CINCINNATI — Nicholas Sandmann, the Covington Catholic student in the middle of a firestorm over an incident in Washington D.C., said he wishes he and his classmates had walked away.
Nicholas, the 17-year-old in the "Make America Great Again" hat who stands face-to-face with Native American elder Nathan Phillips, appeared on a segment on the Today Show on Wednesday with Savannah Guthrie.
Nicholas said he's not sorry for standing in front of Phillips, with what some have characterized as a smirk on his face, and listening to him. He said he would like to meet Phillips and have a chance to talk with him.
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The incident between the Covington Catholic students, a group of Black Hebrew Israelites and a group from the Indigenous Peoples March went viral over the weekend.
The interview aired as students were returning to Covington Catholic High School under elevated police presence. Officials have said a number of threats against the school have been made in the wake of the incident at the Lincoln Memorial.
School was slated to start Tuesday, but was canceled early in the morning. School leadership cited student safety concerns. A number of other schools in Kenton County were closed due to weather.
On the Today Show, Nicholas talked about the events leading up to the face-off, saying that he and the other students were provoked. He said he felt threatened.
In one video, Phillips is quickly circled by students who begin to jump and chant.
Nicholas said a chaperone gave them permission to start the chant seen in longer videos. As for why they started chanting, Nicholas said being positive seemed better than letting the Black Hebrew Israelites "slander us." The chants were school-related, Nicholas said.
"I certainly hope they didn’t feel threatened by us. I would just say the fact remains they initiated their comments with us. I mean they provoked us into a peaceful response of school spirit," Nicholas said.
The Black Hebrew Israelites can be seen in longer videos of the incident harassing different groups of people before interacting with the group of Covington Catholic students.
Nicholas told Guthrie that he wishes he and his classmates had walked away.
"Do you feel from this experience that you owe anybody an apology?" Guthrie asks Nicholas. "Do you see your own fault in any way?"
Nicholas responds by saying: "As far as standing there, I had every right to do so. I don't – I – my position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips. I respect him. I'd like to talk to him. I mean – in hindsight I wish we could have walked away and avoided the whole thing."
Guthrie asked Nicholas about the "smirk."
"People judged me based off one expression, which I wasn't smirking," Nicholas said about the expression. "And they've gone from there to titling me and labeling me as a racist person."
As for the "Make America Great Again" hat, Nicholas said he bought his hat that day from a street vendor.
According to Phillips, he approached the group of teenagers after he felt that their interactions with a group of Black Hebrew Israelites were going to escalate.
Phillips said some of the members of the Black Hebrew group were also acting up, "saying some harsh things" and that one member spit in the direction of the Catholic students. "So I put myself in between that, between a rock and hard place," he said.
"There was that moment when I realized I've put myself between beast and prey," Phillips told the Detroit Free Press. "These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey, and I stood in between them and so they needed their pounds of flesh and they were looking at me for that."
Guthrie said Phillips will make an appearance on the Today Show on Thursday. The Today Show airs at 7 a.m.
After the interview aired with Nicholas aired on the Today Show, Twitter users slammed Guthrie.
Filmmaker and "Teen Mom" executive producer Morgan J. Freeman tweeted directly to the anchor.
"Hey @SavannahGuthrie -- check out the book WHITE FRAGILITY by Robin DiAngelo," Freeman wrote. "You are complicit in white washing systemic racism represented by #MAGA caps, and the white boys of privilege who sport them. You're too concerned with how painful it is for Nick to be called a racist."
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Covington Catholic student Nicholas Sandmann on Today Show: 'People judged me based off one expression'