Conscious Communication: What the Covington Incident Can Teach Us about De-escalation

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

In the last week or so various marches in Washington, DC, garnered national attention. There was the Women’s March, the March for Life, and the Indigenous Peoples March, as well as events against gun violence here and in other cities throughout the country. No doubt, there were many peaceful and respectful interactions between people of differing political and religious views at these various events. But not all interactions match that description.

Yes, I’m talking about the interaction  between a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, a group of high school students from Covington Catholic High School (a private all-boys school in Park Hills, Kentucky), and an Indigenous activist named Nathan Phillips, who is a member of the Omaha people. The Hebrew Israelites were attempting to agitate students from Covington Catholic High School near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with taunts and insults. The large group of boys, many wearing Trump “MAGA” hats and sweatshirts, began loudly chanting school cheers in response. The energy of the group swelled and at one point a boy emerged from the group and ripped his shirt off. Phillips was a bystander who witnessed the hostility between the two groups and made his way over to stand between them while playing a drum. Phillips says he intentionally disrupted the situation in an effort to prevent violence or any further confrontations. However the standoff that ensued between Phillips and one student, Nick Sandmann, became its own confrontation, as other boys laughed and danced around doing the “tomahawk chop.”

This event has been analyzed from every possible perspective and so my purpose here isn’t to continue or repeat those analyses but to talk about an important concept: de-escalation.

In an interview with Today co-anchor Savannah Guthrie, Nick Sandmann, the young man smiling silently (some say smugly) at Phillips, claimed that his smile was an attempt to calm people down. This might seem intuitive, but in actuality a smile can indicate that someone finds something funny or intends to mock its recipient. This can absolutely heighten tension. Sandmann claims he wanted to de-escalate the situation but in addition to the indecipherable smile, he also appeared to obstruct Phillips’ movement. It’s true no fights broke out, but how might someone better de-escalate a situation?

First and foremost, what is de-escalation? De-escalation refers to behaviors, tactics, and techniques used to disrupt confrontations, conflicts, or other situations where tension is high. In a perfect universe, these techniques would come with no risk to the people employing them. That’s not the case so, if at all possible, de-escalation should be done by people with de-escalation and bystander intervention training. If someone who doesn’t have formal training needs to address a tense situation, here are some actions that can be done to disrupt moments when conflicts and violence seem likely to erupt.

1. Distraction: This is the tactic that actually worked on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Phillips saw an emerging conflict and stepped in. He approached the two groups while playing his drum and began to chant. This largely disrupted the interaction and shifted the focus away from the conflict. Distractions work by removing focus from the area of tension and the people exaggerating the situation and redirecting that attention somewhere else. Obviously this isn’t perfect, as one or more of the original parties to the first conflict may create a new one, but this is oftentimes an effective way of giving those involved the chance to cool off. Involved parties have the opportunity to breathe and reflect on what has occurred. Someone who redirects attention doesn’t necessarily have to redirect it towards themselves and they also don’t have to sustain the attention for long.

2. Reminding people of visibility: In today’s world, conflicts and moments of high tension never happen without someone or something outside of the moment noticing. In the moment, however, it’s easy for someone to forget that. An easy way to remind people of visibility is to start recording (or even just pull out a phone and pretend to record) and point out that you’re recording the interaction. This is especially useful if someone or a group wants to start a confrontation and is egging on those involved and refusing to act violently first, so as to use the excuse of self-defense later or claim that the other party was violent. This also distracts from the heat of the moment and can be used to force people to rethink their actions while also giving parties a reasonable excuse to not engage in violence if they were otherwise inclined to.

3. Physical and verbal intervention: This is risky and shouldn’t be done if there are other, more reasonable alternatives. This can be effective if someone has the appropriate assistance, including other people backing them nearby or the knowledge that others are on their way. This can involve stepping directly in between the conflicting parties and then moving away while forcibly drawing attention to yourself or otherwise physically acting in a way that shifts attention away from the situation and to oneself. Another tactic would be to remind people who may have forgotten that they can’t control or account for the actions of others, just the actions of themselves and that they should think carefully before acting. The Covington students said they began their high-octane chants as a way to counter insults coming from the Black Hebrew Israelites. But it didn’t de-escalate the situation. Phillips then attempted to insert himself but his attempt became the standoff with Sandmann.

An ideal plan for intervention is to separate the parties and then ask what’s going on while focusing their attention away from each other. This will also allow them to explain their perspectives and thoughts on what’s happening, which, if done correctly, can prevent violence while inspiring introspection and creating opportunities for discussion.

These are vital tactics to keep in mind to reduce tension in moments where the eruption of violence seems likely or plausible. It’s worth taking your time to think carefully about how to de-escalate a situation and also seek out opportunities to receive bystander intervention training. Such training is routinely offered by organizations like Black Lives Matter, Indivisible, and other groups that organize protests and rallies in cities and towns across the country.

Massive national and local protests aren’t stopping anytime soon. People with different attitudes, beliefs, and passions for issues are going to continue to interact. When those interactions are negative or hostile, leaders and organizers who know how to de-escalate situations effectively, peacefully, and efficiently are key.