On Jan. 18, an interaction on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial between Catholic high school boys, a Native American elder and a group of black men who identified themselves as Hebrew Israelite activists, became a mirror for America’s social and political tensions. However, a new video has emerged that sheds more light on the situation.
The high school students were in Washington, D.C. on a field trip to attend the anti-abortion March for Life rally, many of them white and wearing clothing bearing President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. The Omaha elder, Nathan Phillips, was in D.C. to participate in the Indigenous Peoples March, and to raise awareness for global injustices against indigenous peoples. In a video posted to Twitter that soon became viral, a high school junior named Nick Sandmann is seen smiling and standing directly in front of Phillips, who chants and beats a ceremonial drum amid the throng of students surrounding him. While there were no violent actions, many of the students seemed to be laughing, jeering, and making Tomahawk Chop gestures popularized by sporting events.
When the video was first released on Friday, there was immediate backlash against the Catholic students’ behavior. Native Americans, Catholics and politicians from both sides of the aisle came together to condemn the students’ display of disrespect. Covington Catholic High School, an all-male college preparatory school in Park Hills, Kentucky, released a statement in which they extended their “deepest apologies” to Phillips on behalf of the actions of their students. The school also stated that the March for Life field trip was intended merely to help students live by their beliefs and demonstrate their support of all life.
Furthermore, the statement apologized to all Native Americans and said that the students’ behavior “is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.” The school said it would investigate the situation and “take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.”
Others, like the organizers of the Indigenous Peoples March, have focused on the, “Make America Great Again” apparel that the students wore, and have pointed to their actions as associated with President Trump’s own inflammatory comments about immigrants and minorities being detrimental to America’s greatness. Darren Thompson, one of those organizers, stated that the altercation was yet another example of the concerns Native Americans have, and the “validity of our concerns.”
Phillips himself, a war veteran and former director of the Native Youth Alliance, an organization that upholds traditional Native American culture for future generations, said that he was attempting to finish his song when “that guy in the hat stood in my way and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”
On Sunday, however, new interviews and video footage give further information on what occurred leading up to the viral moment. Sandmann says that there was a group of black men, self-identified as Hebrew Israelites, who were antagonizing both the Native Americans and Catholic students. When the men began hurling derogatory insults toward the students, the students responded by loudly shouting their school spirit chants in an attempt to drown out the hateful comments.
One of the Hebrew Israelite activists, Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan, has said that his group’s words and actions have been misconstrued and that they were not the instigators.
Phillips intervened when he feared that the tensions, primarily racial, between the men and students would become violent. It was then that he “stepped in between to pray.” Phillips and a few friends entered the crowd of students, singing a spiritual song associated with prayer and resistance, in an attempt to demonstrate what happens when you work against anger and hatred. Sandmann released his own statement on Sunday, which says that he didn’t know what Phillips’ motives were, but nevertheless remained “motionless and calm” in the face of Phillips in an attempt to lessen the chances of a larger conflict.
“I am a faithful Christian and practicing Catholic, and I always try to live up to the ideals my faith teaches me—to remain respectful of others, and to take no action that would lead to conflict or violence,” said Sandmann.