correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately described the statement of Catholic officials from Covington, Ky. Their statement condemned the teens’ actions toward “Native Americans in general” but did not apologize for those actions. The article has been updated. This version of the story also has been revised to add that students chanting “build that wall” is not audible on video, and to eliminate Nathan Phillips’s claim that one student blocked him from moving, which is contradicted by available video. (March 1)
A viral video of a group of Kentucky teens in “Make America Great Again” hats taunting a Native American veteran on Friday has heaped fuel on a long-running, intense argument among abortion opponents as to whether the close affiliation of many antiabortion leaders with President Trump since he took office has led to moral decay that harms the movement.
The video, which began to spread Saturday morning, showed a throng of young, mostly white teenage boys, several wearing the caps, closely surrounding a 64-year-old man who was beating a drum as part of the Indigenous Peoples March happening near the Lincoln Memorial on Friday.
A few of the young people chanted “Build that wall, build that wall,” the man said, though such chants are not audible on widely circulated video.
An unverified, longer video of the event shows that the altercation between teens and the man was part of a broader tense scene on the memorial plaza over politics and identity. Another Native American man tells one of the youth: “Go back to Europe. This is not your land.”
The students in the video had just come from the March for Life, the country’s largest antiabortion rally and march, which happens annually on the Mall, a few blocks east of the Lincoln Memorial.
In a statement Saturday, the Catholic high school and diocese that some of the teens belong to issued a statement of apology to the man, Nathan Phillips.
“We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic high school students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general,” a statement by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School read. “We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips. This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person. The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion. We know this incident also has tainted the entire witness of the March for Life and express our sincere apologies to all those who attended the March and those who support the pro-life movement.”
The teens in the video had not been publicly identified as of Saturday evening.
The event happened as abortion opponents in recent days debated the March for Life’s decision to feature a greeting from President Trump — this year and last year — as well as one by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro. Some abortion opponents say the march has become too partisan and too aligned with politically conservative figures, Trump in particular. Twenty-two percent of Democrats say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and 38 percent of independents say the same, according to Pew Research Center.
Antiabortion leaders' embrace of Trump has alarmed a wide range of Christian abortion opponents. They see Trump’s comments on race and immigration, his lying and crudeness as damaging to the “pro-life” label. Younger religious conservatives continue to place an extremely high priority on decreasing abortions but more and more talk of a “consistent life ethic” that sees issues such as health care, global warming and support for poor pregnant women as among those that should be under the “pro-life” umbrella.
Catholic ethicist and writer Charles Camosy wrote in The Washington Post last month that the antiabortion movement — including the March for Life — is rolling back years of progress by becoming increasingly seen not as a broad-based human rights movement but as a “Republican or conservative constituency,” he wrote.
“Especially after the movement hitched its wagon to the Trump campaign, it lost a huge portion of the Trump-loathing young people who, despite agreeing with us on morality and policy, refuse to identify as pro-life. Indeed, the term has become so toxic that the group Students for Life refuses to say ‘pro-life’ when doing its activist work,” Camosy wrote.
For its part, the March for Life says the movement has been forced to align more closely with the GOP because the Democratic Party has grown less tolerant of abortion opponents. March President Jeanne Mancini, in a Post piece Friday, noted that then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez in 2017 said support for abortion rights was “nonnegotiable” for Democratic candidates.
Mancini on Saturday night put out a statement condemning the students' behavior. Some abortion opponents welcomed the statement, and others said it unfairly blamed the students without curiosity or willingness to look at the connection between their actions and those of the president whose slogan they wore.
The Friday incident happened less than a week after Trump made light of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre of several hundred Lakota Indians by the U.S. cavalry in a tweet that was meant to mock Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whom Trump derisively calls “Pocahontas.” Last month, Warren, who plans to run for president in 2020, released a DNA test to prove her Native American roots, a move criticized by many Native American groups.
A huge swath of March for Life attendees are Catholic students, from Catholic high schools that bus them into Washington for the event, and from Catholic colleges and universities. Some Catholic high schools in the region require students to attend. Attending the march can have the feel of being at a youth sporting event or field trip, with young people wearing matching clothes laughing and visiting with friends. The image of tens of thousands of young people marching and cheering for the antiabortion cause is one of the movement’s annual highlights.
The incident sparked a range of other comments among religious leaders: