Covington Catholic student who faced off with Native American elder says he is a ‘faithful Christian’

Nicholas Sandmann (L), a junior at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, smiles at Nathan Phillips (R), an Omaha elder and Vietnam War veteran as he played a ceremonial drum on Friday January 18, 2019, during a clash between the March for Life and the Indigenous People's rally. in Washington, D.C.
Nicholas Sandmann (L), a junior at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, smiles at Nathan Phillips (R), an Omaha elder and Vietnam War veteran as he played a ceremonial drum on Friday January 18, 2019, during a clash between the March for Life and the Indigenous People's rally. in Washington, D.C. | Screen shot: Instagram

Correction Appended

The Trump-supporting Catholic student, whose encounter with a Native American elder at the March for Life went viral, is telling his side of the story.

Nicholas Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky who was widely berated online over the weekend for allegedly disrespecting a Native American elder as he played a ceremonial drum in Washington D.C., Friday, defended himself as a “faithful Christian” who was just trying to keep the peace between protesters.

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“I was not intentionally making faces at the protestor. 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,” Sandmann said in a press statement Sunday.

The high school student, who revealed he and other schoolmates were attending the March for Life rally when the encounter took place, said they were victims of a hateful attack and they were simply trying to diffuse it collectively with school cheer when the elder, Nathan Phillips, approached his group.

“When we arrived, we noticed four African American protestors who were also on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I am not sure what they were protesting, and I did not interact with them. I did hear them direct derogatory insults at our school group,” Sandmann said.

“The protestors said hateful things. They called us ‘racists,’ ‘bigots,’ ‘white crackers,’ ‘faggots,’ and ‘incest kids.’ They also taunted an African American student from my school by telling him that we would ‘harvest his organs.’ I have no idea what that insult means, but it was startling to hear,” he wrote.

Phillips, who was part of the Indigenous People’s Rally that was taking place in Washington, D.C., at the time of the March for Life rally, was captured in a video clip posted on Instagram, in what was at first interpreted Sandmann being disrespectful toward Phillips.

The student and others from his school also boldly donned, "Make America Great Again" hats in support of President Donald Trump, which some liberals find offensive. An extended video of the incident with the complete sequence of events, however, showed the encounter was more complicated than first reported.

Some news organizations corrected or updated their initial reporting. Others apologized for misinterpreting the initial video and criticizing the Catholic students. 

"Yesterday I had one impression of the maga kids from Kentucky. Now after seeing more videos I have a different more complicated impression. Makes all the hot takes seem silly," New York Times columnist David Brooks tweeted Sunday. 

"I apologize to the Covington Catholic boys. What Rod Dreher says of himself goes double for me. I jumped the gun and that was stupid and unjust. It is I, not the boys, who needs to take a lesson from this," conservative Catholic and Princeton Professor Robert P. George wrote on social media with a link to a Rod Dreher column about the incident. 

Dreher acknowledged that the boys may have misbehaved and should've handled the situation better, but added that he regretted initially condemning the boys before seeing the full context. 

"These boys were already chanting their high school chants. Nathan Phillips confronted them. They don’t appear to understand what point he was making with his own chanting and drum-beating. And now they are held up to the contempt of the country for something they appear not to have done at all. And, the news accounts conveniently ignore the provocative, racist, foul-mouthed attacks on the boys by one of Phillips’s Native American companions," Dreher wrote. 

Phillips told CBS News that he was trying to keep the peace when he inserted himself between the students and the group of African American protesters, known as the black Hebrew Israelites.

Sandmann, the elder insisted, restricted his freedom of movement by standing in front of him.

"When the others were moving aside and letting me go, he decided that he wasn't going to do that. When I was coming up the steps, I seen him start putting himself in front of me, so I slided to the right, and he slided to the right. I slided to the left and he slided to the left — so by the time I got up to him, we were right in front of him. He just positioned himself to make sure that he aligned himself with me, so that sort of stopped my exit," Phillips said.

In his statement on the encounter, Sandmann insisted he too was trying to keep the peace when he decided to block Phillips’ movement and said he also prayed a “silent prayer” during the tense standoff.

“I never interacted with this protestor. 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 protestors, and when the second group approached I was worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers,” his statement said.

“I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation. 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,” he added.

Sandmann argued that Phillips was not wise in the manner in which he approached the group of students from Covington and said his life has been threatened as a result of the encounter.

“I harbor no ill will for this person. I respect this person's right to protest and engage in free speech activities, and I support his chanting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial any day of the week. I believe he should re-think his tactics of invading the personal space of others, but that is his choice to make,” the student wrote.

“I have received physical and 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. My parents are receiving death and professional threats because of the social media mob that has formed over this issue,” he revealed.

He asked the public not to pass judgement on his family or his school and insists that Covington does not teach hate.

“I cannot speak for everyone, only for myself. But I can tell you my experience with Covington Catholic is that students are respectful of all races and cultures. We also support everyone's right to free speech. I am not going to comment on the words or account of Mr. Phillips, as I don't know him and would not presume to know what is in his heart or mind. Nor am I going to comment further on the other protestors, as I don't know their hearts or minds, either,” he said.

“I would caution everyone passing judgement based on a few seconds of video to watch the longer video clips that are on the internet, as they show a much different story than is being portrayed by people with agendas,” he concluded.

Correction, January, 22, 2019: 

This article originally reported that Nathan Phillips was a Vietnam veteran. Phillips served in the U.S. Marines from 1972 to 1976, which did not include service in Vietnam. 

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