Classes were cancelled at Covington Catholic High School on Tuesday as more details emerged about students’ apparent standoff with an elderly Native American man in front of the Lincoln Memorial that's sparked days of controversy. A video went viral Saturday that showed the teens in “Make America Great Again” hats chanting and mocking the man during a day of rallies in the capital.
Students of the all-boys Kentucky school triggered nationwide controversy when video emerged of them surrounding the man who’d peacefully approached their group on the steps leading to the memorial. They started mimicking him and even directed tomahawk-chop motions at him as he beat on a small drum. In the original circulated video, a student named Nick Sandmann wearing a MAGA hat stands before the native elder and smirks while his surrounding peers cheer from a few feet away. About 240 Covington students were in D.C. with chaperones to participate in the annual anti-abortion March for Life, and the native man, Nathan Phillips, had been participating in the Indigenous Peoples March.
When the video first surfaced, the teenage boys were roundly condemned for their racist behavior toward Phillips. After the video went viral, Sandmann’s family hired a PR firm and released a statement Sunday that denied the boys were racist.
Additional footage also surfaced Sunday that showed more of what happened in D.C. leading up to — and after — the incident, including a confrontation between dozens of the students and a few Black Hebrew Israelites who were demonstrating in a nearby area, before Phillips arrived, as the boys waited for buses to take them back to Kentucky. The Black Hebrew Israelites heckle the boys and call them “crackers.” The situation developed over the course of a few hours, with the crowd of boys growing to a hundred or more, by Phillips’ count. Phillips approached the group of boys while playing his drum.
Numerous media publications and celebrities soon backtracked their initial criticism of Sandmann, although the second video still showed the Covington boys surrounding and taunting Philips. President Donald Trump himself tweeted out in support of Sandmann and the other students, calling them a victim of “fake news.”
Others, however, maintain that the videos provided a more complete picture but did nothing to exonerate the boys.
But since Monday even more videos have surfaced that purportedly show the Covington boys hurling misogynistic insults at women passersby after the March for Life rally in the nation’s capital. Here’s what we know about what happened and who was involved.
What’s the latest?
The controversy over what happened has become such a firestorm that Covington Catholic cancelled classes Tuesday after receiving threats. The school’s website was also down.
"After meeting with local authorities, we have made the decision to cancel school and be closed on Tuesday, January 22, in order to ensure the safety of our students, faculty and staff," according to a letter from Principal Robert Rowe.
A day earlier, masked far-right extremists posted images of themselves pinning up posters that said “IT’S OK TO STAND YOUR GROUND” on Covington school grounds.
Two new videos surfaced on Twitter Sunday night showing other offensive behavior from boys who appear to be with the Covington group. In one video, a young man standing in a crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial (with some boys who make appearances in the original viral video) said, “It’s not rape if you enjoy it.”
On Monday, a Twitter user posted a video showing a crowd of boys wearing MAGA hats heckling her and a friend. She said the boys in the video were the Covington students, and one can be heard shouting “slut” in her direction.
Indian Country Today, a native issues news publication, also published a Saturday video of the events leading up to Phillips and Sandmann’s meeting. In the video, Black Israelites, a radical religious group, are seen shouting at the horde of boys, who respond with group chants and taunts. At one point, a boy runs to the front of the crowd and removes his shirt as the other teenagers cheer him on. It is the third video to show the confrontation unfold.
What has Nick Sandmann said?
On Sunday night, Sandmann published a statement with the aid of a GOP-supporting Kentucky PR firm called RunSwitch. In the statement, Sandmann denied that his behavior was racist. A chaperone gave permission for the boys to counter insults with “school spirit chants,” according to him.
“The protestor everyone has seen in the video began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him. I did not see anyone try to block his path. He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face,” Sandmann said in the statement, though in the video Phillips does not appear to be targeting Sandmann. “He played his drum the entire time he was in my face.”
The PR firm that helped craft Sandmann’s statement has a history of supporting powerful Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who’s from Kentucky. Founding partner Scott Jennings is a former adviser to McConnell and George W. Bush, and he currently advises a McConnell super PAC. Other RunSwitch clients include pharma giant Pfizer and the tobacco company Philip Morris.
Sandmann will appear on NBC’s “Today” show in a segment Wednesday morning.
What has Nathan Phillips said?
Phillips, a Vietnam-era veteran, said that his drumming and chanting were intended to act as a de-escalation measure and that he inserted himself between the Covington students and the Black Israelites to defuse the tense situation. He gave a long interview to CNN in which he explained why he approached the boys.
“I think that was the push, that we need to use the drum, use our prayer and bring a balance, bring a calming to the situation,” he said. “I didn't assume that I had any kind of power to do that, but at the same time, I didn't feel that I could just stand there anymore and not do something. It looked like these young men were going to attack these guys. They were going to hurt them. They were going to hurt them because they didn't like the color of their skin. They didn't like their religious views.”
Phillips disputed Sandmann’s claim that the boys were simply reciting school chants as a defense tactic.
“They were there looking for trouble, looking for something,” he said.
Phillips has proposed a meeting with the Covington students on behalf of the Indigenous Peoples Movement, trying to make this a teachable moment.