Written by Sarah Mervosh and Emily S. Rueb
A fuller and more complicated picture emerged Sunday of the videotaped encounter between a Native American man and a throng of high school boys wearing “Make America Great Again” gear outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
Interviews and additional video footage suggest that an explosive convergence of race, religion and ideological beliefs — against a national backdrop of political tension — set the stage for the viral moment. Early video excerpts from the encounter obscured the larger context, inflaming outrage.
Leading up to the encounter Friday, a rally for Native Americans and other indigenous people was wrapping up. Dozens of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, who had been in Washington for the March for Life rally, were standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, many of them white and wearing apparel bearing the President Donald Trump’s slogan. There were also black men who identified themselves as Hebrew Israelites, preaching their beliefs and shouting racially combative comments at the Native Americans and the students, according to witnesses and video on social media.
Soon, the Native American man, Nathan Phillips, 64, was encircled by an animated group of high school boys. He beat a ceremonial drum as a boy wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat stood inches away. The boy identified himself in a statement released Sunday night as Nick Sandmann, a junior.
It was a provocative image that rocketed across social media, leading many, including the students’ own school, to condemn the boys’ behavior as disrespectful. But Sunday, Phillips clarified that it was he who had approached the crowd and that he had intervened because racial tensions — primarily between the white students and the black men — were “coming to a boiling point.”
“I stepped in between to pray,” Phillips said.
In his statement, Sandmann said he did not antagonize or try to block Phillips. “I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves,” he said.
The encounter became the latest touch point for racial and political tensions in America, with diverging views about what really had happened.
Conservatives and other supporters maintained that the students had been unfairly vilified out of context, while those affiliated with the Indigenous Peoples March said they perceived the combination of the group’s size, behavior and political apparel as threatening.
For some, invoking the name of Trump — who has made inflammatory comments about Mexicans and Muslims — has become a racially charged taunt, inspiration for hateful graffiti and high school sports cheers alike. Trump also recently mocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whom he called “Pocahontas,” with a reference to Wounded Knee and Little Bighorn, sacred ground for Native Americans whose ancestors fought and died there.
It did not go unnoticed that Friday’s episode took place at the same location where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his most famous address, calling for an end to racism in the United States.
But there was little resolution Sunday.
By then, thousands of people had signed an online petition started by a graduate of the school to remove its principal, while in some circles Phillips was cast as a professional activist engaged in a publicity stunt. The principal, Bob Rowe, could not be reached Sunday.
In a joint statement Saturday, Covington Catholic High School and the Diocese of Covington apologized to Phillips and said they were investigating. “We will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion,” the statement said. A spokeswoman for the diocese did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.
In Sandmann’s statement, which was released by a public relations firm, he said he remained “motionless and calm” in an effort to defuse the situation.
“I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict,” he said.
“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,” he said. “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.
“I harbor no ill will for this person,” he continued. “I respect this person’s right to protest and engage in free speech activities, and I support his chanting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial any day of the week. I believe he should rethink his tactics of invading the personal space of others, but that is his choice to make.”
In a lengthy video posted to YouTube, the Hebrew Israelites shouted insults at Native Americans and the high school students. One of the men, Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan, denied in a Facebook video that his group had been instigators.
On Sunday night, Banyamyan said their words had been misconstrued as hateful and that they, in fact, were being mocked by the students.
“I know we seem aggressive reading the Bible, but the Bible states for us to cry aloud and don’t spare anybody’s feelings,” he said. “We’re not violent or ignorant.”
A parent of a Covington Catholic sophomore, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns for his family, said his son, who attended the event, said the students were shouting school chants to drown out harassment from the black men. When it worked, the students were “hyped up and high-fiving each other,” he said.
The parent and Sandmann’s statement denied that the students chanted about building a wall at the border with Mexico, as Phillips has said. But in an interview Sunday, Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesman for the Indigenous Peoples Movement, which organized the march, said he had also heard chants of “build that wall,” a rallying cry of Trump’s supporters.
Marcus Frejo, an indigenous hip-hop artist who is also known as Quese Imc, said he was standing with a friend near the black men when tensions flickered. He said he was worried “something ugly” was going to happen.
Around that time, he said, Phillips approached, asking to borrow a drum. Together, they headed into the center of the students, creating a sort of prayer circle. They sang what he said was a well-known spiritual song associated with the American Indian Movement of the 1960s and used for prayer and resistance.
In separate interviews, Frejo and Phillips said they heard the students making noises that seemed to mock Native American chanting. But Frejo also said he heard some of the students sing along. “Regardless of their ignorance and bigotry,” he said, the “spirits moved through them.”
Moments later, the group of students disbanded. But to many, the interaction — and the disparate way it was perceived — reflected the national mood.
Frejo, who works with youths to prevent suicide and alcohol abuse, saw this as “a teachable moment” to help show what can happen when you push past anger and hatred.
“We chose to go over there,” he said, “to sing a song to hopefully change something.”