Outcry Results After Video Appears To Show Students Mocking Native American Man
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A video clip showing a tense moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial went viral over the weekend. In it, we see a group of students from Covington Catholic, an all-boys high school from Covington, Ky. Many are wearing red make America great again hats. And they appeared to some to be taunting an older man who is beating a small drum and singing a Native American chant. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Cov Cath (ph) is best. Cov Cath is best. What? Cov Cath is best. Cov Cath is best.
NATHAN PHILLIPS: (Singing in Native American language).
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing, unintelligible).
GREENE: So this happened on Friday as people were gathering for two events in Washington, D.C., the March for Life and the Indigenous Peoples' March. The short video sparked a furor on social media. Since then, longer videos have provided fuller context. And there have been conflicting narratives about what led to this confrontation.
The man at the center of all of this who is singing in the video we just heard is a Native American activist and an elder from the Omaha nation named Nathan Phillips. And he's in our studios in Washington this morning. Mr. Phillips, thank you so much for coming in.
PHILLIPS: You're welcome. Thank you for having me here.
GREENE: So can you tell me how you came face to face with these students?
PHILLIPS: I was - found myself on the National Mall here in D.C. And while we were finishing up our Indigenous Peoples' March and rally, there was two groups of folks there that were having problems with each other. And it got to a point where one of my nephews said, Uncle, we got to do something.
GREENE: Can I just - I want to just make sure our listeners understand - I mean, there was this group of high-school students, as I mentioned. And then I gather that this other group you're talking about is the - some members of the Black Hebrew Israelites. I mean, they're a group who believes America's emancipated slaves are God's chosen people. Some of them are known to use offensive slurs against many different groups. Who were they - it sounds like some of these students from Kentucky felt that these remarks were directed at them.
PHILLIPS: Well, when they first set up - the Black Israelites - they were - the March for Life was still going on. And it was after the March for Life ended is when all these young people started saying what they say. And I was in between the two groups. And that's when I started with the drum, an instrument to talk to God with. That's what we use that drum for. It's...
GREENE: And trying to bring peace, it sounds like.
PHILLIPS: In the moment, I didn't realize what I was trying to do or if I should be doing anything. And when we were going to hit those drums, there was no intention of getting in between the two groups.
GREENE: It looked in the video like these students started surrounding you after you approached them. And I'm wondering if - like, why you decided to walk up to them and actually, it looked like, face them, you know, not face these other protesters, the Black Hebrew Israelites, but face these students from Kentucky. I'm wondering what was happening in the moment.
PHILLIPS: I was - well, I guess maybe it was a way of protecting them.
GREENE: You felt you were protecting the black Hebrew Israelites from these - these students from Kentucky.
PHILLIPS: Well, see, that wasn't so much that I was protecting anybody. But I was coming between something that I had been witnessing, you know, on the news, in - on the Facebook - racism - because you got to understand, I came from an indigenous peoples gathering. And it was full of prayer, full of promise of a better tomorrow. You know, that's - that was the message we was putting out.
GREENE: I want to be so careful with what you're saying.
PHILLIPS: Yes, yes.
GREENE: And forgive me for - for just really being - being very careful. You said you had seen things on the news. Are you saying that based on a lot of what has happened in our country recently, you were under the impression or making an assumption that a large group of young, white men might threaten a minority, who you saw, and that you saw this group of black Israel - Hebrew Israelites as potentially in danger by this large group of white men, based on what you had seen in the news in our country in recent months and years?
PHILLIPS: Yes. Thank you for that clarity because that's that's what it was, in my mind and in my heart - because when I seen those - those young men, I was seeing their faces. And the thing is is that those young men could have chose to not feed into those guys, those Israelite fellers. They could have chose the - the students' teachers, the students' chaperones could have instructed those students to exit that area, that this wasn't something that they needed to bring their high schools into and be involved in.
GREENE: Can I - can I ask a question this way? How much of what you were feeling was based on an assumption that a large group of young white men were outnumbering a small group of black protesters, and assuming that this could be very tense and there could be racism? And how much of it was about things you were actually hearing in this moment?
PHILLIPS: Well, the thing is - yeah. The thing is that there was no assumption that there was a large group. There was a large group. And it was only four black men. So there - there's no assumption there.
GREENE: The young man who was standing in front of you has identified himself in a statement as Nick Sandmann. And, you know, he said that he was intimidated by these other protesters you're talking about. He said that - that he never felt like he was blocking you. He said that, you didn't make any attempt to go around me, is the way he put it. And he said, quote - and this is about you - "it was clear to me that he had singled me out for a confrontation, although I'm not sure why." What do you - what do you make of that?
PHILLIPS: A young man trying to alter his story to make himself look good, maybe. I don't know. It's just...
GREENE: Did he do anything to - to offend you?
PHILLIPS: Well, it wasn't so much that - I read the statement he put out. And for myself, I didn't want anything wrong or bad for the - for the students, you know, the expulsions and - and like that. You know, that's...
GREENE: You don't want them to be punished for this.
PHILLIPS: It wasn't - well, now that I've read the statement, I'm - I'm kind of revisiting that. You know, it's not so much that I want punishment. But this young man has to come to some kind of understanding of where he was at and what he what he did. In his statement, he said he - he talked to his teacher, who was acting as a chaperone, to lead the chants to taunt the black guys. So he was one of the leaders of the chants of the taunting. So...
GREENE: And I mean, it - of course, his statement, it sounds like a different picture. It's just so complicated...
PHILLIPS: So that is the statement. That came from - right - his statement.
GREENE: Yeah. There's so much more that we could talk about here. I wish we had more time. Nathan Phillips is co-founder of the Native Youth Alliance. Thank you so much. We really appreciate it.
PHILLIPS: You bet.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPTO, OPIATE, ALVA NOTO'S "OPTO FILE 1")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.