Can a white student be a protester?

What a recent incident between an Omaha elder and a white student tells us about race and protest in the US today.

Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky
Covington Catholic High school student Nick Sandmann seen next to Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American man, in a widely circulated video that caused controversy [Al Jazeera]

“I am the student in the video who was confronted by the Native American protestor.” So begins the public statement released on January 20 by Covington Catholic High school student Nick Sandmann via RunSwitch, the public relations firm with Republican ties retained by the Sandmann family.

Sandmann’s opening sentence throws up core questions that are buried by the media spectacle and debates about the content and interpretation of the videos. Who can be a protester, what does it mean to be one, when is protest seen as legitimate, and by whom?

Sandmann’s statement – crafted no doubt with the aid of many adults – provided early shape to the narrative by introducing the terms that have slipped unnoticed into media coverage of this viral event.

In the statement, the word “protestor” crops up repeatedly with reference to Nathan Phillips, the Native Omaha elder who moved between the two other groups at the scene – the Covington contingent and the Black Israelites.

The latter are also framed as “the four African American protestors”. Despite wearing Make America Great Again (MAGA) hats and travelling hours from Kentucky to attend the March for Life in Washington, DC – an annual rally and march started in 1974 to protest the Roe v Wade court case ruling which made abortion legal in the US – the white teenagers and their teachers are never referred to as “protestors”. They are named only as “faithful Christians” and “students”.

Rather than a confrontation between protesters of different ages, Sandmann’s statement frames the encounter alternately as students facing protesters, and “adults … attempting to provoke teenagers”. The statement works hard to present Sandmann as an obedient student who “achieves good grades”, and to present his cohort likewise as permission-seeking schoolboys who would never produce the disruption on which all protest turns.

It assures us that they would never have begun countering other groups with school chants “… without obtaining permission from the adults in charge of our group.” We are presented with the ahistorical claim that as a “faithful Christian and practising Catholic,” Sandmann would take “no action that would lead to conflict or violence.” Sandmann’s comment that he was “thankful nothing physical occurred” signals a fear that fits clearly with the racial narrative in the United States – that black and brown bodies are inherently confrontational, even violent.

In this narrative, the tomahawk chops and “build that wall” chants that Phillips and others at the scene reported, mixed in with what Sandmann claims were “school spirit chants” are not confrontational. The effect is to obscure the political agency of the white male teenagers in relation to all the others at the scene, pushing forward an image of white racial innocence that is anchored in the figure of the vulnerable white child.

We should ask what is at stake – for Sandmann, his supporters, and for our larger cultural conversation in what has come to be known as an “age of protest” – in inoculating these white male youth from the label of “protester” and affixing to them the label “student” instead. What is obscured by this neat binary of students and protesters is of course the fact that the students in question were in fact also protesters, from the time they left their homes in Kentucky for the anti-abortion rights march with MAGA hats in hand, to the moment they set up their school chants, to the long minutes during which Sandmann “stood his ground”, refusing to move out of the way for Nathan Phillips.

“As far as standing there, I had every right to do so,” Sandmann insisted in his NBC interview, asserting his prerogative to block Philips’ path. So when is a protest not a protest but a “rally”, and when is a protester not a protester but an innocent youth?

The separation of student from protester in Sandmann’s statement echoes long histories of either casting as violent and unruly even non-violent protests by the “wrong people”; or else delegitimising protests that employ means of direct action that clash with imagined modes of non-violent protest often valorised across the political spectrum.  

As the editors of  a recent journal issue on the very topic of “protest,” we have written about the question of selective legitimacy of protests in the public sphere. As we wrote there:

One trend that marks the state response to recent protests spanning the globe is mainstream demand that protests must be “peaceful” and “lawful”, even as what they protest are circumstances that are often unlawful (eg, Israeli settlements in Gaza, which are illegal according to international law), including sometimes legalised violence by powerful militarised states against their communities. Protesters who favour actions outside of a limited repertoire of nonviolent, state-sanctioned modes – such as permitted marches and petitions – run the risk of becoming criminalised, perceived as threats, or labelled terrorists. Such demands for decorous forms of protest cast the only legitimate protester as one who …  disrupts nothing in the status quo.” 

As we can see in this situation, peaceful modes of protest by racialised minorities are no guarantee of legitimacy. Thus, while the 2017 women’s march in Washington DC gave us viral photos of police officers smiling with protesters in pink pussy hats, non-violent protesters in Black Lives Matter and #NoDAPL protests in the same year were met with riot police. In like fashion, Nathan Philips’ drumming is rendered in Sandmann’s statement as nothing less than a violent confrontation, as he is described playing it “within inches” of his face and “locking eyes” with him, having “singled [Sandmann] out for confrontation”.  

Additionally, as the youth in places like Gaza, Kashmir, and at the Mexico-US border can attest, being a student does not automatically inoculate one from being seen as a threatening political agent. Young men and women in these contexts are often labelled “terrorists” for their protest actions, which are cast as “violent” no matter the method or the disproportionate might of the powerful forces they are confronting.

In the US, particularly in our current moment under the Trump administration, non-sanctioned protesters are often portrayed as paid, acting for financial gain, disrupting things for no reason, rioting, destroying private property, and clogging up streets simply to cause chaos without a larger strategy in mind.

Sandmann’s statement shows with stark clarity how “protester” can be deployed as a dirty word in 2019 United States: the unsanctioned protester is cast as chaotic, confrontational and always on the verge of becoming violent.

His statement asserts that he does not even know why the African Americans or Native people were protesting, yet he is sure that protesting is what they were up to. All Sandmann does knows is that he, as a good, obedient, kind-hearted Christian, with all claims to legitimacy that white boyhood affords, could not possibly be a protester.

Elena L Cohen, who is the President of the National Lawyers Guild and a partner at Cohen & Green, PLLC, co-authored this article. 

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.