Viral Video Causes Controversy for Northern Kentucky Private School

One video of the incident has received more than 1 million views. But some say the incident has been taken out of context.

Young men wearing "Make America Great Again" hats and, in some cases, gear from Covington Catholic High School, are shown on video in an incident with participants from the Indigenous Peoples' March in Washington, D.C. - Photo: Autumn Rain, Instagram
Photo: Autumn Rain, Instagram
Young men wearing "Make America Great Again" hats and, in some cases, gear from Covington Catholic High School, are shown on video in an incident with participants from the Indigenous Peoples' March in Washington, D.C.

Videos taken in the aftermath of yesterday's Indigenous Peoples' March in Washington, D.C. seems to show students from a local private Catholic high school in a tense standoff with indigenous marchers in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

But some parents from the school and conservative commentators say the videos have been taken out of context.

In several videos, a group of teens, a few wearing sweatshirts from Covington Catholic High School, stands around a small gathering of people who are beating drums and singing. Indistinct chanting from the crowd, students doing what appears to be the tomahawk chop and some jeers float in and out of the footage. One young man, wearing a steel gray bubble coat and red "Make America Great Again" hat, locks eyes with the leader of the indigenous marchers with a steady gaze. 

After spreading quickly via social media, the videos triggered an apology from the school and the Covington Catholic Diocese.

"We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general, Jan. 18, after the March for Life, in Washington, D.C," a statement from the school and the Diocese of Covington released today reads. "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 most sincere apologies to all those who attended the March and all those who support the pro-life movement."

But the student at the center of the incident, who has identified himself in a statement to CNN as Nick Sandmann, says he didn't hear his fellow students chant things that indigenous marchers claim, and that he did not behave disrespectfully. 

"I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation," he said in the statement. "I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict. I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.

Covington Catholic High School's website says that students from the 550-student, all-male school are attending the March for Life, an anti-abortion march that also took place yesterday in Washington, D.C.

CityBeat has reached out to Covington Catholic High School officials for further comment.

In some of the videos, a number of the teens surrounding the participants from the indigenous march seem to mock them with wild gestures, dances, the so-called "tomahawk chop" and yells.

The indigenous marchers have said the group of students chanted Trump slogans. What the teens are chanting is not  clearly audible in the viral videos, however.

"I heard them saying, 'build that wall, build that wall,'" a man named Nathan Phillips, who is shown drumming and singing, says in a separate video as he wipes away tears. "You know, this is indigenous lands. We're not supposed to have walls here. We never did."

Autumn Rain, a member of the Mvskoke Creek Tribe from Maryland, posted some of the videos. She says she was there and witnessed the incident, including the boys chanting slogans like "gone in 2020."

"I was pushed and laughed at by teenage boys who grew up to believe that their lives are more important than ours," she said.

The incident started as the Indigenous Peoples' March was winding down, according to Rain.

Rain says Phillips, the elder pictured in the video, approached the boys and another group counter-protesting the March for Life to sing as a peace-making gesture.

Some conservative commentators have pointed to video that appears to show Phillips and others approaching the group of teens as evidence the former weren't without fault. 

Another, longer video showing the incident between four anti-Trump protesters from a group called Black Hebrew Israelites and the teens reveals the small group of counter-protesters, unaffiliated with indigenous marchers, called President Donald Trump homophobic slurs and generally insulted passersby including the indigenous marchers and Covington Catholic students. The group can be heard calling one student the n-word. Both the counter protesters and that student are black. 

One Covington Catholic parent has said the story has been "blown way out of proportion."

"The guy (Phillips,) deserved a lot of respect, and from what I understand, he was walking through the crowd to deescalate the situation because the other guys started it," Covington Catholic parent Bill Gerdes told River City News. "(Phillips) didn't do anything. (Covington Catholic students) did not say anything to this guy."

Indigenous marchers say the students were disrespectful, however. 

"We were met with that resistance," Rain says. "It was really hard to hear exactly what they were chanting, but there were your typical Trumpisms — 'build the wall,' et cetera. The incident ended when a woman finally came to gather those boys. We asked her if she was responsible for them and if so, why she wasn't present before all this happened. She ducked away fast and refused comment."

Phillips says the teens penned him in before they dispersed.

“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 said to The Washington Post. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.” 

Local activists have decried the actions of the students, while conservatives have called the incident "fake news."

 “We really have to address white supremacy and white privilege," Jheri Neri of the Greater Cincinnati Native American Coalition said in a statement today. "For youth to think its OK to address an elder in this way is disrespectful and dishonorable. We need parents, teachers, coaches and community leaders to be having conversations with these kids about how to show up in the world.”

Sandmann, meanwhile, says he and his classmates have been unfairly treated.

"I am being called every name in the book, including a racist, and I will not stand for this mob-like character assassination of my family’s name," his statement reads. "My parents were not on the trip, and I strive to represent my family in a respectful way in all public settings." 

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