Washington, DC is a planned city, built intentionally to serve as unifying symbol and administrative center for a new nation. The only part of the city that emerged gradually and organically, as a port and a crossroads of trade, was Georgetown, the city’s oldest neighborhood to the west which predates the capital city by nearly 200 years. Pierre L’Enfant drafted the plan for the city of Washington, using Paris as a template, and designed it as a national capital that would, in its design and configuration, illustrate the concepts of order, harmony, balance, and proper proportions emanating from the ideals of the Enlightenment, of which the birth of United States of America was one of many results.
Today, Washington DC is home not only to the offices of the three branches of government, but also the location of international organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, several great universities, a variety of public and private museums, five-star restaurants, lobbying firms, commercial enterprises of all kinds, law offices, hotels, trade unions’ headquarters, and 70,000 people who live within the diamond-shaped borders of the District of Columbia. Until recently, the population of Washington, DC was primarily African American, most of whom lived in the poorer Northeast and Southeast quadrants of the city. A few years ago, whites surpassed the city’s black population, largely as a result of gentrification.
The District of Columbia is not a state, but it’s not a typical city either. Washington is a sui generis urban center in the context of the United States. No building within the boundaries of the city can exceed the height of the Capitol Building. A significant portion of the city is set aside for the National Mall, a perfect green rectangle that stretches from the Capitol building in the east to the Lincoln Memorial near the Potomac river in the west. Monuments and stately museums line the mall, as do memorials to America’s war dead. None of the city’s streets swerve or meander in response to the region’s natural topography. Rather, they are laid out in precise north-south and east-west lines, with dozens of diagonal streets, running through the city at even intervals from northwest to southeast and from southwest to northeast. All of the diagonal streets are avenues named after states, the most famous of which is Pennsylvania Avenue, the address of the White House. The intersection of diagonal, horizontal, and vertical streets often results in traffic circles, the bane of drivers navigating the city for the first time.
And many people only navigate through America’s capital city once: When they come to visit as tourists—pilgrims, actually, paying homage to the founders, the ideals, and the key events that gave rise to the anomaly that is the United States of America. Even most the people who work here do not live here. The population of the city fluctuates dramatically each day, as tens of thousands of workers, professionals, tourists, and government officials come into the city during the day, and then return in the evening to their homes in the tonier suburbs of northern Virginia and southwestern Maryland. Right now, of course, Washington, DC feels empty and abandoned as Trump’s government shutdown enters its second month, with no end in sight.
Tourism is not the only thing that brings people to Washington. Hundreds of thousands come every year to protest, some in annual events such as the March for Life, which protests against abortion, and the Women’s March, which began in 2017 to protest Donald Trump’s presidency. Both of these groups held their annual protest marches in the city last weekend, as did another group: Native Americans protesting for indigenous rights. Annual protests can take on a festive mood, drawing others to the city to protest for their own, often localized, causes, and providing revenue for food venders and people selling tee-shirts and souvenirs along the streets bordering the National Mall, where most protestors congregate at the beginning and ending of their marches.
As anyone with a mobile phone and an Internet connection now knows, the National Mall was the site of a troubling encounter between different groups of protestors last Friday. Viral video footage showed dozens of white teenagers from the all-male, private Covington Catholic high school in Kentucky, many wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats, confronting and jeering at a Native American elder, Nathan Phillips, a leader of the Omaha nation and a Vietnam War veteran, who approached them singing and drumming. The boys had come to Washington on a field trip organized by their school to participate in Friday’s March for Life protest against abortion. A close-up photo of one young man, Nick Sandmann, standing face-to-face with Phillips, has already achieved iconic status and instant meme-worthiness. In the photo, Sandmann is smirking–smiling in a provocative and arrogant way–while staring at Phillips as he drums and chants. In the background, Sandmann’s classmates’ faces are frozen in the photograph in ugly expressions of hate and derision. Most of them were laughing and shouting at the Native Americans, some uttering stereotypical Indian “war whoops.” Witnesses say that the high school boys were also shouting pro-Trump chants, such as “Make America Great Again” and “Build the Wall!”
The irony of shouting “Build the Wall!” at Native Americans whose lands were invaded and cultures destroyed by European invaders of North America centuries ago was lost on no one but the boys and their supporters. And these rude boys do indeed have supporters, the most prominent of whom is President Donald Trump, who tweeted:
“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!”
By Monday, the narrative of Friday’s encounter on the Mall had shifted dramatically. A new party to the conflict emerged: Black Hebrew Israelite protestors, who allegedly provoked the Covington Catholic High School boys by taunting them with racist insults. The Black Hebrew Israelite group is categorized as a hate group by civil rights organizations in the United States. Members of the group are infamous for standing around DC Metro stations protesting, and often yelling insults at white people. They are a small, fringe group with radical views, and believe that African Americans are the lost tribes of Israel. Their theology is an odd mix of Black Liberation and Zionist ideologies, and their views of Native Americans are disturbing: they believe that Native Americans lost their land to the white invaders because they were idol-worshippers who prayed to eagles and wolves, rather than submitting to the one true God of the Old Testament. Given their alleged role in the conflict on the Mall on Friday, many revised their initial assumptions about the white teens’ actions and intentions. Nathan Phillips said that he and his group purposely moved to intervene and separate the Black Hebrew Israelites from the Catholic high school boys, and that is how he ended up face-to-face with Mr. Sandmann, drumming and chanting for peace.
Soon, the high school boys’ parents weighed in, attempting to spin the narrative further. Sandmann’s mother exclaimed that her son and his friends were threatened by “Black Muslims,” revealing her own racism, ignorance, and stereotyped assumptions about non-white people. Covington Catholic school spokespersons, official and unofficial, stated that the students were not making fun of the Native Americans, but rather, shouting out school cheers typically heard at their sports events. A day later, though, photographs surfaced of Covington High School students painted in black-face at a basketball game, angrily jeering at a Black basketball player from a rival team. Then came news reports that a Covington High School basketball star had been accused of raping young women. This revelation connected the privileged white male private school toxicity of Covington Catholic with that of Georgetown Preparatory, the Catholic high school that Judge Brett Kavanaugh attended when he was allegedly raping or attempting to rape young women. So, now a gender dimension entered the debate over what actually happened on the Mall last Friday.
On Monday, Nick Sandmann was interviewed by the national mainstream media, and defended himself from accusations of racism and bigotry, claiming instead that he and his classmates were victims of the Black Hebrew Israelites and the Native American protestors, who “should not have gotten so close to him.” Of course, he could have moved away, but as the video footage shows, he stood still and smirked intently at Nathan Phillips for several minutes.
The interpretation of last Friday’s encounter on the Mall changed yet again as revelations emerged that Covington Catholic and the parents of Nick Sandmann had contracted with a nationally known lobbying firm, Louisville, Kentucky-based firm RunSwitch Public Relations. On Sunday night, Sandmann released a three-page statement through the firm describing himself as a practicing Catholic and blaming Nathan Phillips for approaching him. RunSwitch Public Relations has represented big tobacco companies and also has connections to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Meanwhile, many women’s rights groups asked why students from a private, tax-exempt religiously affiliated school were in Washington DC to protest against a legal right to obtain an abortion, and social media clips of the Covington High School boys harassing young white women on the Mall have also emerged. A video from the Lincoln Memorial incident on Friday has surfaced in which one of the Covington students yells at a pro-abortion protestor, “It’s not rape if you enjoy it!”
Five days after the face-off between Nick Sandmann and Nathan Phillips, the debate continues to rage between the Left and the Right over what exactly happened on that perfect green rectangle designed to illustrate harmony, balance, and order 200 years ago. It’s a safe bet, though, that anyone who has to contract with a public relations firm to present his story might not be very credible.