I remember the first time I experienced the war-craft of Covingtoning. Trayvon Martin has been murdered and there was no doubt who had killed him. The evidence was abundant. His murderer racially profiled him, trying to bring state violence against him before deciding to hunt him down himself. He confronted an unarmed teenager, and once he had the alibi of white fear to protect him, he murdered him. How could anyone doubt this murderer’s guilt?
But that was before the Covingtoning began. Before my fellow white people marshalled all their wits to find a way that Trayvon was somehow guilty of his own murder; or at least, that it happened like a natural disaster, regrettable but without blame. Their arguments often had a detached, patronizing quality, as if they were weary that the noblesse oblige of whiteness required them to explain things again. Half-understood legal terms were uttered with the certainty of a seasoned lawyer.
Their arguments seemed to me unreasonable, but they had the rhythm of reason. I decided to engage in some online conversation. I was younger then. I hadn’t learned that Covingtoning only grows stronger when you engage on its terms. It needs to create the illusion of a good-faith argument. Once this illusion is established and doubt seems reasonable, even admirable, then the biases of anti-Blackness and White innocence can do their work.
Yet nothing prepared me for the brazen audacity of the Covingtoning of Nathan Phillips. The encounter was recorded with disturbing clarity, yet there were my fellow white people, lifting up voices of doubt. There was more context! The (fake) news media hadn’t reported everything! The name of the publication is Reason, for goodness sake! Just watch one more video from a different angle and you’ll see what I mean, whispered the Covingtoning. After all, clearheaded adults know the truth is complicated beyond all understanding or action.
White folks, we can’t get Covingtoned again. We should know by now that every time these acts of racial violence occur, a Covingtoning will follow. When it does, we first need to direct our intellectual rigor inward. What is our own relationship to these events? To Native peoples? To peace-making when surrounded by hostile crowds? Do we understand the history (and present) of White mobs to Black and Native peoples? Only then we should consider how we might help disrupt the inevitable Covingtoning that will follow.
Around the time of Trayvon’s murder, I remember one online debate in particular. As I questioned each of my interlocutor’s reasons, he grew angrier, until at last he left the debate in a burst of violently racist language. It was then I understood: the violence had been there all along. It had pulsed under each calm and reasonable word that had preceded it. That’s how a Covingtoning works. It’s how they’ve worked for centuries. And we can’t let them work that way any longer.