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Covington, Ky., has dealt with tough times before – facing bankruptcy as recently as 2010. But after years of careful planning, the city had been feeling a sense of momentum again. Then, controversy erupted in the form of a field trip and a viral video clip. But the firestorm may actually say less about these particular boys, or this particular city, than it does about the growing divide in the country – the lack of civility, the heightened sensitivity, symbolism, and explosiveness of the slightest action or comment. And yet for those directly involved, the consequences are already very real, local, and personal. “Whatever anyone thinks of this – and I happen to have a more charitable view of the kids than some other people – there’s a fair amount of resentment that here we have to shoulder the burden for the region for something we had nothing to do with,” says Steve Frank, a Republican and former city commissioner who serves on the Covington Economic Development Authority.
Before Covington became a code word for all that is wrong in America today – whether you think that means the smugness of white privilege, or the vindictive bias of the liberal media – it was known as a proud Rust Belt city on the rise.
This northern Kentucky city on the banks of the Ohio River is a place where Hillary Clinton received more votes than Donald Trump. Where voters elevated a working-class African-American woman to the role of vice mayor. Where a professional clown who once worked for a Trump casino is inviting the community to join a Lakota Sioux tribal leader this weekend to begin the healing process.
One thing the city is not, at least not in a literal sense, is the home of Covington Catholic, the school at the heart of the national controversy over a Washington field trip gone awry. The eponymous school sits just outside Covington’s city limits, but the firestorm has engulfed the whole region.
Never mind that the firestorm may actually say less about these particular boys, or this particular town, than it does about the growing divide in the country – the lack of civility, the heightened sensitivity, symbolism, and explosiveness of the slightest action or comment. For those directly involved, the consequences are already very real, local, and personal.
Yet the consequences are felt differently by those in the city and those in the surrounding suburbs such as Park Hills, where the school is located. Those differences in some ways mirror the nation’s cultural and political divides – but are more complex.
Those in the suburbs, if they’re willing to talk to reporters at all, are generally quick to defend the students, whose interaction with a Native American elder and a fringe group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites on the Lincoln Memorial steps ignited a national debate over racism and class, culture, and religion.
But in the city, which is more diverse, more poor, and more progressive, and has struggled to provide services for its low-income residents without the tax base of its suburban neighbors, many are frustrated that the controversy is giving them a bad name.
“Whatever anyone thinks of this – and I happen to have a more charitable view of the kids than some other people – there’s a fair amount of resentment that here we have to shoulder the burden for the region for something we had nothing to do with,” says Steve Frank, a Republican and former city commissioner who serves on the Covington Economic Development Authority.
Most of those outside the city see the boys as having acted with remarkable composure in the face of provocative adults. They believe the teens were unfairly turned into targets by liberals who loathe President Trump, including mainstream journalists. Those who have seen the longer video showing the boys chanting loudly, and making facial expressions and motions that were interpreted as offensive, dismiss it as normal teenage boy behavior – and ask why the same scrutiny is not being directed toward adult protesters they see as far more provocative.
“We had a bunch of adults on that Mall acting like kids, and a bunch of people across the country expect the kids to be acting like adults. That shows a disconnect to me,” says state Rep. Adam Koenig (R), an alum of Covington Catholic High School who represents some of the suburbs where students live. He has received hate mail from as far away as Eugene, Ore., from a lady denouncing the “racist Kavanaugh pigs,” referring to the accusations lobbed at the Supreme Court nominee this fall.
“They see [Judge] Kavanaugh in these kids and they’re still upset over all that. I think some of that is what has caused it to linger,” he says.
Many in the city, meanwhile, including not only the mayor but also the Catholic Diocese that oversees the school, have spoken out against the boys’ behavior. They, too, have reaped hate mail and death threats, as has the school, which was closed for security reasons on Tuesday and has been guarded by police cruisers all week. The Diocese was evacuated on Wednesday after a bomb scare, and the family of the most prominent teen in the video, Nick Sandmann, has fled to an undisclosed location to escape the media deluge and death threats.
What mystifies Michael Hoffay, a former soccer coach who moved here four years ago, is why the incident is not being used as a teaching opportunity.
“Somebody up there should just say, ‘Look, we’re trying to raise good young men, this wasn’t our best day,’ ” he says, pointing up toward the school from a local café where students often hang out.
On the national level, “both sides are kind of using it as a political tool,” he adds. “I think the kids are being used as pawns by both sides.”
A barber and longtime resident bemoans the country’s degeneration into anger. “People are just mad,” he says, tearing up. “It seems like there’s no love anymore.”
Political drama comes to Kentucky
The community around Covington Catholic feels besieged and angry, not just in response to this incident but over what many see as the national media’s barely disguised scorn for Christian conservatives, especially those who take a stand against abortion, as the students did by attending the March for Life in Washington last weekend.
Few wanted to talk to a visiting reporter.
“No comment,” the school tersely said, directing the reporter to the Diocese, which was locked on Friday afternoon. “I don’t want to talk,” said a nail salon owner. “We’re too busy,” said the hair salon next door. “We’re not allowed to comment,” said the local library. “I can’t say anything about that for security reasons,” said a lady in the school parking lot. “I don’t want to alienate my customers,” said more than a few business owners.
The Diocese said in a statement on its website that an independent, third-party investigation had begun to gather facts necessary “to determine what corrective actions, if any, are appropriate. We pray that we may come to the truth and that this unfortunate situation may be resolved peacefully and amicably and ask others to join us in this prayer.”
But amid the community’s widespread reticence, Jim Wilson, a parent chaperone who was on the trip, wanted to set the record straight.
This was the fourth time he’d made the trip as a chaperone. The designated meet-up point for the boys had always been the Lincoln Memorial, and never had their school encountered such protesters.
But this time, as he arrived, he saw Native American protesters moving toward the crowd of boys. At first he thought it was in good fun, but then he became concerned.
Mr. Wilson challenges the assertion by Native American elder Nathan Phillips that his intent was to calm the situation, saying he heard those with Mr. Phillips yelling things like, “Go back to Europe, this isn’t your land! You don’t belong here! You’re racist!”
Soon after he arrived, Wilson says, the Native Americans moved out and the boys were standing entranced by the Black Israelites yelling obscenities. He started shouting at the students to move away from the area, and persisted until they had all left.
He had been home barely an hour before the story started blowing up on social media. “What has upset me the most is the unethical and unprofessional behavior of the media that can destroy people’s lives,” he says.
The owner of a local auto shop, who asked to remain anonymous because he works on the cars of many Covington Catholic parents, says it feels like an invasion.
“All of a sudden, Washington’s drama has come to Northern Kentucky because a group of us wanted to exercise our constitutional rights to free speech and peaceful assembly,” he said.
Wilson says that it wasn’t just Covington Catholic kids on the steps of the memorial, but a “sea” of kids from other Catholic organizations around the country, many of whom were also wearing Make America Great Again (MAGA) hats.
For many Trump supporters, the hats signal approval for his agenda, such as the tax cuts, or judges in line with their values, particularly on the issue of abortion. But for Trump critics, the hats have become a symbol of xenophobia and racism.
“You can look at social media commentary – and the reaction of the Black Israelites to those hats – and realize that that was like almost literally waving a red flag in their faces,” says Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
But Mr. Cross doesn’t think the students realized that. “In a group like that, if one or two buy them, they’re all going to buy them – not because they believe in everything Donald Trump stands for, but because they’re cool.”
Others say the boys should have known how they were coming across.
“It’s a lack in their education,” says Missy Spears, a Republican from Covington who identifies as queer, and who says she has long been conscious of the ramifications of deciding to wear masculine clothing, or a Black Lives Matter shirt. “If you haven’t been the subject of bullying or harassment and seen that smirk ... and they look at you and say, ‘Yeah, I know you can’t fight back against me’ – it’s easy just to say that kid was being quiet.”
While northern Kentucky has been in the glare of the spotlight this week, political scientist Ricky Jones of the University of Louisville says there’s a broader reckoning that needs to take place across the country.
“White America is in denial, and not just white Kentucky,” he says. “This idea that all this narrative of ‘fake news’ – that allegations of racism and race hatred are manufactured – that kind of denial is dangerous, because it is not rooted in reality. And that is going on from Covington, Ky., to Washington State.”
In recent years, Covington has started to have more open conversations about race and equality, according to some locals. If anything, the incident last weekend showed that those conversations are needed – and, depending on how they unfold, can help build up communities, not tear them apart.
“This is really, for us, this is a time of reflection because we are such a diverse community and we do have so many different religious backgrounds, different ethnicities, different socioeconomic statuses within our city,” says Tim Downing, a city commissioner. “It really creates a new opportunity for dialogue.”
From boom to bust to rebirth
In the 1800s, Covington was a bustling city that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Mail was delivered by Ulysses S. Grant’s father, the postmaster general. Stewart Iron Works, a local company, produced the iron fence that still surrounds the White House and the locks that secured prisoners in their cells on Alcatraz island. John Roebling designed a suspension bridge across the river to Cincinnati that served as a model for the Brooklyn Bridge project he and his son spearheaded in New York.
But as with many Rust Belt cities, Covington fell on hard times after the decline of the steel mills after World War II. The federal government opened an IRS facility, bringing hundreds of jobs, but it wasn’t enough. By the late 1970s, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development singled it out as one of America’s most distressed cities. As suburbs formed their own local governments, the city was increasingly left to bear the burden of providing services to its lower-income population. Some 89 percent of public school children qualify for free and reduced lunch, and the median household income is $30,000. As recently as 2010, Covington faced bankruptcy.
Recently, though, after years of careful planning and efforts to attract Millennials and the creative class to its quaint downtown – a mix of tidy brick row houses, industrial spaces, and local shops – the city had been feeling a sense of momentum again.
Residents and officials from opposite ends of the political spectrum, working together for economic growth, saw a huge opportunity in the 23-acre IRS site by the river, which will be vacated next fall when tax prep moves to Texas.
For months, they had been engaging consultants and wooing developers. Then, this controversy erupted.
Still, there was a sense of resilience and perseverance on display Thursday evening, as consultants and commercial Realtors at the city’s convention center milled around with members of the public looking at early sketches of how the IRS site could be developed.
“We’re going to keep moving forward,” says Michelle Williams, an African-American woman who garnered the most votes for city commissioner the past two elections, which twice elevated her to vice mayor. “We’re not going to let this incident slow us down one bit.”
As for Paul Miller, the clown – and a Covington Catholic alum – he plans to have a great time tomorrow. He and his Native American friend, William Underbaggage, are planning a Community Talking Circle in an attempt to deescalate the situation.
“I hope that the families from CovCath will come,” he says, referring to the school by its nickname. As his high school friend in the Green Berets put it this week, “Who is anti-peace?”
Staff writer Patrik Jonsson contributed reporting.