begin accusing the MAGA hat wearers of mocking an indigenous rally.
(1:15:20) Banyamyan’s buddy accuses the MAGA hat wearers of being a “bunch of future school shooters.” Banyamyan agrees. After repeated baiting, the boys start booing and yelling indistinct things back in protest. The atmosphere gets tense again.
(1:16:20) Banyamyan’s buddy directly asks one of the kids if he’s about to “go postal.” The kid tries to laugh it off, responding that he’s going to “go take a shit.” Banyamyan’s buddy says “go take a shit, but go shoot up a school before you do it.” The boys visibly and audibly object to this. Banyamyan’s buddy will not let up, claiming that they “all have the school shooter haircut.” This confrontation continues for several minutes.
(1:17:10) One of the boys directly asks Banyamyan’s buddy “why you gotta tell somebody to go shoot up a school, that’s really weird, bro.” The other boys pick up the thread and agree. An unidentified man walks in front of the boys, calling for them to “back it up,” which they do.
(1:17:55) The boys start loudly chanting something that’s difficult to identify. They continue chanting it and wander off as group, but more boys take their place. Banyamyan’s buddy starts racially baiting the newcomers, who tape the incident with their phones and start objecting. He repeatedly calls them “crackers” and then calls out “they got three n — — rs in the crowd!”
(1:19:42) A boy with a clearly identifiable “March for Life” shirt is visible.
(1:19:44) A much older man appears, close. Banyamyan’s tone becomes conciliatory, politely asking the crowd to step back, claiming to “respect the dialogue” but then asking the crowd to step back.
At this point we’re well beyond the indigenous encounter.
First off, this is a messy encounter for sure, but it honestly seems like a pretty tame one by protest standards. Nobody comes off particularly well, but the outstanding villains by far are Banyamyan and his friends. They’re clearly spoiling for a conflict the entire time, and spend the entire 50 minutes spewing truly horrific racial and homophobic epithets at literally anyone who will listen. I’ve covered (and participated in) many protests and these sorts of fringe actors are unfortunately quite common. They consistently pose a problem for honest protesters regardless of political stripe; disrupting their agenda, stirring up unnecessary confrontations, and generally distracting from whatever is being protested against or demonstrated about.
My overall emotion about this video? I’m absolutely appalled at the way this has been treated in the media. It’s part of standard journalistic due dilligence to watch the long form of any video presented for context, and this was clearly not done.
So what really happens here? Is it a bunch of MAGA hat-wearing troglodytes mocking a gentle tribal leader? Is it a bunch of innocent school kids who end up in a situation that’s wildly outside what their life experience has prepared them for, leaving them looking stupid but not like racists?
¿Por que no los dos?
At least some of these boys seemed to be mocking tribal leaders and customs. It’s unclear to what extent, or even how purposeful that was. But what sits in the forefront of my mind in the unpleasant 50 minutes of that stream was Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan and his fellow agitators creating a consistent tone of racially tinged (and borderline threatening) tension around them. Even from a pixelated Facebook Live video that tension was so palpable that whoever wandered through it was sucked in and involved in it. This culminated (I guess) in an odd scene of quasi-racist chanting and jumping around, which was already happening long before the tribal leaders showed up. Oddly enough, the tensions visibly calmed once the tribal drummer appeared.
Should the MAGA hat wearers have been jumping around mimicking tribal dances? Obviously not, but a lot of it almost seemed to be derived from tribal-adjacent sports chanting than anything else. They might very well have had some racist attitudes, but this seems like a murky incident to choose to illustrate this. These boys are a bunch of teenage idiots from a conservative school in a conservative state. Whatever they did in this situation, it was going to be stupid. Hell, at nearly 34 years of age with over a decade of documentary filmmaking experience, I don’t know what I would have done.
But that’s not even what truly bothers me. What truly bothers me is the fact that, as a private citizen, I was forced to watch 50 minutes of an ugly, messy, protest confrontation filled with racist and homophobic epithets at all. I have a job. I can’t take this kind of time to painstakingly dissect every single incident like this. Isn’t this the job of journalists and people covering these things to do that? Why didn’t CNN or FOX do this when they covered this encounter? Why were they so quick to jump to a side, when this is a conflict that took place at a contentious protest? This sort of conflict is not only messy and complicated, but it’s incredibly common at protests, which any journalist worth their salt knows.
Why didn’t anyone except those with an ideological axe to grind approach this situation? There are plenty of articles from the right-hand side of the political aisle, desperately proclaiming what the truth of this encounter was. It’s obvious they didn’t watch the whole video either.
This is what journalism is for. To help us understand what’s happening in the world around us. Even if it’s complicated without clear answers. Especially if it’s complicated without clear answers.
America doesn’t need any more of this type of thing. We need to expect better from journalism, across the board.
And in the meantime, I am resolving to check what I post about with much, much more vigilance.