A Catholic high school student seen in a highly polarizing, viral video that shows teens in Make America Great Again hats chanting and yelling at a Native American elder said that he was not disrespecting the man, and was instead trying to defuse a tense and confusing situation.
Nick Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic High School, released a lengthy statement Sunday evening detailing his account of what transpired Friday at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Video snippets of Sandmann went viral after they showed the Park Hills, Kentucky high schooler standing face-to-face with Nathan Phillips, the Native American Vietnam War veteran who approached the teens at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, DC, while other students, many in Trump sweatshirts and hats, jeered, laughed, and chanted around them.
The social media videos swiftly took off and created a firestorm, and the high school rebuked the students, saying it had launched an investigation and that those involved could be expelled.
But a longer video of the incident emerged Sunday, showing that the timeline of events were much more complicated than those viral clips made it seem.
The longer video shows a group of Black Hebrew Israelites — a fringe organization whose members have been known to espouse racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-gay views — targeting and shouting at the Indigenous Peoples March attendees and tourists at the Lincoln Memorial before the high school students arrive.
In the nearly two-hour video, shot by a member of the Black Hebrew Israelites group, they can be seen yelling and getting into arguments with another Native American man before seeing the Kentucky students.
Nearly 47 minutes into the footage, the black protesters begin yelling about "faggot Trump" and appear to notice the group of mostly white students standing behind them, including several kids wearing bright red MAGA hats. One of the speakers yells out at them, calling them "a bunch of incest babies."
Apparently startled, the students look on for a few moments before huddling, forming a large group, and then start loudly chanting and singing. At one point, a boy takes his shirt off and waves it above his head. One black protester then comments about how there's only five of them "and they got us surrounded."
In the video, Phillips then approaches the chanting students while they do their chants, beating his drum. Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan, the Black Hebrew Israelite shooting the video, can be heard saying that Phillips was drumming on their behalf to stand up against the pro-Trump students.
"He came to our rescue," Banyamyan can be heard saying. "Our elder right there."
The students appear to move aside to let Phillips in and then start dancing and chanting around him and recording on their cellphones.
Other small snippets of the incident, shot closer and from the perspective of the Native American marchers, show the students jeering and crowding Phillips and the other drummers, making a comment about how land gets stolen.
The videos piece together a chaotic, confusing, and tense encounter between the three groups, who have all said that they were targeted and standing up for themselves. Conservative sites have been citing Banyamyan's video as an example of how the students' behavior was taken out of context and arguing that the shorter videos sweeping across social media did not tell the full story.
In his statement, Sandmann said that after attending the March for Life rally, he and his classmates went to the memorial around 4:30 p.m. to wait for their arriving buses. Shortly after, he said, the group of Black Hebrew Israelites noticed the group and started yelling at them, referencing their MAGA hats.
"The protestors said hateful things. They called us 'racists,' 'bigots' 'white crackers,' 'faggots,' and 'incest kids," Sandmann wrote. "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."
The junior said that, in response, another student asked their teacher chaperones for permission to sing the school spirit chant "to counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group." Sandmann claims that he did not witness or hear any of his classmates chant "build that wall" or any other racist barbs.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for the Sandmann family said that they would not be able to comment further Sunday but would "be in touch with media outlets tomorrow."
Phillips, an elder of the Omaha Nation, told the Detroit Free Press that he came between the Black Hebrew Israelites and the students to defuse the situation and make peace, but that the teens then mocked and taunted him, and that one of the students — now identified as Sandmann — blocked his path. He added that he heard the chanting students say, "Build that wall, build that wall."
BuzzFeed News contacted Phillips but has not received a response.
He told the Washington Post Saturday that he had been singing an American Indian Movement song that serves as a ceremony to send the spirits home when he noticed that tensions had started to escalate.
“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 told the paper.
Hunter Hooligan, a 27-year-old from Baltimore who attended the Indigenous Peoples March with his sister, told BuzzFeed News that by the time the teenage boys showed up, only 10 or 12 people who had participated in the march were still gathered at the monument.
"The boys just kind of, like, surrounded us, and we like tried to move through the crowd. And one boy in particular just, like, totally refused to move, and that’s the boy you see in the video who is standing directly in front of Nathan," said Hooligan, who also recorded video of the incident.
In his statement, Sandmann refuted that narrative, and claimed that Phillips seemed to seek him out and that he stood silently, "remaining motionless and calm," as a way to "diffuse the situation."
"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," the teen wrote. "He 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 never interacted with this protestor. I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves," Sandmann continued. "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."
During that time, Sandmann says he heard a protester, who he assumed was with Phillips' "entourage," tell one of his classmates that they stole their land and should "go back to Europe."
In another video posted on Instagram, a boy in the group wearing an Owensboro Catholic hoodie responds to a comment from one of the Native American marchers, saying, "Land gets stolen. That’s how it works. It’s the way of the world."
Sandmann said that he was not intentionally making faces at Phillips. He smiled because, as he explained, "I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation."
Other students who say they were at the memorial that day have also shared their accounts. Lincoln Hammon, another Covington student, told right-wing YouTube personality Joey Salads that the drummer walked up to Sandmann and "got in his face" and that nobody from the school group was "mocking" Phillips.
In his statement, Sandmann defended his actions and said that students at his school are "respectful of all races and cultures." The student added that since videos of the confrontation went viral, people have been calling him a racist, attacking his family, and sending him "physical and death threats via social media."
"I can only speak for myself and what I observed and felt at the time. But 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 wrote, concluding that he stands "ready and willing to cooperate with any investigation" into his conduct.
Read Sandmann's full statement here:
Stephanie Baer contributed reporting.
Nathan Phillips is the Native American elder who was filmed standing opposite Nick Sandmann. A previous version of this article misstated his name.