WASHINGTON — Before we get to the disturbing image above, a confession: Ten years ago, I attended President Barack Obama's first inauguration on the National Mall in the bone-chilling cold with friends. Irrespective of your political and ideological leanings, this was an historic moment that triggered all these good vibes across the District and beyond.
A black man had been voted to the highest office in the land for the first time in our nation's history. I can't accurately express what the zeitgeist was like then other than to say if you ever believed we had a chance to unite for something bigger than ourselves -- black, brown and white children holding hands, the whole Martin Luther King, Jr., dream realized -- it felt like it was as close as it could come in my lifetime.
One of the most popular phrases at the time, if you remember, was, "Post-Racial," as in, "We're living in a post-racial America now."
Ten years later, on a national holiday celebrating the life and sacrifice of the nation's most prominent civil rights leader, I feel like a naive sucker -- an idealistic sap with no idea of reality. I feel like the child whose parents stopped loving each other a long time ago yet is still certain as the sun that Mom won't leave and Dad will stop drinking, that we are all just one good, taco-night Sunday dinner away from reconciling and being nice to each other again.
Now, more than any time in our modern history, we are a broken family. Post-racial? Not even close. We live in a Periglacial society; we're individual ice sheets, who freeze and thaw and freeze again while never getting closer to other living things in our environment.
If you didn't know this from all the political, social and racial ugliness of the past 10 years, it was driven home squarely again last Friday -- on the very steps Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, 10 years after "We Are One," the Obama inauguration celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, which featured the U.S. Army band trumpeting Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man."
The first photos and videos that ruled the Internet showed a young, white high school student in a candy-apple-red Make America Great Again ballcap. He stood stoic, half-smiling, half-smirking, in front of a Native American elder drumming and singing a song of peace and resistance popularized by the American Indian Movement in the 1970s.
Encircling them were a mouthy, adrenaline-pumped group of the young man's classmates from Covington Catholic High School, located off Dixie Highway in Kentucky. Many wore M.A.G.A. hats. Many more mocked the Native American man, Nathan Phillips, 64, of the Omaha Nation, chanting, breaking out the Tomahawk Chop as if they were at a Florida State or Kansas City Chiefs game.
More video surfaced, this time purportedly giving us a deeper understanding of what really happened. A small group of African American men, aligning themselves with the Black Hebrew Israelites, had stirred the racial cauldron before the arrival of Phillips and a small group of Native Americans, who had just completed the Indigenous Peoples March.
A couple of them dropped "cracker" on the group of white kids and worse. The almost all-white, Covington boys treated it like a pep rally. One kid removes his shirt in the cold and leads a chant, making sure their black detractors were silenced. Tensions grew. Threats started being thrown across the concrete below the memorial.
Suddenly, Phillips enters with his drum. He parts the two sides. In subsequent interviews, he said his Vietnam background had come into play; that he knew the confrontation between the white kids and black men would turn physical if he didn't try to intercede.
Based on your own race and belief system, everyone predictably took sides. The smirking white kid, who identified himself as Nick Sandmann and has been the subject of online death threats, released a statement through a public relations firm. He claims that he, not Phillips, was trying to defuse the situation. That we had all it wrong, that he wasn't actually blocking Phillips from moving forward but just standing in front of him, showing incredible composure while being baited into violence.
Because, hey, what 16-year-old high school junior doesn't need a PR firm these days?
And even a member of the Black Hebrew Israelites claimed innocence on Facebook later, despite some of the most hateful, vile, racially combative language -- directed at the high school kids and the Native American contingent -- that can be clearly heard on at least two of the videos.
There was no actual fuller, complicated picture that emerged from more video. Just more hate. More division. More pointing the finger at the person who doesn't look and talk like you. If they had suits on and used more passive-aggressive language, it might as well have been Congress.
Phillips emerged as the only main character who looked truly interested in bringing people together, banging his ceremonial drum, undaunted by the commotion around him.
Of all the ironies, no? He enlisted in the same military that nearly eradicated all of his people less than 150 years ago. He went to Vietnam and fought for a country that still marginalizes and mocks his people because he believed he could make a difference.
The boys who encircled him were from a Catholic school. Catholic boarding schools were responsible for assimilation programs much of the last century, in which they took Native American children from their reservations and tribes, cut their long hair and forbid them to speak their Native languages on their way to becoming more "American."
It's unclear whether anyone actually chanted "Build That Wall!" on the videos, as Phillips and others claimed. But gauging by the soul-crushing images from Friday, if anyone needed a wall built, it was Nathan Phillips' people about 500 years ago.
The largest of irony of all, though, is still the setting. Steps of the Lincoln Memorial, just feet from where Dr. King preached togetherness, unity, reconciliation.
"Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood."
So true, all these years later. So far away from who we are, all these years later.
We aren't One. We're Many. And we still don't understand the one thing Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to instill in us:
We are in this together. And until we all realize that -- chanting white kids from Kentucky Catholic schools, Black Hebrew Israelites preaching hate, all of us -- we've got no shot.
EDITOR'S NOTE: We originally identified Nathan Phillips as a Vietnam Veteran. Reports have surfaced that Mr. Phillips claimed to have been a Vietnam veteran, but records show he did not serve in the Vietnam War.