A Kentucky high school student who's been accused of taunting a Native American Vietnam War veteran singing during the Indigenous Peoples March Friday said he was “defusing the situation.”
Initial videos of the moment between Covington High School Student Nick Sandmann and veteran Nathan Phillips, 64, show the teen wearing a red Make America Great Again hat and standing close in front of Phillips. Sandmann stared directly and Phillips and was at times smiling as Phillips sang the "American Indian Movement" song and beat a drum.
In the roughly three-minute clip shot in front of the Lincoln Memorial, other teens shout, chant and laugh around Sanmann and Phillips. Some of the teens sported MAGA hats as well.
However, Sandmann claims the video that has been widely shared doesn't show the full story. He says that Phillips approached him.
“The protester everyone has seen in the video began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him,” Sandmann said in a statement. “I did not see anyone try to block his path. 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 claimed in his statement that the elder was “attempting to provoke teenagers.”
“I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse (sic) the situation,” Sandmann’s statement read. “I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.”
Phillips, an elder in the Omaha tribe and known activist, told CNN he felt the confrontation was “hate unbridled” and was scared for his safety.
A longer video of the incident later surfaced, showing what led up to the interaction between Sandmann and Phillips. The more than hour long footage shows several men identifying themselves as Black Hebrew Israelites preaching and shouting at the people around them, which include the Covington teens. A crowd of the high schoolers grows around the men, and many of the students chant and gesture together.
As the tension grows, Phillips and other demonstrators with the Indigenous Peoples March can be seen in the video walking between the two groups and singing and beating the drums.
He has said it was to bring peace to the situation. But when they got into the thick of the crowd, Phillips told the Washington Post the teen blocked his path.
“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’” Phillips told the paper. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way, and we were at an impasse.”
Phillips told the Detroit Free Press that the teenagers around him chanted phrases like "Go back to the reservation" and "Build that wall. Kaya Taitano told CNN she witnessed the incident and also said the students were chanting statements like “Build the wall” and “Trump 2020.”
“They just surrounded him and they were mocking him. ... We really didn't know what was going to happen there,” Taitano said.
However, Sandmann claimed in his statement that he did not hear any students chanting racist things.
The video shows Sandmann eventually walking away from the indigenous demonstrators.
The Indigenous Peoples Movement, which organized the Indigenous Peoples March, issued a statement after the incident.
“It clearly demonstrates the validity of our concerns about the marginalization and disrespect of indigenous peoples, and it shows that traditional knowledge is being ignored by those who should listen most closely,” organizer Darren Thompson said.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School condemned the actions of the teens and apologized to Phillips in a joint statement.
They said they are investigating and "appropriate action" will be taken.
"We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips," the statement read. "This behavior is opposed to the Church's teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person."