The Caps and Drums of War and Culture

Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.
– Muhammad Ali

A kid got famous in Washington, DC for the wrong reasons thanks entirely to the hat on his head. No, I’m not saying that the hat itself was the problem. I know a lot of Trump supporters like to accuse people of being “triggered” by the kid’s hat.

It’s “just a hat“, after all, right? But it isn’t “just a hat“, and they know it. Kneel before a table cloth? Nothing. Kneel before the flag during the national anthem? It’s “just a piece of cloth“, isn’t it? No, it isn’t “just a piece of cloth“, and they’ll tell you.

Objects can and often do have meaning beyond their physical characteristics. There is, after all, a large difference in meaning between the flag on the left (Texas) and the flag on the right (Chile), even though they have similar colors and shapes.


So let’s dispense with the “It’s just a hat” crap and deal with what wearing that particular hat actually means. Wearing that hat indicates that the individual wearing it willfully embraces the political and philosophical values of the movement.

The kid mentioned before became infamous because he was wearing a specific hat, with a specific message, and stood before a man beating a drum with a very different message. As with any situation like this, the truth is a bit more complicated.

What Americans saw was a snapshot of an instant of a situation that unfolded over the course of 20 minutes, so we are obligated to start at the beginning. It began with some Black Israelites standing in the National Mall, being purposefully belligerent.

As radicalized reactionary religious movements go, the Black Israelites are as radical and as reactionary as they come, and interactions with them rarely go well. Then enter about 100 teenage boys from a private Catholic school, and trouble brews.

First off, teenage boys in large groups don’t have a great track record in terms of polite behavior, and this group’s school has a rather spotty teenager culture of barely checked barbarism that expressed as intense in-group/out-group bigotry.

There’s video of one of these red caps cat-calling and yelling “Slut!” and “Murderer!” at two women. There’s video of one of these red caps yelling “It isn’t rape if you enjoy it!” The typical idiocy you’d expect from bored, unsupervised teenage boys.

When these kids came upon the Black Israelites, who immediately latched onto the fact that many of these kids were wearing MAGA caps, the Black Israelites immediately began launching provocative and incendiary insults at the boys.

The boys, bored and poorly chaperoned, were itching for some mischief anyway, so they bit. If you watch the raw video shot by the Black Israelites, pay attention to how the large group of teenage boys start off at the top of the stairs (at 1H 09M).

As the Black Israelites continue to mock them and shout provocative insults, the boys then start to slowly move down the stairs, with the larger “alphas“, being those with more aggressive “jock” personalities, filter out closer to the front.

Realize that the Black Israelites are trying to provoke a response that they can use to confirm their deeply held beliefs that everyone that isn’t them is bad and is out to hurt them. Confirmation of that belief is, after all, how they recruit.

Watch the video and notice, the distance between the two groups shrinks down from 40 feet to barely 20 feet apart, and some of the red caps were throwing water bottles and trash. Then Nathan Phillips walks up beating his drum (at 1H 12M).

Mr. Phillips and several of his companions walked peacefully between the provocative Black Israelites and the aggressive red caps, then, slowly and patiently, they started shepherding the red caps away from the Black Israelites.

For the most part, the teenage boys, being oblivious as teenage boys generally are, had no idea what to make of Nathan Phillips. Like any pack of provoked teenage boys, they were expecting some kind of scuffle, not a guy with a drum.

So when an elderly man walked right up to them singing and playing his drum, without any overt aggressive intent, the teenage boys defaulted to what teenage boys do when faced with out-groups: whatever the aggressive jocks did.

Notice, in the raw video shot by the Black Israelites, the crowd of kids moved from about 20 feet away from the camera to about 30 feet away, but even though most of the teenage boys had unconsciously moved back, one of the kids didn’t.

That’s the red capped kid America saw. This kid wasn’t one of the aggressive jocks. He was one of the middle of the pack grunts, usually just going along with what his peers were doing, but when the confronted, he simply froze.

A guy playing a tribal drum, singing in a language he didn’t understand was simply outside of the kid’s experience. He had lost sight of the “alphas” of the pack, and the other boys around him had retreated, leaving him in front.

Is this kid a “bad kid“? Well, clearly he’s wearing a stupid red cap, though I’m not certain that any of those jeering, obnoxious kids really fully appreciate how symbolism and meaning, especially negative, become symbols themselves.

A Catholic private school is one of the least likely places for an understanding of secular symbolism to develop, despite the rich religious symbolism of the Catholic church, so the kid (as Trump supporters are in general) was likely just ignorant.

Was the kid’s nefarious smirk indicative of deeply held racist and bigoted beliefs directed at a “brown man” who dared to defy a white man? Or was it simply a smug smile masking his discomfort of being at the front of his peers?

It depends entirely on whether or not I’m to take him as just another dopey kid, who has been circumstantially victimized by the media, as the Trumpists want to claim, or if I’m to take him as an individual with full moral agency.

If he’s just a dopey teenage kid worried about fitting in, then it’s ridiculous to read more into his smirk than any other dopey, aggressive teenage boy. If he’s morally competent, however (ie: “can be tried as an adult”), then, yes, he’s a dirtbag.

I’ve seen that smirk in the faces of hundreds of young men in my life, and, no, it’s never been friendly. It says “Who the hell are you?” and “What are you going to do about it?” Even if not necessarily racist, it’s definitely disrespectful.

The obstinate smirk and stance would have been disrespectful if Nathan Phillips was a white man playing bag pipes, a black man playing a guitar, or an Asian man playing a flute. A boy does not block an elderly man’s path and smirk.

It used to be normal in this country for young men to defer to elderly men, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you know who the racists and bigots are. They are the clowns who say “What I would do to Nathan Phillips, if that was my kid!

They are the racists using racially charged words like “injun” and “redskin” to describe Nathan Phillips. They describe his drum playing as “inciting” and “aggressive“. Can anyone (who isn’t an idiot) wrap their brain around that?

How exactly does one “aggressively” beat a drum to the point where it justifies physical violence? That’s what these bigots are arguing, and this, at long last, brings us to what those red caps symbolize: unspoken ethnic entitlement.

They say that if you’re the wrong color in America and do something that the majority white population deems “inappropriate“, they are entitled to use violence against you, and they expect to simply get away with it.

That ugly truth, patriots, is what must change in America.

Liberty is For The Win!

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