Breaking News Emails
Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Alex Johnson
The young man at the center of what has been described as a hostile confrontation with an Omaha tribal elder last week denounced what he called “outright lies” on Sunday, saying he was actually trying to remain calm to defuse the tense situation.
“I am the student in the video who was confronted by the Native American protestor,” the young man, Nick Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic High School in Covington, Kentucky, said in a statement his family issued through a public relations firm.
(Warning: strong language.)
The widely circulated video shows young men, many of them wearing Make America Great Again hats, appearing to surround a Native American troupe as it performs a song about strength and courage at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington on Friday afternoon.
Sandmann has become the face of the apparent confrontation, smiling silently only a foot or two from the face of Nathan Phillips, a Vietnam War veteran and prominent activist for indigenous people’s causes.
Critics have characterized the young man as smirking and trying to stare down Phillips. But other, longer videos have complicated the narrative, suggesting that there was jeering by a separate group of people before the incident recorded on the most widely circulated video.
Sandmann said Sunday that when his group arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, the site of the Indigenous Peoples March, on Friday, he heard “four African American protestors” who he said directed “derogatory insults at our school group.”
“They also taunted an African American student from my school by telling him that we would ‘harvest his organs,'” Sandmann said. “I have no idea what that insult means, but it was startling to hear.”
Sandmann said that, with the permission of a teacher who was serving as a chaperone, he began leading the group of students in school spirit chants “to counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group.”
After a few minutes, the native protesters began approaching, he said, “accompanied by at least one person with a camera.”
Referring to Phillips, Sandmann said: “I never interacted with this protestor. I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves. To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me. We had already been yelled at by another group of protestors, and when the second group approached I was worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers.
“I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation,” he 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. I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.”
Sandmann, who said he has received death threats, strongly disputed characterizations that he is a racist, saying: “I am mortified that so many people have come to believe something that did not happen — that students from my school were chanting or acting in a racist fashion toward African Americans or Native Americans.”
“I did not do that, do not have hateful feelings in my heart, and did not witness any of my classmates doing that,” he said, adding: “I have read that Mr. Phillips is a veteran of the United States Marines. I thank him for his service and am grateful to anyone who puts on the uniform to defend our nation. If anyone has earned the right to speak freely, it is a U.S. Marine veteran.”
Earlier in the day, Covington Catholic High School and the Catholic Diocese of Covington, near Cincinnati, had rejected any gray area in condemning “the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general.”
“The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion,” the diocese and the school said in a joint statement.
The diocese and the school said the students were in Washington to attend the March for Life, a major anti-abortion rally, and they lamented that the incident had “tainted the entire witness of the March for Life.”
They said they extended “our most sincere apologies to all those who attended the March and all those who support the pro-life movement.”
In a letter to parents ahead of the march, Covington Catholic High School said more than 200 students attended the same anti-abortion rally last year, chaperoned by students’ parents.
Sandmann’s statement Sunday is believed to be the first assertion that the group was accompanied by chaperones at the time of the incident on Friday. Phillips and others questioned why there didn’t appear to be a more robust adult presence to intervene as the apparent confrontation festered without intervention.
Phillips said in an interview with MSNBC’s Joy Reid on Sunday that he was trying to do just that, saying he approached the young men after having witnessed them going back and forth with a group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites, a loose association mostly of people of black African ancestry who say they are descendants of the biblical Israelites.
But instead of listening, Phillips said, some of the young men began expressing support for President Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — “chants of ‘build the wall’ and other things that were even worse.”
Phillips said the youths’ chaperones should be fired.
“Where were they? How did they allow these students to come to this point after an hour of this happening? Were they with them? Were they encouraging them?” he asked.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Covington, Joe Meyer, expressed frustration that the incident was being linked with his city, noting that Covington Catholic High School is actually in the nearby town of Park Hills, not in Covington.
“But that’s not the point,” Meyer wrote in an op-ed article offered to newspapers and published on the city’s website.
“The point is that because of the actions of people who live in Northern Kentucky, our region is being challenged again to examine our core identities, values, and beliefs,” Meyer wrote. “Regardless of what exact town we live in, we need to ask ourselves whether behavior like this DOES represent who we are and strive to be. Is this what our schools teach? Are these the beliefs that we as parents model and condone?
“Is this the way we want the rest of the nation and the world to see us?” he asked.
“In answer, let me — as Covington’s mayor — be absolutely clear: No.”