The recent controversy about a group of white American teenage boys wearing MAGA hats who seemed to be taunting a Native American elder touched a nerve in American political life. The three minute clip, taken at the March for Life rally on Washington, appeared to epitomise the antagonism between white Trump supporters — often depicted as white supremacists — and put upon minorities.
In an era when identity politics has taken over America, it was always guaranteed to provoke a strong reaction. A recent Scientific American study found that there was an increase in people’s tendency to reject people from other group memberships in the US (a mindset called affective polarisation). The research showed once again that identity, rather than issues, is at the heart of the partisan divide – opponents are not just wrong, they are the wrong kind of people.
The scenes caught on camera appeared to be undeniable proof of these Trump supporters’ racist behaviour. Cue the widespread condemnation of Nick Sandmann, the boy at the centre of the video, who seemed to taunt Native American Nathan Phillips by blocking his way and staring at him provocatively.
But the truth may have been more complicated. Longer and more detailed videos of the incident showed that the stand-off between Sandmann and Phillips had taken place within a complex wider picture.
Indeed, Phillips himself later explained that he was trying to diffuse a tense situation between the high school boys and another group nearby, later identified as the Black Hebrew Israelites – an African American religious group whose members believe they are the descendants of the ancient Israelites. As more information came to light, other videos emerged showing the Black Hebrew Israelites taunting the students, who responded by chanting and shouting.
Sandmann’s smirking at Philips and the boys chanting in the background show a lack of respect, but the extent of the reaction to their behaviour was out of all proportion, with some of the teenagers even facing death threats. What was quite possibly no more than adolescent ignorance was turned into a manifestation of hate, racism and bigotry. If nothing else, the clip shows just how politically powerful images can be, and how much impact they can have on society
There are many historical examples of how influential photography has induced a widespread reaction, becoming a driving force for justice. The iconic, world-renowned Napalm Girl photograph taken by Vietnamese photojournalist Nick Ut in June 1972 is said to be one of the 100 most influential photographs of all time. The public outrage that stemmed from seeing the picture of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked and screaming towards the photographer after being hit by napalm fuelled anti-war sentiment and American disillusionment with their government, contributing to the end of US involvement in Vietnam (the war ended two years after the photo was taken).
When president Nixon mused “I’m wondering if that was fixed”, he questioned the authenticity of the photograph, showing his realisation of just how much impact the photo could have on the American public. Although anti-war rhetoric had been mounting since the start of the war, Ut’s photograph crystallises the sheer brutality of the conflict better than any speech or article could hope to.
Sam Nzima’s 1976 photo of the Soweto Uprising is another example of the power of a still image. The picture shows a highschool boy carrying the lifeless body of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, killed by policemen during what started out as a peaceful student protest.
Carried on front pages all over the world, it exposed the true character of the racist South African regime and marked a turning point in the anti-apartheid movement. Indeed, it is now known as the photo which helped expose the apartheid in South Africa.
Although the reaction to this photograph was not as immediate as to ‘Napalm Girl’, awareness and international opposition to apartheid grew after the release of the photo. After Nzima’s death at age 83 in May last year, Sunday Times journalist Chris Barron wrote in his obituary: “No picture more powerfully captured the horror and brutality of the apartheid, or did more to galvanise international revulsion against it”. Although establishment of a democratic government and the abolition of the apartheid was only finally realised in 1994, Nzima’s photo is still remembered as one of the most iconic and influential pictures that contributed to the dismantling of the segregationist political regime.
The crystallisation of a single moment in time also reinforces the symbolic power of photography. The iconic 1989 photo of the Tank Man during the Tiananmen Square massacre that captures a sole heroic act is emblematic of resistance and the fight for freedom. Although there was no political reform in China, the photo brought the Tiananmen Square massacre to the world’s attention. What’s more, the photo drove President Bush to suspend US arms sales to China in protest against the military’s bloody crackdown, and he called on people to stand symbolically with the anonymous demonstrator in the picture. The Associated Press released an article on the 5th of June 1989, in which the President is quoted: “All I can say to him, wherever he might be, and to the people around the world is we are and we must stand with him”.
At the risk of employing a cliché, that was then, this is now. The medium has changed, if not beyond recognition, then certainly to a point that few in previous decades could have imagined.
The digital age has provided us with the ability to transfer information freely and quickly, opening up a world of opportunity and revolutionising the way we act in our personal and professional lives. But having so much access to information also has its downsides. According to IBM, the amount of data we produce is colossal — at 2.5 quintillion bytes each day. That means that of all the data produced since the beginning of mankind, 90 per cent of it was produced in the last two years. Being bombarded with so much information exposes us to an ‘information overload’ that can impair our critical thinking skills.
Fake news and doctored photos and videos can dangerously manipulate public opinion and pit people against each other. The doctored video shared by the White House to support punishment of journalist Jim Acosta or the Kremlin’s constant attempts at multi-channel disinformation as a strategy to weaken the West show the strategic impact of fake news.
Which brings us back to the Covington Catholic school incident. While the video clip and the Napalm Girl, Soweto Uprising and Tank Man photos each provoked a widespread reaction, the iconic images from the 70s and 80s brought injustices to international attention while the Covington video was taken out of context to reinforce pre-existing prejudices.
Unlike the historic events of decades past, the protests on the National Mall carried no inherent significance. Not that that stopped the tide of outrage from celebrities and distinguished newspaper columnists.
The actress Alyssa Milano took to Twitter to declare: “This is Trump’s America. And it brought me to tears. What are we teaching our young people? Why is this ok? How is this ok? Please help me understand. Because right now I feel like my heart is living outside my body”.
Ex-presidential hopeful Howard Dean was similarly restrained in his response, calling Covington Catholic High School a ‘hate factory’. The New York Times titled its first piece covering the story as “Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March”.
There were some dissenting voices too, who argued that the media was too hasty in judging a group of adolescent boys. In a recent New York Times article, Frank Bruni challenged the paper’s own coverage, warning of the temptation of retrofitting news to fit into our own political agenda.
None of this is to ignore that Donald Trump has encouraged racism and xenophobia with both his language and his anti-immigrant policies. His presidency has seen increase of hate crimes across the United States.
But exploding in rage at every perceived injustice, no matter how sketchy the details of what has transpired, is not a strategy for winning hearts and mind. In the case of the Covington boys, the liberal pile-on has allowed the conservative media to turn the students from pariahs to heroes, shifting the controversy away from Sandmann and the students and onto the left.
If nothing else, perhaps the Covington protest and its aftermath showed that the era of political photography as a vehicle for justice has come to an end – these days a photo or video is simply another means to fuel the partisan divide and reinforce people’s existing prejudices.