The furor over the behavior of a group of Catholic school students from Kentucky toward a Native American elder during weekend protests in Washington, D.C., took a turn Sunday with the emergence of a new video.
The one-hour, 46-minute video presents a fuller picture of the Friday events that culminated with students from the all-male Covington Catholic High School coming face-to-face with Nathan Phillips, a longtime Native American activist and Vietnam veteran, as he chanted and banged a drum in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
A viral 3-minute, 44-second clip that shows the teenagers – several of them wearing "Make America Great Again" hats – laughing, hooting and hollering while surrounding Phillips drew widespread condemnation and prompted the school and the Diocese of Covington to issue an apology and promise to take “appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.’’
The longer version of the incident is more complex, and now that it has surfaced, the rush to judge the teenagers is coming under attack.
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“The honorable and tolerant students of Covington Catholic School came to DC to advocate for the unborn and to learn about our nation’s Capitol,’’ tweeted Republican Rep. Thomas Massie, whose district includes the part of Northern Kentucky where the school is located. “What they got was a brutal lesson in the unjust court of public opinion and social media mobs.’’
In a statement on Sunday, Nick Sandmann, a junior at the school who was at the center of the students' apparent confrontation with Phillips, defended himself and his family against "outright lies" in the media. Both videos show Sandmann, who was wearing a MAGA hat, smirking and staring at Phillips for more than two minutes while standing about a foot from him.
In the 2½-page long statement, Sandmann denied he was confronting Phillips, arguing it was the activist who got in his face.
“I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation,’’ Sandmann said. “I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict.’’
Sandmann also said he and his family have received death threats. “I am being called every name in the book, including racist, and I will not stand for this mob-like character assassination of my family’s name," he said.
The fuller video would seem to assign more blame on a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites who were in the nation’s capital for the anti-abortion March for Life.
The main speaker for the Black Hebrew Israelites, hollering without a microphone for more than an hour, first tells some demonstrating Native Americans they had their land taken away because they worshiped the wrong god.
When the student party arrives later, the speaker launches into an attack on Catholics and against President Donald Trump. He also calls the mostly white youngsters “crackers.’’
Eventually, the teenagers engage, with one of them taking his shirt off and leading the rest in a cheer. Maintaining a distance of at least 15 feet, they then launch into a chant. That’s when Phillips and his fellow demonstrators walk in, banging drums and getting between the groups, although no confrontation appeared imminent.
The students initially seem to react to the drumming in a good-natured way before their participation appears to become more derisive, highlighted by Sandmann's apparent staredown with Phillips.
At one point, the students break into the kind of chant popular with crowds at Atlanta Braves and Florida State Seminoles games, while a few do a “tomahawk chop.’’
In the video, the Black Hebrew Israelites comment on how Phillips deescalated the situation, but also remark that he’s getting taunted.
Later, the dueling groups get physically closer, though at no point does a physical encounter develop.
Phillips, 64, an elder of the Omaha Nation, was participating in an Indigenous Peoples March that was concluding when he noticed the verbal clash in front of the Lincoln Memorial steps and decided to intervene.
“There was that moment when I realized I've put myself between beast and prey,’’ Phillips told the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network. “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.’’
Phillips said he became frightened as the throng of teenagers grew around him, adding that they yelled at him to “Go back to the reservation’’ and broke into chants of “Build that wall.’’ He also questioned why chaperones did not get involved.
Part of his fear, Phillips said, arose from what he perceived as a “mob mentality’’ in the boys.
“It was ugly, what these kids were involved in,’’ he said. “It was racism. It was hatred. It was scary.’’
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fuller video casts new light on Covington Catholic students' encounter with Native American elder