Videos of a group of teenage boys mocking a Native American man in Washington DC have drawn widespread criticism. The students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School surrounded Nathan Phillips and were seen jeering at the Native American’s singing and drumming.
One of the boys in particular was seen standing in front of Phillips and staring into his face with a smile. The boys were wearing Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” caps and were attending an anti-abortion rally. Phillips, a Vietnam War veteran, was there for an Indigenous Peoples’ March.
After the videos went viral, the school as well as the boys earned the disapproval of social media users from Hollywood to members of the US Congress.
In a joint statement, the high school and Diocese of Covington condemned the actions of the students and apologised to the veteran. “The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion,” the statement said, according to Reuters.
The boy who was prominent in the video identified himself as Nick Sandmann – a junior in the school – and said he did nothing to provoke Phillips, claiming that he was trying to calm things down. He said in a statement to Associated Press that the veteran approached him. “To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me,” Sandmann said. He added that he “believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping defuse the situation.”
In another video on social media, Phillips, an elder member of Nebraska’s Omaha tribe, wiped away tears as he talked about the incident. “I heard them saying build that wall, build that wall,” he said. “These are indigenous lands, we’re not supposed to have walls.” Phillips clarified on Sunday that he did step in as the tension between white students and black men were “coming to a boiling point.”
However, as more accounts of people from the march and videos emerged, it appeared that the encounter was more complicated than it initially appeared. Witnesses said black men who identified themselves as Hebrew Israelites were also present at the scene, shouting racially charged comments at the Native Americans and the students.
Social media remained divided on whether the high-schoolers could be exonerated. While some said the MAGA caps they were wearing were a clear sign of provocation, others thought they had reacted too quickly in judging them.