The mother of a high school student among the group filmed in confrontation with a Native American man after a rally in Washington DC has blamed “black Muslims” for the encounter.
The woman’s son was reportedly alongside several wearing Make America Great Again (Maga) hats who were criticised for apparently taunting Nathan Phillips, surrounding him and chanting “build the wall, build the wall”.
But she claimed “black Muslims” had been harassing the group from the private, all-male Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky who were said to be in the capital to attend the anti-abortion March for Life.
In an email to the news website heavy.com, the woman wrote: “Did you hear the names of the people were calling these boys? It was shameful. Did you witness the black Muslims yelling profanities and video taping to get something to further your narrative of hatred??
“Did you know that this ‘man’ came up to this one boy and drummed in his face?”
The site said the woman was not the mother of the boy featured most prominently in the footage, who has since identified himself as Nick Sandmann and released a lengthy statement denying that any intimidation or mocking took place.
The encounter happened following an anti-abortion March for Life rally in the capital on Friday. A video clip first surfaced that appeared to show the Covington students surrounding Mr Phillips and jeering him, with Mr Sandmann in particular standing directly in front of him and smiling. The school and its parent diocese issued a swift apology and said they would investigate.
“We will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion,” a statement said. “This behaviour is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.”
That clip of Mr Phillips, an elder of Nebraska’s Omaha tribe and reportedly a Vietnam war veteran, was shared online by organisers of an indigenous peoples’ march that also took place on Friday.
However, a separate and much longer video showed how the children were subjected to a barrage of abuse including homophobic slurs and racially charged language by the group of black men mentioned by the student’s mother. The men, who claimed to be “Hebrew Israelites” according to the New York Times, argued aggressively with the students.
Extended footage depicts the apparent leader of the religious group hurling homophobic slurs at the students. “That’s Make America Great Again, a bunch of child-molesting f****ts”, he is heard to say. Another member – who seems to be the person filming – is recorded calling the children “dirty-ass crackers” and “racist bastards”. Approaching the students, he continues loudly: “Look at all these dusty-ass crackers with that racist garbage on.”
The same video shows the moment Mr Phillips arrived at the scene of the confrontation, singing and playing a drum. The 64-year-old can be seen interposing himself between the two groups, before he is enveloped by the crowd.
Another separate clip appears to show further abuse directed at the boys. A man – not Mr Phillips – can be heard to say: “You white people go back to Europe, this is not your land.”
The apparent intimidation of Mr Phillips, meanwhile, has prompted a torrent of outrage. Actress and activist Alyssa Milano tweeted that the footage “brought me to tears”, while actor Chris Evans said the students’ actions were “appalling” and “shameful”.
Democratic congresswoman Deb Haaland, a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo tribe, tweeted that the students had shown “blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance”.
Ruth Buffalo, a North Dakota state lawmaker and member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation tribe, said she was saddened to see students showing disrespect to an elder who is also a military veteran.
“The behaviour shown in that video is just a snapshot of what indigenous people have faced and are continuing to face,” said Ms Buffalo.
Covington Catholic High School has since closed its Facebook page.
“When I was there singing, I heard them saying, ‘Build that wall, build that wall,’” Mr Phillips said, as he wiped away tears in a video later posted on Instagram. “This is indigenous lands. We’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did.”
In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Mr Phillips said he believed the Covington students were “in the process of attacking” the religious group, but video footage does not appear to bear out that claim.
In his statement, Mr Sandmann decried the “outright lies” he said had been propagated about his conduct.
He said that Mr Phillips had approached him, and that he believed he had “defused the situation” by remaining calm and not interacting physically with the older man.
He added: “This is the first time in my life I’ve ever encountered any sort of public protest, let alone this kind of confrontation or demonstration.
“I was not intentionally making faces at [Mr Phillips]. I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation.”
Additional reporting by agencies
This story has been updated