For years, Native American advocate Nathan Phillips of metro Detroit has been fighting for the rights of indigenous people.
On Friday, his battle gained national attention, as social media videos captured his standoff with a group of taunting Catholic school students in the nation's capital. The video of Phillips, peacefully drumming and singing, while surrounded by a hostile crowd illustrates the nation's political and racial tensions.
Speaking to the Free Press by phone, Phillips, 64, of Ypsilanti, explained what happened after 5 p.m. Friday during the Indigenous Peoples' March he was attending and spoke of his history working for the cause of Native American people.
He gave new details about an incident that sparked outrage and criticism from a range of groups.
Marine steps between "beast' and "prey"
Prior to what is seen on the now-viral video, Phillips said he was in Washington attending a Native American rally. Near the end of rally, he said he tried to keep the peace between a group of mostly white students attending a March for Life event, and a group of about four people with a religious group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites.
Phillips, a former Marine, said the incident started as a group of Catholic students from Kentucky were observing the Black Israelites talk, and started to get upset at their speeches. The Catholic group then got bigger and bigger, with more than 100 assembled at one point, he said.
"They witnessed these individuals on their soapbox saying what they had to say," Phillips said. "They didn't agree with it and got offended."
Then, things got heated.
"They were in the process of attacking these four black individuals," Phillip said. "I was there and I was witnessing all of this. ... As this kept on going on and escalating, it just got to a point where you do something or you walk away, you know? You see something that is wrong and you're faced with that choice of right or wrong."
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.
But then, the crowd of mostly male students turned their anger toward Phillips.
"There was that moment when I realized I've put myself between beast and prey," Phillips said. "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."
The crowd of students, some of whom wore MAGA caps, mocked Native Americans while chanting "Build the Wall" and using derogatory language. The students had a "mob mentality" that "was scary. ... It was ugly, what these kids were involved in. It was racism. It was hatred. It was scary."
Speaking from his niece's home, Phillips said: "I'm a Marine Corps veteran, and I know what that mob mentality can be like. That's where it was at. It got to a point where they just needed something for them to ... just tear them apart. I mean, it was that ugly."
Phillips said he recalled "the looks in these young men's faces ... I mean, if you go back and look at the lynchings that was done (in America) ... and you'd see the faces on the people ... The glee and the hatred in their faces, that's what these faces looked like."
"When I took that drum and started singing, I placed myself in between these two factions of people. It wasn't a real conscious process, it was just what they call a spur of the moment."
Phillips said the blame for the incident is with the students' chaperones.
"If their own instructors, their own teachers, their own chaperones, would have handled the situation right from the beginning, it would never have happened," Phillips said. "I would have never been bothered with it."
More work is needed to heal racial strife
Born in Nebraska into the Omaha tribe, Phillips said he was 5 years old when he was "taken away from my family and put in foster care ... until I was 17."
Phillips said he grew up in an abusive home, started working on construction and lumber jobs, and then joined the Marines, serving in the Vietnam War.
He later moved to Washington, D.C., and became active with Native American issues. He's now with the Native Youth Alliance and also does work with Native American veterans.
Phillips said he moved to Michigan 10 years ago after his wife was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. She was getting treatments at a university and died in 2015, he said.
That same year, Phillips said he was racially harassed by a group of students at Eastern Michigan University. Fox 2 Detroit reported on the incident at the time.
Phillips said he was walking by when he noticed students dressed up as Native Americans, saying they wanted to bring back the university's previous logo of an Native American tribe, the Hurons.
"I told them ... that was racist and they got upset with that," Phillips told the Free Press. "One of the students threw a full can of beer at me that was unopened and hit me with it, and the police did nothing. The school did nothing."
Phillips said he's concerned about the political climate that he said causes incidents like those he has experienced.
"It's like we need somebody to blame again for our failings," he said. "Our president is kind of ... feeding the fires of racism. Some of the things he's been saying have been divisive, the building of the wall. ... Why do we have to build a wall on the southern border and not the northern border?"
Phillips said the students who derided him Friday were motivated by fear of different people.
"The Black Israelites, they were saying some harsh things, but some of it was true, too," Phillips said. "These young, white American kids who were being taught in their Catholic school, their doctrine, their truth, and when they found out there's more truth out there than what they're being taught, they were offended, they were insulted, they were scared, and that's how they responded. One thing that I was taught in my Marine Corp training is that a scared man will kill you. And that's what these boys were. They were scared."
Phillips said the clash in Washington means "that we've got a lot of work to do" in educating people about Native Americans and racism.
At the same time, he said he's encouraged by how technology has allowed the message to be spread.
"Many people wouldn't be hearing what happened just yesterday" if it weren't for "these technological wonders. ... So we have a chance. ... I'm just really overwhelmed with the outpouring of support."
Follow Niraj Warikoo on Twitter @nwarikoo
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Native American veteran: 'Mob mentality' in students seen in viral video was 'scary'