After initial outrage, claims of racism, clearer details of exchange emerge

On Jan. 18, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via AP)On Jan. 18, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via AP)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- An exchange between Catholic high school students and a Native American tribal leader in Washington Jan. 18 was vilified on social media the following day, but the immediate accusations the students showed racist behavior have been stepped back as more details of the entire situation have emerged.

Many say the incident still needs to be investigated or discussed and others have pointed out that what happened can still provide a teaching moment not just about racism but also about news coverage and social media's rapid response.

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The student most prominent in the footage, junior Nick Sandmann of Covington High School in Kentucky, issued a statement Jan. 20 saying he has "received physical and death threats via social media, as well as hateful insults" based on reaction across social media. He also said he would cooperate in any investigation church leaders plan to undertake.

The group's chaperones, also criticized on social media, said later the students "were targeted from the get-go.

On Jan. 18, tens of thousands gathered in Washington for the annual March for Life, a march along Constitution Avenue after a rally on the National Mall to the Supreme Court to mark the court's Jan. 22, 1973, decision that legalized abortion.

The march, held a few days before the actual anniversary this year, took place on the same day as the first Indigenous People's March where marchers walked in the other direction on Constitution Avenue to draw attention to injustices against indigenous people.

At the day's end, while students from Covington Catholic High School who had attended the March for Life were waiting for their buses to pick them up near the Lincoln Memorial, they met up with members of the Indigenous People's March, in particular Nathan Phillips, tribal elder for the Omaha Tribe.

In clips from a video that went viral almost immediately, students are shown surrounding the leader, who is chanting and beating a drum. They appear to be mocking him and one student in particular, who is inches away from the drummer and never moves, was accused of flagrant disrespect.

Some students in the crowd were identified by their Covington High School sweatshirts but the attire that drew the most rage was the "Make America Great Again" hats worn by a few in the group. That phrase, which President Donald Trump coined during his successful presidential campaign, has been deemed to be "racist" by his opponents.

The clip caused immediate outrage.

In response to the escalating fury and disgust on social media against these students, Covington High School and the Diocese of Covington issued a joint statement Jan. 19 saying they condemned the students' actions "toward Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general."

"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," it said, adding that the incident was "being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion."

The school and diocese also said the event "tainted the entire witness of the March for Life" and they apologized to those who attended and "all those who support the pro-life movement."

March for Life president Jeanne Mancini also issued a statement that day saying the encounter did not represent her organization or "the vast majority of the marchers" and that the students' behavior is not welcome at the march and never will be.

The next day the March for Life said it in a tweet had deleted its original tweet about the students "given recent developments.

"It is clear from new footage and additional accounts that there is more to this story than the original video captured. We will refrain from commenting further until the truth is understood," the tweet said.

The day after the initial clip of the exchange went viral, extended footage of how the situation unfolded appeared on social media, and the students issued their own statements about it, like Sandmann, who was directly in front of the Native American drummer.

Longer videos shown online reveal that another group at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial included members of the Hebrew Israelites, who also were attending the Indigenous People's March to share their own beliefs that African-Americans are God's chosen people and the true Hebrew descendants.

Members of this group, as shown in video footage, taunted the students and some responded back. Phillips, the Native American, walked over to the students and the group, as an intervention, singing and beating a song of prayer.

Sandmann, in a statement, said Phillips "locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face."

"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."

Sandmann said the group started doing school spirit chants to "counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group" and they had asked for chaperone permission to do so.

He said he stayed motionless to help diffuse the situation and also prayed silently that it would not get out of hand.

"During the period of the drumming, a member of the protester's entourage began yelling at a fellow student that we 'stole our land' and that we should 'go back to Europe.' I heard one of my fellow students begin to respond. I motioned to my classmate and tried to get him to stop engaging with the protester," an action that can be seen on the video where he motions to the student to stop and points and nods to the tribal leader.

The student said he didn't understand "why either of the two groups of protesters were engaging with us, or exactly what they were protesting" and that his group was just there to meet a bus, "not become central players in a media spectacle."

"I was not intentionally making faces at the protester. 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. 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," he added.

The student said he has been called "every name in the book, including a racist" and has received death threats and hateful insults.

"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. His statement was posted on the CNN website, https://cnn.it/2FOLNCC.

A local CBS-affiliate, WKRC in Cincinnati, also received statements from students, some who asked to remain anonymous, also saying they were unfairly portrayed in media coverage of this incident.

Chaperones, also criticized on social media, spoke to the TV station reiterating that the students had been taunted. "They were targeted from the get-go. Immediately, there were people running around filming and this isn't going to be a truthful depiction of what happened," one chaperone said.

Jesuit Father Jim Martin, an author and editor of America magazine, who was critical of the students' behavior on Twitter Jan. 19, said in a tweet the following day that he would be "happy to apologize for condemning the actions of the students if it turns out that they were somehow acting as good and moral Christians. The last thing I want is to see Catholic schools and Catholic students held in any disrepute."

He also tweeted: "We may never know exactly what happened and the various 'sides' may continue to disagree and condemn one another. But I hope the truth emerges."

He said the situation can provide a teachable moment with "important lessons about racism and marginalization, about dialogue and encounter, and about truth and reconciliation, during this coming week, which is, believe it or not, Catholic Schools Week."

Eileen Marx, a religion teacher at Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, who also is the faculty moderator of the school's diversity club, told Catholic News Service Jan. 21 that she certainly planned to discuss this incident with her classes this week in light of Catholic social teaching which "so clearly states that we are meant to live in relationship with one another, not as enemies. We are all part of the human family."

She also acknowledged that there is more to discuss now as more details of what happened after the march are emerging.

As this story continues to be sorted out, she said, she also will bring up the role of social media with her students and its power to "build up and to knock down individuals."

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Todd Witherell
7 months 3 weeks ago

The Make America Great Again hats are not “racist”. They are racist.

Carlos Orozco
7 months 3 weeks ago

Crazed Leftists calling for PHYSICAL VIOLENCE against the MAGA kid, because they hate Trump.
Idiots.

Joseph J Dunn
7 months 3 weeks ago

Several commenters criticize Covington High School Junior Nick Sandmann’s use of a public relations firm to draft a statement concerning the events at Washington D.C. They imply that use of a PR firm indicates guilt or attempt to obfuscate.

We might consider that the student’s Catholic school administration and the Diocese of Covington had already issued a formal statement, “We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips and Native Americans in general...We will take appropriate action up to and including expulsion.” The Diocese no doubt has access to media or public relations professionals, lawyers, and perhaps even specialists in crisis management.

The Mayor of Covington had posted an Op-Ed piece, “The disrespect shown to a Native American elder, who happened to be a Vietnam veteran, was particularly offensive.” The mayor no doubt can avail himself of public relations experts.

Much of the nation’s professional media was in uproar, critical of the students. The Editor-at-Large of the Jesuit Review of Faith and Culture, no doubt a man with considerable social media experience, broad public reach and an identification with social justice, Tweeted against the students’ “attempt to shame and disrespect a man…These actions are not Catholic, not Christian, and not acceptable.” Upon further reflection he added that he was, “disgusted by the contemptuous laughter…moved by the quiet dignity of the solitary man who continues to chant.” (Interesting, because the videos show Nathan Phillips was not ‘solitary’).

A Congresswoman from New Mexico went public to deplore the students’ “blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance.” We might agree that election to important public office indicates sophistication with media and public relations.

For a high school junior (and his parents) confronted with this public relations nightmare, consultation with a media or public relations expert, and/or an attorney, seems highly prudent. Whether a PR firm drafted the student’s statement is immaterial, because the student owns it. He, not the PR firm, is on record: “I am providing this factual statement…I have provided this account of events to the Diocese…” That is courage. That is responsibility. That is co-operation with justice.

The Diocese of Covington has announced that the independent, third-party investigation is planned to begin this week, “to gather facts that will allow us to determine what corrective actions, if any, are appropriate.”

Yes, there are many lessons to be learned.

J Jones
7 months 3 weeks ago

Joseph, In evaluating any statement and determining whether it is meaningful in a given context, it is important to know who wrote it and why.

The statement was written by a PR firm, RunSwitch PR in Louisville and is owned powerful Republican operatives, one of whom is a paid CNN contributor (see article in Courier Journal).

The student's parents hired the PR firm for the same reason everyone hires a PR firm. They wanted professional storytellers to manipulate a target audience into believing their preferred image of their kid.

The parents purchased the statement from the PR firm. It is the version of events the parents prefer.

The statement is the PR firm's statement.

As such, it has no value as the student's contribution or testimonial in any effort to understand him or in any investigation, dialogue or conflict resolution.

It is a bought-and-paid-for advertisement for the kid his parents want us to believe he is.

That is relevant. It was of course the parents' right. It was a a mistake but it was their right.

It would have been wiser to have a family spokesperson issue an apology from the parents and boy for the boy's perceived disrespect of an older Native American, behavior which his parents hopefully would never condone and which the boy hopefully did not intend but nonetheless apologizes for.

Instead they purchased a statement from a PR firm. That's all.

Carla Eble
7 months 3 weeks ago

And more details emerge.https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/3kgz7b/heres-where-were-at-with-the-maga-hat-wearing-convington-boys?utm_source=vicefbus&fbclid=IwAR03r0YKxyIZYk0QXxe64LpParIPmvN45KfZnW5IPM6omej3aYAMESGErcc

rose-ellen caminer
7 months 3 weeks ago

Now I am wondering if perhaps those kids bought those MAGA hats on Constitution Ave. as souvenirs and only put them on after the rally while waiting for their chartered bus to take them back to Kentucky.,in which case the school is not really to blame either.
Obviously these are not sophisticated young people[ most kids that age aren't but some are; like those kids from Florida who rallied against lax guns laws after the shootings in their school.].
Mr. Phillips drummed to defuse the situation,between the Black Hebrew cult[ they are a step past Farrakahn in their racist hateful bigotry. They believe they have a direct line to God who tells them that whites are the evil and so are Catholics etc.,] and these kids? Then it worked , They chanted and danced albeit using stereotypical Indian tropes which shows their ignorance and lack of cultural sensitivity more then real racism, though they probably being confused themselves, and not trusting this interloper drummer, were aware they were being frivolous while he was being serious. They may not have meant that as outright disrespect but ambiguous ; part playful and part taunting back [if they thought he might be with the taunters drumming in their space to taunt them too] but there was no escalating the conflict with the racist cult,which MR.Phillips says was his motive for entering the fray!
if you are going to wear political offensive displays then expect unpleasant push back. having said that, there is no black and white here.Mr Phillips is not mr. Wisdon of the elders." That is a sterotypical trope the native elder phrase]and they are not racist evil white boys either.

Terry Kane
7 months 3 weeks ago

rose-ellen
You wrote, "if you are going to wear political offensive displays then expect unpleasant push back." That is basically saying that the boys deserved what they got. One wonders if that is your attitude if a girl who wore short shorts got raped. "She was asking for it, that ...."
The boys got doxxed and now their school, parents and lives will never be the same. But you think they should have known better.
This is supposed to be a Catholic site. But at least you have shown your virtue.
Sad

rose-ellen caminer
7 months 3 weeks ago

Now I am wondering if perhaps those kids bought those MAGA hats on Constitution Ave. as souvenirs and only put them on after the rally while waiting for their chartered bus to take them back to Kentucky.,in which case the school is not really to blame either.
Obviously these are not sophisticated young people[ most kids that age aren't but some are; like those kids from Florida who rallied against lax guns laws after the shootings in their school.].
Mr. Phillips drummed to defuse the situation,between the Black Hebrew cult[ they are a step past Farrakahn in their racist hateful bigotry. They believe they have a direct line to God who tells them that whites are the evil and so are Catholics etc.,] and these kids? Then it worked , They chanted and danced albeit using stereotypical Indian tropes which shows their ignorance and lack of cultural sensitivity more then real racism, though they probably being confused themselves, and not trusting this interloper drummer, were aware they were being frivolous while he was being serious. They may not have meant that as outright disrespect but ambiguous ; part playful and part taunting back [if they thought he might be with the taunters drumming in their space to taunt them too] but there was no escalating the conflict with the racist cult,which MR.Phillips says was his motive for entering the fray!
if you are going to wear political offensive displays then expect unpleasant push back. having said that, there is no black and white here.Mr Phillips is not mr. Wisdon of the elders." That is a sterotypical trope the native elder phrase]and they are not racist evil white boys either.

Terry Kane
7 months 3 weeks ago

rose-ellen
You wrote, "if you are going to wear political offensive displays then expect unpleasant push back." I suggest that that is not accurate; if it is Trump displays, that is true, but if the boys were wearing Sanders, Obama or Clinton apparel, no unpleasant push back would be expected. For some reason, it seems that those who claim to stand for tolerance are the least tolerant.

Terry Kane
7 months 3 weeks ago

The Indian "elder" who lied about his military service and gave several different versions of his actions at the Lincoln Memorial has a history of psycho behavior. He tried to invade a mass as the National Cathedral: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/nathan-phillips-rally-attempted-to-disrupt-mass-at-dcs-national-shrine-91038
Several years ago, he made false claims about a fraternity at EMU:
http://www.fox2detroit.com/news/native-american-claims-racial-harassment-by-emu-students-dressed-as-indians
This guy has a history.
Those here who attacked the boys have been manipulated by the media and should contemplate on your comments, and some should think about the anti-American opinions expressed.
We should all pray for the Covington boys and their families.

Vincent Gaglione
7 months 3 weeks ago

The failure of the students to either remove themselves or be removed by their chaperones from the harassment and intimidation that they claim, remains for me, a retired teacher, as the most salient factor in the whole discussion. On class trips I was responsible for making sure that the children were safe and that the children did not behave in a manner to exacerbate difficult circumstances. The chaperone who gave permission for their school spirit chants, led by a bare-chested student, was foolish and foolhardy.

Finally, free speech or no, why were some of them wearing MAGA hats which obviously helped create the taunts from the Black Hebrews. If they were there for a march for the Right to Life, they didn't witness too well their respect for lives who feel abused and rejected by the current political administration in DC. That sensitivity was lacking as well in their attitudes!

Having read one parent's comments on the peer pressures used to haul these teenagers to the Right to Life marches is also disturbing to me, but that's another issue irrelevant to what occurred.

A Grady
7 months 3 weeks ago

"...'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,' he added."
WHY THE MAGA HATS? Look how our so called president treats immigrant families at the border - separating children? This is evil and the hat represents Trump and his actions. These hats represent a racist president. Why would Catholic school students all be wearing the hats?
Pro-life? How many children have died on the border or in US Custody?

Terry Kane
7 months 3 weeks ago

A.
About three children died in US custody. Do you believe they were executed by border agents or nefarious Trump agents?
The policy of the present administration is dictated by the actions of prior administrations and the courts. Do you honestly believe that President Donald J. Trump wants these poor people to die?
I submit that he is trying to keep America safe. He wants immigration, just not illegal immigration. We have more immigrants each year than any other country on earth.
Pro-life does not mean open borders.
President Trump is not a racist no matter what CNN and MSNBC claim.

Andrew Strada
7 months 3 weeks ago

So in the America of 2019, FACECRIME is now a hanging offense. Orwell, as he so often did, had it exactly right.

"In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offence. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: FACECRIME, it was called. "

In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offence. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: FACECRIME, it was called.

Terry Kane
7 months 3 weeks ago

Some more info on the Indian "elder" or Lieawatha Nathaniel Standard (AKA Nathaniel Phillips AKA Nathan Phillips AKA Nathaniel Richard Phillips...)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIXIzvyAlLA

Mike Macrie
7 months 3 weeks ago

I don’t blame the kids or even them wearing MAGA hats because after last year’s rally with the Right to Life Leaders hugging and praising the President ( In the same week that he spewed his Racist comments of third world people coming here) I know these Marches are nothing but Republican Rallies. It’s the same with the Women Marches where they are Democratic Rallies. So knock yourself out but I will stay home and quietly do my part asa Church Volunteer.

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