Stolen Land, Standing Ground, and the Viral Spectacle of White Entitlement
“Land gets stolen, that’s how it works”
This article is part of a series of texts published on Public Seminar in the lead-up to the Digital/Debt/Empire symposium in Vancouver in late April 2019, convened by Benjamin Anderson, Enda Brophy and Max Haiven.
The graphic convergence of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence in the name of self-defense emerges with unmistakable clarity in the recent the “stand your ground” meme featuring sixteen year-old Nick Sandmann wearing his “Make America Great Again” baseball hat. The red, white, and blue meme appeared on white nationalist and rightwing social media in the wake of the viral online video of the mostly white Covington Catholic High School students from Kentucky wearing MAGA hats and taunting Nathan Phillips, an elder of the Omaha Tribe, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on January 18, 2019.
The students had traveled to DC as part of their school’s delegation to a rally against women’s reproductive rights. Phillips and those drumming with him were participating in the Indigenous Peoples’ March. In the video, surrounded by his laughing schoolmates, Sandmann stands face-to-face with Phillips, blocking his path. Another video highlighted by the Diné/Ihanktonwan journalist Jacqueline Keeler shows a Catholic high school student just prior to the Sandmann-Phillips clash, who declares: “Land gets stolen, that’s how it works.”
The premise “land gets stolen” and the Sandmann “stand your ground” meme together starkly convey the relentless onslaught of racialized colonization, the fantasy of the perpetrators as the real victims, and the obstinate disavowal of the colonial present’s unpaid debts. Here the debt for what has been extracted through processes of colonization and ongoing economies of dispossession shows the inadequacy of current methods of accounting, compensation, and repayment. At the same time, to acknowledge that such debt is unpayable is not to forgo demands for restitution and economic redress. These are unpaid debts in the sense that they are an obligation to take responsibility for complicity in what has been done and to contribute to dismantling colonial and racialized relations of violence and possession. By contrast, the spectacle of white entitlement discussed here aspires to remake and exculpate “land gets stolen” as the “your ground” of settler ownership and property. Proliferating across the echo chambers of white supremacist digital platforms, the meme repeats ad nauseam the presumption that “land gets stolen” even as it inverts this theft on behalf of white persecution complexes and defensive paranoia.
Media narrations of the Lincoln Memorial confrontation focused on the question of who should properly be understood as the aggressor. Many accounts called attention to the students’ racist “tomahawk chop” gestures and mock war cries, and reported that students chanted “Build the Wall.” However, other commentators insisted that the students were just children and had been provoked by a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites. From their perspective, Phillips had intervened only to further aggravate an already volatile situation. Sandmann was innocently standing his ground. Indeed, the meme of Sandmann amplifies this reference to the Florida “stand your ground” law that exonerated George Zimmerman in the murder of seventeen year-old Trayvon Martin. It circulated online and as a flyer posted across a number of U.S. high school and university campuses.
Multiple storylines sought to recuperate Sandmann and the jeering high school students as not merely innocent but as those most injured, most violated by the turn of events. They were innocuous youth in ways that young people of color are rarely if ever allowed. Although the school initially publicly condemned the students’ conduct, the Covington Bishop Roger Foys subsequently retracted this criticism and issued a formal apology to the students. President Trump invited the students to the White House. The Sandmann family hired a PR firm and Nick Sandmann appeared on the nationally broadcast television program The Today Show. During the interview he claims that his intentions have been misrepresented and that he has been wrongly vilified. Soon after, his family filed a $250 million libel suit against the Washington Post.
The confrontation, what it made visible, the multiple framings that followed, what elements were displaced, who took center stage, and what justifications and criticisms gained prominence reveal key dynamics of this historical moment. A focus on the Black Hebrew Israelites as the primary culprits behind the confrontation served to displace or minimize culpability for the anti-Indian racism expressed by the students. In conservative outlets such as Fox News, the Hebrew Israelites were largely emptied of their own specificity and depicted as embodying some specter of generic anti-white Black militancy. Significant for what this reframing conveys about prevailing racial scripts in the U.S. today, this narrowly construed Black-White racial binary in turn recast the students as targets of “reverse racism.”
At the same time, the mainstream media devoted little time to the Indigenous Peoples’ March or the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and the lethal infrastructure of extractive capitalism to which the march sought to call attention. Almost entirely absent from reporting was the fact that in response to the belligerent youth Phillips sang the American Indian Movement song honoring the Oglala elder Raymond Yellow Thunder killed by white vigilantes in 1972. As Lower Brule Sioux scholar Nick Estes explains, “It’s a song of resistance and remembrance, and it was sung during the Wounded Knee Occupation in 1973 and at the frontlines of Standing Rock in 2016.” These multiple historical instances of anticolonial struggle as commentary on the present remain absent from mainstream representation.
“Land gets stolen, that’s how it works” expresses a casual and categorical dismissal of Indigenous land claims. The insistence that “land gets stolen” is remarkable in its unequivocal sense of historical fact and in its passive construction wherein “gets stolen” is a truth without culpability that nonetheless affirms the finality of possession. The assertion presumes listeners take it to be qualified by a shared understanding that the reference is historical and without implications for the contemporary sanctity of private property. It is specifically not suggesting that Indigenous peoples should somehow “steal” this land back because “that’s how it works.” As well, the proclamation differs from Indigenous assertions that “This is Stolen Land” in that it makes no demand that the crime of stealing be redressed.
The idea that “land gets stolen, that’s how it works” presumes irrevocability. It provides the presupposition that settlers possess the ground upon which they stand and that “stand your ground” is an unequivocal relation of white settler belonging and rightful ownership of the land. In effect, the statement is an invocation of the “doctrine of discovery,” the principle initially formulated in a series of fifteenth century papal dictates and later as a source of emergent European conceptions of international law. The doctrine aimed to minimize inter-imperial conflict by granting title and possession to the first Christian European nation to claim, or putatively “discover,” a territory. Although the act of stealing is reimagined as discovery, the parallel remains in the sense that the doctrine simply makes it impossible for Indigenous peoples’ to have title to the land from the outset.
Chief Justice John Marshall’s 1823 opinion in Johnson v. M’Intosh revivified the doctrine of discovery as an ongoing premise for U.S. federal Indian law. Neither the fact that Johnson is now known to have been a result of collusion and fraud by land speculators, as well as ulterior motives on the part of Marshall, nor that the Chief Justice’s own subsequent 1832 ruling in Worcester v. Georgia contradicts the precedent established in Johnson, has diminished the opinion’s enduring status as a cornerstone of U.S. jurisprudence. According to Marshall’s opinion in Johnson, as much as he and his contemporaries might wish to recognize Native rights based on, as he put it, “abstract principles of justice,” the doctrine of discovery was nevertheless accepted by all European powers as foundational to the Law of Nations. Therefore, in Marshall’s words, “Conquest gives a title to which the Courts of the conqueror cannot deny.”
As a result of this ostensibly irrefutable fact, Marshall argues that although Indigenous peoples should be understood as “occupants” of the land, “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished, and their power to dispose of the soil at their own will… was denied by the original fundamental principle, that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.” This exclusive title was supposedly transferred from England to the United States following the War of Independence, and now provides the ground upon which the political authority and geopolitical solidity of the United States is founded.
In the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, the January 2019 confrontation also evoked the manifold legacies of the Civil War. The consolidation of the U.S. nation-state in and through the war and the “Indian wars,” where Union soldiers and the so-called Black Cavalry or Buffalo soldiers were transferred from campaigns against the Confederate Army to wage war against Indigenous nations in the Great Plains and Southwest. Here Lincoln’s authorization to hang thirty-eight Dakota men remains the largest government mass execution in U.S. history, and the quickly recanted redistribution of land and extension of citizenship and civil rights to formerly enslaved African Americans become historically entwined.
Not unlike the “Lost Cause” narrative of neo-Confederates, the Sandmann “stand your ground” meme champions a defensive white nationalism. The meme projects the violence of colonization and racialized predation onto Indigenous and Black peoples, imagining white people to be under siege. Most significantly, the meme pointedly links the symbolic stand-off between white youth and Indigenous peoples to the justification of deadly force by “standing your ground” as an act of self-defense — an effectively anti-Black defense accorded George Zimmerman but not, for instance, Marissa Alexander or other African Americans in Florida. Florida’s 2005 “Stand Your Ground” law was largely the work of the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Such “Stand Your Ground” laws were based on interpretations of English and early U.S. common law that jettisoned the “duty to retreat” in favor of violence as first recourse, and were given further legal force in the context of westward colonization and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s often quoted 1921 ruling in Brown v. United States that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.” At the same time, in the Sandmann meme, Nathan Phillips vanishes into the empty space of the meme, completely erased from the confrontation.
As with the passive construction of “land gets stolen” that normalizes and absolves settler taking of Indigenous land, the meme inverts the perpetration of racial and colonial violence to make the claim that white identity and the United States are under attack and must be defended. This is a restorative project, a making great again, that in the specific terms of the meme actively conflates the ostensible threat of Native and Black peoples to the ground upon which a supposedly historically authentic America must stand. The meme is thus also an invitation to anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence, a reactive and regenerative violence driven by feeling the precarity and peril of the United States.
It is precisely the actual historical and ongoing violence of colonialism and racism that the Indigenous Peoples’ March aimed to address. The march focused on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the expansion of the fossil fuel infrastructure. The march itself was at once a deliberate address to the role of the United States, held as it was in Washington DC, and an effort to signal how and why such issues were neither exceptional to nor simply enclosed within the United States. Taking place almost a month into the federal government shutdown, some marchers likewise noted the brutally uneven consequences of Republican intransigence for Native peoples whose paychecks and basic services are routed through federal intermediaries. Although convened in Washington DC, the Indigenous Peoples’ March assembled participants from throughout the hemisphere. Indigenous rights and land claims were frequently asserted in terms of international law with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a rebuttal to the imperial conceit of rights by “discovery.”
The iconic “stand-off” between Phillips and Sandmann, and the white nationalist bravado of the meme, are symptomatic of the profound misgivings of the colonial present. Anti-Black and anti-Indigenous antagonisms converge in “land gets stolen” and “stand your ground” with such clarity in part because of the very real threats to white settler prerogative posed by anti-colonial and anti-racist coalition building. This crisis of entitlement is compounded by the nihilist greed of the capitalist planetary death drive and its predatory acceleration of upwardly redistributed wealth. The disavowal of the colonial present’s unpaid debts have been historically accompanied by the weaponization of debt against Indigenous peoples, the formerly enslaved, and differentially devalued people of color. As the forms of debt and indebtedness that have long served as colonial mechanisms for Indigenous and racialized dispossession have become ubiquitous features of finance capital, the logics and logistics of debt itself are not only contested by social movements, but the specific work of debt in colonization and neocolonial disciplinary entrapment must be central to anticapitalist organizing.
When “land gets stolen” can no longer evoke the semblance of permanence and impunity, when its plausibility as an alibi can no longer deflect the scrutiny of contestation, the “stand your ground” pretense of innocence gives way to the frenzied desperation of white supremacists and the fragility of settler common sense. The certainty of “land gets stolen” and “stand your ground” trembles before the prospect that racist entitlement will be dismantled and the time has come to return the land that has been stolen.
Alyosha Goldstein is Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He is the author of Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action during the American Century (2012), the editor of Formations of United States Colonialism (2014), and the co-editor (with Jodi A. Byrd, Jodi Melamed, and Chandan Reddy) of “Economies of Dispossession: Indigeneity, Race, Capitalism,” a special issue of Social Text (2018), (with Juliana Hu Pegues and Manu Vimalassery) of “On Colonial Unknowing,” a special issue of Theory & Event (2016) and (with Alex Lubin) of “Settler Colonialism,” a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly (2008). @agoldste