New video and dueling narratives emerged Sunday about an encounter between a Native American leader and a group of Kentucky high-schoolers in Washington that went viral and drew widespread condemnation this weekend.
The Covington Catholic student at the center of the firestorm issued a statement that claimed he was only trying to defuse a tense and confusing situation when he stood eye-to-eye with tribal elder Nathan Phillips, a smile plastered on his face and a Make America Great Again hat on his head, while schoolmates cheered.
“It was clear to me he had singled me out for a confrontation,” the student, Nicholas Sandmann, wrote in the statement.
Phillips, meanwhile, said he was also trying to calm tensions—between the teens and a cluster of Black Hebrew Israelite protesters—when he approached the group while singing and drumming. He said he saw “hatred” in the eyes of the “beastly young men.”
Video posted Friday of the Lincoln Memorial face-off between the students, who were attending the March for Life, and Phillips, who was part of the Indigenous Peoples March, sparked outrage. Phillips, a Vietnam veteran, told reporters the teens had a “mob mentality” that he found “scary,” and the school and diocese apologized and promised an investigation.
The initial clip of the encounter shows Phillips surrounded by the Covington students, who are hyperactively chanting and dancing. One student, one of the many sporting MAGA apparel, stands directly in front of Phillips and smiles widely at him for nearly two minutes while he drums.
But a second video circulated Sunday shows the lead-up to the encounter and appears to offer a more complete picture of what happened.
In those minutes, a small group of Black Israelite protesters is shown hurling insults at the students as they are standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. At one point, they can be heard calling the teenagers “incest babies.”
That video was made by one of the protesters, and it’s not clear what, if anything, the students said in response, or what sparked the confrontation.
Soon after, the teens began chanting pep rally songs—and one student went as far as to run down the stairs into the space between the two groups and rip off his shirt and sweatshirt.
Soon after, Phillips can be seen walking between the groups and drumming as they continued to shout at each other.
“I was scared and I didn’t want to. I really, I really didn’t want to, but nobody else was,” Phillips later told Indian Country Today. “We’re indigenous. We’re different than that. When we see our youth going the wrong way, we will go up and say, ‘You are doing the wrong thing there nephew, or grandson. This is just the wrong way.’ I tell them, ‘This is the way you have to behave. This wrong, this is right,'” he said.
Video shows Phillips drumming and singing what Rolling Stone identified as “Raymond Yellow Thunder Song.” The Black Hebrew Israelite protesters appeared to support Phillips, calling him their “elder” and claiming he was there to protect them as he approached the Covington Catholic students and made his way into the crowd, ultimately standing face-to-face with them as they surrounded him.
The Covington Catholic students have since come forward with their side of the story, claiming that they were victims of a “publicity stunt” and that portrayal of the confrontation by some media outlets is “not true and taken entirely out of context.”
One student wrote to Cincinnati's Local 12 news to explain that while the students were milling about on the Lincoln Memorial steps awaiting their bus home, “we decided to do some cheers to pass time.”
“In the midst of our cheers, we were approached by a group of adults led by Nathan Phillips, with Phillips beating his drum. They forced their way into the center of our group,” the student claimed. “We initially thought this was a cultural display since he was beating along to our cheers and so we clapped to the beat. He came to stand in front of one of my classmates who stood where he was, smiling and enjoying the experience.
“However, after multiple minutes of Mr. Phillips beating his drum directly in the face of my friend (mere centimeters from his nose), we became confused and started wondering what was happening. It was not until later that we discovered they would incriminate us as a publicity stunt.”
“As a result,” he added, “my friend faces expulsion for for simply standing still and our entire school is being disparaged for a crime we did not commit.”
Sandmann, in the statement later tweeted by CNN’s Jake Tapper, said he and his peers were responding to the Hebrew Israelite protesters.
“Because we were being loudly attacked and taunted in public, a student in our group asked one of our teacher chaperones for permission to begin our school spirit chants to counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group,” Sandmann said.
When Phillips came to intervene, Sandmann said, “he locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face. He played his drum the entire time he was in my face.”
Sandmann further claimed that “I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse [sic] the situation,” and that “I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated, or provoked into a larger confrontation.”
Phillips, however, tells a different story. “There was that moment when I realized I’ve put myself between beast and prey,” he told The Detroit Free Press. While he said he’d seen one of the Hebrew Israelite protesters spit in the direction of the students, he said it was “scary” to see “hatred” in the teenagers’ eyes during the encounter. “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.”