The Viral Standoff That Roiled US Media for Days: Was It Racism?

Students from an all-boys Catholic school faced off with Native American protesters. Here’s all we know happened.

6 min read
Picture from Indigenous People’s March on Friday, 18 January. 

An apparent incident of racial intimidation has been dominating national headlines in the US since Friday, 18 January, when a group of white teenage boys bumped up against a group of indigenous Americans as two rallies were underway. A clip showing one of the boys nose-to-nose with an indigenous Elder playing his drum – with the other white teenagers jeering and laughing at him – went viral, leading to outrage at the apparent ‘white supremacy’ and bigotry on display. But soon, competing narratives emerged.

To make sense of what happened, let’s first look at the players involved.

The Groups Involved

The teenagers, mostly if not all male, were from Covington Catholic High School, out on a school trip to take part in an anti-abortion rally called ‘March for Life’. The boys were sporting red ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) caps, in support of US President Trump.

The other group was made up of Native American protesters, who were taking part in an Indigenous People’s Rights march, protesting the unfair treatment meted out to indigenous people in America, including issues such as voter suppression and human trafficking.


What’s Beyond Dispute

The Covington boys and the indigenous protesters all found themselves outside Washington’s famous Lincoln Memorial. While the Indigenous People’s March was scheduled to happen there, the ‘March For Life’ rally had happened at the National Mall, about half an hour’s walk away.

A third group, the Black Hebrew Israelites, known for their provocative public sloganeering, was also present in the same area. More on their role later.

The Viral Moment

The video shows the Covington teens apparently blocking the indigenous protesters’ path, surrounding the group, and the boy in the middle, Nick Sandmann, standing nose-to-nose with Nathan Phillips, the 64-year-old Native American elder, as he is beating his drum and chanting.

This visual is what went viral, causing outrage on social media at the disrespect shown to the elder by the boys, who were chanting ‘Make America Great Again’, a slogan associated with Trump’s anti-immigration policies and considered by the American left to be a dog-whistle for racism – the power dynamics of a group of young white males seemingly intimidating the group of Native Americans is what invoked the reaction on social media.

Worth noting here is that the Covington boys also vastly outnumbered both the indigenous protesters and the Black Hebrew Israelites.

Visuals from the Indigenous People’s March.
Visuals from the Indigenous People’s March.
(Photo courtesy: Twitter/@MikeHudema)

Speaking to Washington Times later on, Phillips later narrated the incident and said that he and the other Native Americans in the group felt “threatened” by the white teenagers, who had begun to swarm around him and other activists. Phillips said that he had found himself in the middle of the students, attempting to diffuse the tense situation that had erupted when the teens began to grow increasingly offended by comments shouted by the Black Hebrew Israelites.

According to Phillips, the teens were shouting “Build that wall, build that wall”– another slogan made infamous by Trump, as he pledged to build a wall with Mexico to keep the “immigrants out”

Phillips said that in an attempt to diffuse the situation, he began to walk through the group of jeering students while singing the famous American Indian Movement song, to try and relieve tensions, when a boy wearing the ‘Make in America’ red cap came and stood in his way and stared him down.

“...”We needed to use the drum, use our prayer and bring a balance, bring a calming to the situation. 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 told CNN.

The Fallout

The outrage that followed was severe, with Democrats in particular contending that the incident was a display of white supremacy and the impunity that comes with it.

But not everybody agreed with that interpretation of events, with many coming to the Covington teens’ defence.

Covington Teen’s Defence

Another video, which was taken by one of the members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, shows them hurling slurs at the group of white teen school students, calling them “incest kids”, “bigots” and “white crackers”.

With the help of a lawyer, Nick Sandmann, the teenager seen staring down Phillips in the original video, put out a statement that was later published by WKRC, a local media outlet, in which he claimed that it was the group of students who had been taunted and provoked, not the other way around.

“When we arrived, we noticed four African American protesters who were also on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I did hear them direct derogatory insults at our school group … They called us ‘racists,’ ‘bigots,’ ‘white crackers,’ ‘faggots,’ and ‘incest kids.’”
Nick Sandmann in his statement, published in WKRC

The teenager told the newspaper that the reason he and his schoolmates began to sing and chant loudly – an act that was seen as one of aggression by the indigenous rights protesters – was because they were trying to “drown out” the racial slurs that the members of the Black Hebrew Israelites were directing towards them, the report added.

The standoff between Sandmann and Phillips.
The standoff between Sandmann and Phillips.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@celivvy)

In terms of Philip's, he said that there was a complete miscommunication in terms of their interaction, that had been “published out of context”.

“He (Phillips) locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face. He played his drum the entire time he was in my face...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.”
Nick Sandmann in his statement, published in WKRC

Now, the Twist

However, Lisa Sharon Harper, an activist who says she was at the Indigenous People’s March, posted a series of tweets stating what she saw, refuting Sandmann’s version of events.

In it, she posts a video showing the full incident, beginning with the Black Hebrew Israelites’ provocative statements, to Nathan Phillips’ entrance in an attempt to diffuse the tensions between the two groups standing off, to the indigenous protesters being surrounded by the Covington boys’ group. The stand-off between Sandmann and Phillips, however, cannot be clearly seen.

She said that the group of Covington students and the Black Hebrew Israelites had been sparring verbally for a while, with the Black Hebrew Israelites making provocative statements.

“The Black Hebrews were using aggressive, provocative and sometimes offensive language to engage, as they usually do. (However) there were a couple of ways the boys could have responded,” she wrote, the foremost being to “walk away”.

The pivotal point in the interaction, she says, tweeting a 3-minute clip, is the one in which Phillips attempts to make his way to the top of the steps, and is blocked by Sandmann.

Another Twist

Up until this point, it seems clear that the initial provocative slogans and comments came from the Black Hebrew Israelites – something that is not disputed by those who criticise Sandmann. The disagreement lies in what happened when Phillips entered the scene, and whether the Covington boys’ behaviour was objectionable.

To that end, there is a second twist in the narrative, by a girl who claims she and her friend were at the Lincoln Memorial, and witnessed the Covington boys’ mob-like behaviour much before the confrontation with either the Black Hebrew Israelites, or the indigenous protesters. Watch it below:


Phillips & Sandmann Get Their Say

Later, in an interview with NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie, both Phillips and Sandmann gave fleshed-out explanations of the event.

While Sandmann reiterated his statement that he did not treat Phillips with any disrespect, he did say that he wished him and his fellow students had “walked away” from the entire incident.

“In hindsight, I wish we could have walked away and avoided the whole thing.”
Nick Sandmann to NBC News

In another interview, with CNN this time, Phillips confessed that he was scared.

With different interpretations of the same event invoking such strong reactions across the political spectrum in the US, American society appears to only be getting more polarised – remember that the Covington teens were wearing pro-Trump hats on a school-sponsored excursion to a political rally.

With elections next due in November 2020, the US appears to be in for a rough ride until then.

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