Nick Sandmann, the white high school student from Covington Catholic High School caught on video mocking a Native American veteran who was drumming near the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for an end to racism in our country, issued a denial via a public relations firm on Sunday.
Sandmann’s denial has been taken as bringing a ‘different side’ to the incident, but Sandmann blocks Phillips from moving forward in both accounts, as Phillips is surrounded by what looks like a mob of jeering white teenagers wearing MAGA hats.
In statement shared by CNN’s Jake Tapper late Sunday, Sandmann denied that he mocked drummer Nathan Phillips, after a video of him staring down drummer Phillips as his all male classmates surrounded Phillips, while jeering and mocking him went viral.
Phillips said in a separate video that Sandmann blocked his attempt to go to the Lincoln Memorial to finish his prayer. Until Sandmann stood in front of him, he had been slowly moving toward the Memorial after he and a friend formed a prayer circle in hopes of defusing the rising tension between the mostly white MAGA hat teenagers and the African American protest group.
Phillips was quoted by the New York Times saying that he had approached the students in hopes of easing racial tensions that were escalating between a group of African American protesters and the mostly white Covington teenagers, there for different events.
“I stepped in between to pray,” said Phillips.
Phillips said he heard the Covington Catholic students chanting “build that wall” during the episode. Sandmann, there for the anti-abortion rally and many of his classmates wearing Trump’s Make America Great Again hats, denies this.
The Times pointed out that in an interview on Sunday, “Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesman for the Indigenous Peoples Movement, which organized the march, said he had also heard chants of ‘build that wall,’ a rallying cry of supporters of Mr. Trump.”
“I believe he should re-think his tactics of invading the personal space of others, but that is his choice to make,” Sandmann wrote in his public relations statement which is utterly devoid of even an ounce of personal responsibility, as if he hadn’t chosen to stand in Phillips’ path as his friends surrounded the man.
Sandmann denied acting with any disrespect toward Phillips. Sandmann blamed the “adults” for trying to provoke a “larger conflict” as well as blaming the African American protestors for shouting “hateful comments”.
“I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict,” his public relations statement said, in a not too subtle attempt to portray himself as a child being manipulated by people of color.
Sandmann claimed his group were waiting for their bus back to Kentucky when four African American protesters began shouting racially charged insults at them. He wrote that their chaperones said they could counter by shouting “school spirit” chants to drown out the “hateful comments.”
Sandmann said this is when Phillips began playing his drum and wading into the crowd, “which parted for him. 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,” Sandmann said, suggesting that Phillips playing his drum in a prayer circle was problematic and aggressive.
Here is a picture of this incident:
VIDEO OF @POTUS’s little fan boys at the Indigenous Peoples’ March in DC, harassing, mocking and trying to intimidate the few of us left lingering at the Lincoln Memorial after the day’s march and rally. pic.twitter.com/uxB1CtMWCR
— Hunter Hooligan (@HunterHooligan) January 19, 2019
Sandmann claimed he was “startled and confused” as to why Phillips approached him, even though he acknowledged that Phillips had been moving forward and others were making room for him to pass.
The faces in the video and photo above do not look “startled and confused”; they look like they are sneering, jeering, and mocking (I read a first hand account of this incident which uses similar words after I first wrote those words to describe what I saw on Twitter, suggesting that the twisted faces of contempt and hate are universally understood by those who have seen them often enough). Any person surrounded by a group behaving like that would be justified in being frightened.
But Sandmann claimed, “I never interacted with this protester. I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves.”
He did, however, deliberately block Phillips’ path and stood there with what appears to be sneering contempt, not a smile, especially when taken in context of the large group of mostly white male teenagers with him mocking Phillips and encircling him. That is aggressive and intimidating behavior.
“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 claimed.
If that were the case, it begs the questions: Why didn’t Sandmann step out of Phillips’ path? Why didn’t he protect Phillips from his group? Why did one of Sandmann’s buddies feel he had to rub Sandmann’s shoulders in what looks like a futile attempt to calm him down?
Additionally, the first hand account of a person who attended the rally for the first Indigenous Peoples’ March tells quite a different story than Sandmann’s whitewashed version.
In The Cut, Hunter Hooligan wrote that a large group of MAGA teens surrounded their small group as Phillips played his drum and his group moved away from the MAGA group. When the MAGA teens saw Phillips drumming his peace prayer, things “escalated quickly” until the boys surrounded them and they were “alarmingly outnumbered.”
“As we attempted to continue our path and move through the crowd, the boys closed in around us, until finally, one particular boy stood in front of Nathan and refused to let us pass.”
Hooligan continues, “As the boys molded our huddle, I felt panic growing in my gut. I felt trapped. There were so many of them around us that I couldn’t see out beyond them. All I could see was cold faces full of empty laughter, boys intoxicated on their own false sense of power, control, and entitlement.”
Hooligan also writes that the boys were chanting:
“Build the wall!”
“Gone in 2020!”
Frankly, this is a terrifying account of what happened – much worse than what we see on the video.
What we have here is a white teenager blaming racial bias against white people and African Americans for how his group behaved toward a Native American veteran who was praying for peace and who was not even with the African American group.
It’s unclear why Sandmann thinks African Americans yelling insults at his group makes it OK for his group to surround and intimidate a small group of Native Americans.
The attempt to deflect blame to the African American group is an example of white privilege and bias in action, especially because in this case, the African American group was also taunting Phillips.
Black people’s existence, and in this case taunting insults, do not give white people an excuse to bully a Native American person or anyone else. If it did, then all of the MAGA taunts of people of color, women, and religious minorities would justify people blocking their path, surrounding them, jeering at them, and intimidating them.
The problematic pretense in Sandmann’s statement that the MAGA hat alone is not a signal of aggressive racism or hostile activism is the kind of denial only practiced by the most privileged people.
We have seen the polls, the rallies, the rising violence aimed at people of color and minority religions from the Trump base, incited at times and encouraged by the man himself.
Yes, the MAGA hat is seen as a symbol of hate to many with good cause.
Some media have made sure to refer to Phillips as an “activist”, in which “activist” is code for a person who stirs things up – but newsflash: Sandmann, wearing a MAGA hat and attending an anti-abortion rally, is also an “activist.”
This failure to take personal responsibility and attempt to blame the African American group and the Native American group for his behavior is actually the perfect example of the real problem of white privilege.
Updated 4:19 PM to add this video:
This video contradicts Nick Sandmann's statement, I am vaccinated against gaslighting. pic.twitter.com/jMPfUHIWQA
— Christopher Bouzy (@cbouzy) January 21, 2019
(Additional reporting by Reuters)
Ms. Jones is the co-founder/ editor-in-chief of PoliticusUSA and a member of the White House press pool.
Sarah hosts Politicus News and co-hosts Politicus Radio. Her analysis has been featured on several national radio, television news programs and talk shows, and print outlets including Stateside with David Shuster, as well as The Washington Post, The Atlantic Wire, CNN, MSNBC, The Week, The Hollywood Reporter, and more.
Sarah is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.