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Confrontation with Native Americans in D.C. draws varying accounts

By
Allen Cone

Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Varying accounts have emerged involving a confrontation between students from a Catholic school in Kentucky, Native Americans and the Black Hebrew Israelite movement in Washington, D.C.

Videos emerged Saturday that showed the group of students, at least some of whom had been attending the annual March for Life on Friday, standing on the Lincoln Memorial laughing and chanting at Vietnam War veteran Nathan Phillips banging a drum and a small group of Native Americans marching toward the steps and singing.

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But another video shot before the encounter shows men who are identified as members of the Hebrew Israelites taunting the students and other passersby with racist slurs. One student seen prominently in the video staring at Phillips said Sunday he was only trying to calm the tense situation and didn't provoke the incident.

Phillips, an elder with the Omaha tribe, said the confrontation felt like "hate unbridled." In the moment, he said he was scared for his safety and the safety of those with him.

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On Saturday, a Roman Catholic Diocese official in Kentucky said students from Covington Catholic High School, across the river from Cincinnati, could be expelled because of the confrontation.

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"We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general, Jan. 18, after the March for Life, in Washington, D.C. We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips," Laura Keener, the communications director of the diocese said in a statement. "This behavior is opposed to the Church's teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person."

Keener added the incident is being investigated and students could face punishment, including expulsion.

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On Sunday, Nick Sandmann, a junior at the school who identified himself as the student in the video, said he was trying to defuse a tense situation and no one in the crowd was acting out of racism or hatred.

"I was not intentionally making faces at the protester," he said in a statement obtained by CNN. "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."

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He urged people to watch longer clips available online, "as they show a much different story than is being portrayed by people with agendas.

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"I am mortified that so many people have come to believe something that did not happen -- that students from my school were chanting or acting in a racist fashion toward African-Americans or Native Americans. I did not do that, do not have hateful feelings in my heart, and did not witness any of my classmates doing that."

Sandmann said he has received physical and death threats via social media.

One particular video showed him wearing a red "Make America Great Again" hat standing motionless in front of Phillips for several minutes, staring and at times smiling.

"This one kid just refused to move and he just got in Nathan's face," Kaya Taitano, a student at the University of the District of Columbia who participated in the Indigenous Peoples March, told CNN.

Other boys "just surrounded him and they were mocking him and mocking the chant. We really didn't know what was going to happen there."

Phillips, 64, said the Covington students, many of whom were also seen wearing similar "Make America Great Again" paraphernalia, had been getting upset at the speeches of a Black Israelite group nearby, who were in turn "saying some harsh things" to the students and in one case spat in their direction.

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Phillips told the Washington Post he and his group were singing the American Indian Movement song that serves as a ceremony to send the spirits home as they attempted to intervene.

"I put myself in between that, between a rock and hard place," Phillips said.

He added the students and some of the other people attending the March for Life rally began to chant "build that wall" and that he felt threatened as teens began to swarm around him and his group.

"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 said. "I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way, and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn't allow me to retreat."

Sandmann denied that anyone in the group said "build the wall" or used hateful or racist language toward Phillips.

Sandmann wrote they were called "racists," ″bigots," ″white crackers" and "incest kids" by the third group. With permission from a chaperone, he said they began school chants "to counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group."

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He said, "our chants were loud because we wanted to drown out the hateful comments that were being shouted at us by the protesters."

Chase Iron Eyes, an attorney with the Lakota People's Law Project, said the encounter lasted about 10 minutes and ended when Phillips and other activists walked away.

"I have read that Mr. Phillips is a veteran of the United States Marines," Sandmann said. "I thank him for his service and am grateful to anyone who puts on the uniform to defend our nation. If anyone has earned the right to speak freely, it is a U.S. Marine veteran."

Covington Mayor Joe Meyer published an op-ed Saturday, saying the incident was "disturbing, discouraging, and -- frankly -- appalling" and didn't reflect the city.

"The point is that because of the actions of people who live in Northern Kentucky, our region is being challenged again to examine our core identities, values, and beliefs," he wrote. "No, we're not perfect. More progress needs to be made, and we will continue to work diligently on making it. In the meantime, Covington is proud of being a welcoming city where bigotry, discrimination and hatred will not be tolerated."

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An online petition was also posted by Matthew Lehman, who said he is a 1995 graduate of Covington Catholic, calling for the school to stop any association with the March for Life event and for the immediate termination of principal Robert Rowe "for fostering an environment where these types of actions and words are condoned."

"I have watched with concern over the years as CovCath has become less diverse, more elite, and more expensive -- even as the surrounding community has become more economically and ethnically diverse," the petition, addressed to Rev. Roger Joseph Foys, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington, said. "It is abundantly clear that CovCath has lost its way under current leadership and significant changes need to be made at the institution."

Following is the longer video that is posted on YouTube by John Duncan:

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