Anyone who has been exposed to social media the last few years doubtlessly remembers the Nick Sandmann video. A group of high school boys near the Lincoln Memorial, with an old Native American “Vietnam Veteran” banging a drum in the face of one of the boys. The film Rush to Judgment, which played at the tenth annual Anthem Film Festival, reveals that there was much more to the story than the video implied, including hate, death threats and changed lives. The film also played at the 2020 virtual version of Anthem where it won the Best of Fest award. This year it won both the Excellence in Filmmaking Award for feature documentaries and the Audience Choice Award.
Anthem, part of FreedomFest, normally takes place in Las Vegas, but this year, in order to avoid potential COVID difficulties, relocated to Rapid City, South Dakota, where it showed 39 films over four days.
Rush to Judgement explores what happened on social media after the event, documents the effects on individuals involved, and searches for the truth about that viral moment. It does so almost entirely through aggregating social media videos. It also includes an exclusive interview with “the boy in the MAGA hat,” Nick Sandmann.
The boys involved, from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, on a field trip to the nation’s capital, visited the Lincoln Memorial. They were waiting for a bus at the now “infamous moment.” Many had purchased MAGA hats a short time before from a vendor nearby.
The hats offended others out in the capital that day. Four members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, a small fundamentalist sect, began hurling insults at the boys. They ignored them, joked among themselves, and did cheers about their school to drown them out. Then a Native American elder named Nathan Phillips approached them, chanting, and banging on a drum. Sandmann stood his ground as Phillips banged the drum in his face.
The video that went out over the internet implied that the boys had surrounded and threatened Phillips.
Who Was Hurt?
When the video initially went viral, the young man standing before Phillips was misidentified as another student at Covington Catholic. The initial wave of insults and threats were directed at that young man and his family.
When the mistake was revealed and Sandmann was correctly identified, the social media mob turned on him and his family. Their address was exposed and, given the death threats they received, they had to leave their home.
The life of a third student, an African American, who briefly appears in the videos taken that day, also became a target. The social media crazies mocked him. They said he was only there in case they needed to harvest his organs. The attacks and ridicule reached such a pitch that he dropped out of Covington Catholic. Going there had been a dream for many years and was part of his plan to proceed to collegiate sports.
Truths and Aftermaths
Rush to Judgment detailed how many of the accusations against the boys were false.
First, Phillips was not a Vietnam veteran, although he told stories about his experiences there and allowed media outlets to describe him that way. A podcast which specialized in exposing cases of “stolen valor,” people falsely claiming to have served in combat, exposed Phillips. As a joke, the host of the podcast banged on a soda bottle the way Phillips had banged on his drum. The podcaster was deplatformed.
Much longer videos than the one that went viral revealed that the students from Covington Catholic were not threatening Phillips.
During a panel discussion after the screening of the film, one participant pointed out the “money shot.” On the video, Sandmann can be seen turning to his friends and telling them not to talk to or yell at Phillips. Far from attacking him, by just standing there, Sandmann was trying to keep things calm.
Steve Oldfield, producer/director of Rush to Judgment, interviewed Sandmann. In response to an audience question about lawsuits on Sandmann’s behalf, he said, “No matter how much he receives, it will never make up for what he has gone through.”