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Viral standoff between a tribal elder and a high schooler is more complicated than it first seemed

Omaha elder Nathan Phillips and high school student Nick Sandmann give their versions of viral moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)
Editor`s Note:

After this article was published, the bishop in Covington, Ky., apologized for the statement condemning the students and an investigation conducted for the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School found the students’ accounts consistent with videos. This article now links to a statement issued by the high school student facing Native American activist Nathan Phillips. Subsequent Post coverage, including video, reported these developments: “Kentucky bishop apologizes to Covington Catholic students, says he expects their exoneration”; “Investigation finds no evidence of ‘racist or offensive statements’ in Mall incident.” Also, this version of the story has been revised to clarify that certain statements reported by Phillips are not corroborated by widely circulated video of the incident. (March 1)

The three groups that met Friday in the cold shadow of the Lincoln Memorial could hardly have been more different. They were indigenous rights activists from Michigan, Catholic schoolboys from Kentucky — some wearing Make America Great Again hats — and Hebrew Israelites from the nation’s capital.

They were Native American, Caucasian and African American; old, young and middle-aged.

And there, beneath the fallen president’s promise to work “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” they came together in an incident that would echo nationwide for its ugliness.

The Israelites and students exchanged taunts, videos show. The Native Americans and Hebrew Israelites say some students shouted, “Build the wall!” But the chant is not heard on the widely circulated videos, and the Cincinnati Enquirer quotes Nick Sandmann, the student at the center of the confrontation, saying he did not hear anyone utter the phrase.

When a Native American elder intervened, singing and playing a prayer song, scores of students around him seem to mimic and mock him, a video posted Monday shows. At one point, he found himself face to face with Sandman, whose frozen smile struck some as nervousness and others as arrogance.

Neither budged.

Video footage of the tense confrontation quickly went viral, stirring outrage across the political spectrum. The Kentucky teens’ church apologized on Saturday, condemning the students’ actions. By Sunday, however, conservative commenters on social media were saying it was the students who had been wronged, and the organizers of the March for Life, the event that drew the teens to Washington, rescinded their initial criticism of the youths.

Sandmann, an 11th-grader, said in a statement provided to the Enquirer that he and his classmates had been called “racists,” “bigots” and worse. He said he was “remaining motionless and calm” in hopes that things would not “get out of hand.”

The Native American elder said he was caught in the middle.

“When I took that drum and hit that first beat . . . it was a supplication to God,” said Nathan Phillips, a member of the Omaha tribe and a Marine veteran. “Look at us, God, look at what is going on here; my America is being torn apart by racism, hatred, bigotry.”

The incident, and the finger-pointing that followed, seemed to capture the worst of America at a moment of extreme political polarization, as discourse once again gave way to division, and people drew conclusions on social media before all the facts were known.

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'Did I provoke that?'

The students, from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., were one school group among scores bused to the annual March for Life.

The Native American activists were there for the Indigenous Peoples March.

So were the Hebrew Israelites, who believe African Americans are God’s chosen people and the real descendants of the Hebrews of the Bible.

“We were there to teach, to teach the truth of the Bible, to show them our real history,” said Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan, one of five Hebrew Israelites on the Mall that day.

The group has militant members and “a long, strange list of enemies” that includes whites, Jews, Asians, members of the LGBTQ community, abortion rights advocates and continental Africans, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Banyamyan said he and those with him Friday believe in using blunt language, but not violence. A video he posted to social media shows them insulting other marchers.

“Where’s your husband?” one Hebrew Israelite asked a woman who had stopped to argue with the group. “Bring your husband. Let me speak to him.”

At one point, the Hebrew Israelites began arguing with Native American activists, telling them the word “Indian” means “savage,” according to the video.

While the groups argued, some students laughed and mocked them, according to Banyamyan and another Hebrew Israelite, Ephraim Israel, who came from New York for the event. As tension grew, the Hebrew Israelites started insulting the students.

“Tell them to come over in the lion’s den instead of mocking from over there,” Banyamyan can be heard saying in the video. “Y’all dirty ass little crackers, your day is coming.”

“They were sitting there, mocking me as I was trying to teach my brothers, so, yes, the attention turned to them,” Israel told The Washington Post. “I explained to them, you want to build the wall for Mexicans and other indigenous people, but you’ve never seen a black or a Mexican shoot up a school.”

Acts of Faith: Who are the Hebrew Israelites?

Phillips said he and his fellow Native American activists also had issues with the students throughout the day.

“Before they got centered on the black Israelites, they would walk through and say things to each other, like, ‘Oh, the Indians in my state are drunks or thieves,’” the 64-year-old said.

Phillips said he heard students shout, “Go back to Africa!”

There is no video corroboration for either claim.

Sandmann said in his statement that he “did not witness or hear any students chant ‘build that wall’ or anything hateful or racist at any time. Assertions to the contrary are simply false.”

He said he and his classmates were shouting cheers they knew from school, with permission from their chaperones, “to drown out the hateful comments that were being shouted at us by the protesters.”

By 5 p.m., the light was fading on the Mall and both marches had mostly petered out. A group of about 100 Covington students had gathered on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial, where they had been told to meet before catching their buses home.

The Hebrew Israelites were also still there, and still insulting the students.

“You all are a bunch of Donald Trump incest babies,” Israel said to them, according to the video, before asking if there were any black students among them.

When a black Covington student came forward, Israel called him “Kanye West” and the n-word, the footage shows. He tells the teen his friends will one day harvest his organs, an apparent reference to the racially fraught movie “Get Out.”

At that point, the students began chanting, jumping and shouting. The songs culminated in one student stripping off his shirt and shouting as others cheered.

“The chants are commonly used at sporting events. They are all positive in nature,” Sandmann said. “We would not have done that without obtaining permission from the adults in charge of our group.”

Banyamyan said the Hebrew Israelites took the performance as a racist impersonation.

“They were mocking my ancestors in a chant, one of them was jumping up and down like a cave man,” he said. “Did I provoke that?”

'A mob mentality'

To Jessica Travis, a Florida attorney who was at the memorial with her mother, the students looked out of control.

“The kids really went into a mob mentality, honestly,” she said, adding that she didn’t see any chaperones trying to control the situation. She said she heard one student tell the Hebrew Israelites to “drink the Trump water.”

Jon Stegenga, a photojournalist who drove to Washington on Friday from South Carolina to cover the Indigenous Peoples March, recalled hearing students say “build the wall” and “Trump 2020.” He said it was about that time that Phillips intervened.

“He said, ‘I wish I could say something to these people, to the whole crowd,’ ” Stegenga said in an interview Sunday.

Another member of the Indigenous Peoples March suggested Phillips start singing, the photographer said. Phillips played a prayer song on a drum as he walked toward the students.

Some of the students began doing a “Tomahawk chop” and dancing, the video shows. Phillips said he found it offensive but kept walking and drumming.

Most of the students moved out of his way, the video shows. But Sandmann stayed still.

Asked why he felt the need to walk into the group of students, Phillips said he was trying to reach the top of the memorial, where friends were standing. But Phillips also said he saw more than a teenage boy in front of him. He saw a long history of white oppression of Native Americans.

“Why should I go around him?” he asked. “I’m just thinking of 500 years of genocide in this country, what your people have done. You don’t even see me as a human being.”

Stegenga described Phillips as emotional. “He was dealing with a lot of feelings, as he was being surrounded and not being shown respect,” the photographer said. “In Native American culture, respect of elders is everything. . . . It was a heartbroken feeling.”

The Indians were right, the English were wrong: A tribe reclaims its past

Phillips said he blamed both the students and the Hebrew Israelites for what happened.

“If it wasn’t for those Israelites being there in the first place, this wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “And if it wasn’t for the lack of responsibility from school chaperones, this wouldn’t have happened either.”

Sandmann said Phillips bore responsibility, too.

“He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face,” the statement said. “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 protesters . . . I was worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers.”

School officials and the Catholic Diocese of Covington released a joint statement Saturday condemning and apologizing for the students’ actions. “The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion,” the statement said. In a column on the town website,Covington Mayor Joe Meyer declared that “The videos being shared across the nation do NOT represent the core beliefs and values of this City.”

The debate over what happened continued to play out on social media Monday, with one Twitter user posting video that showed Covington students jumping and yelling around Phillips as he played. Sandmann does not appear to be in the clip.

With his statement circulating, and more attention focused on the behavior of the Hebrew Israelites, some public reaction had already shifted. March for Life organizers, who on Saturday had called the teens’ behavior “reprehensible,” deleted that statement from their website Sunday evening and pledged to reserve judgment.

“It is clear from new footage and additional accounts that there is more to this story than the original video captured,” the group said in a new statement. “We will refrain from commenting further until the truth is understood.”

And Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) tweeted that “in the face of racist and homosexual slurs, the young boys refused to reciprocate or disrespect anyone.”

“In the context of everything that was going on (which the media hasn’t shown) the parents and mentors of these boys should be proud, not ashamed, of their kids’ behavior. It is my honor to represent them,” Massie’s tweet said.

In his statement, Sandmann said he had received “death threats via social media, as well as hateful insults. One person threatened to harm me at school, and one person claims to live in my neighborhood.” He said he was “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.”

Travis, who was in town to attend the Women’s March before sightseeing, said the scene on Friday shocked her and her mother.

“It was really depressing,” she said, “to see we are even more divided than ever.”

Moriah Balingit, Michelle Boorstein, DeNeen L. Brown, Joe Heim and Julie Tate contributed to this report.