A video depicting a group of Catholic school students in Make America Great Again hats taunting Native American elder Nathan Phillips went viral on social media this weekend — and now, Phillips has come forward to describe the events leading up to the incident.
Phillips, a 64-year-old Marine, veteran of the Vietnam War, and longtime Native American activist from Michigan, was in Washington, D.C. on Friday afternoon for the Indigenous Peoples March. Phillips told the Detroit Free Press that the viral incident was sparked when a crowd of roughly 100 people, including the teenagers seen in the video, gradually splintered off from a March for Life event to confront a nearby group of Black Hebrew Israelites.
As the teenagers began to attack the Black Israelites — and Phillips noted that the Black Israelites also began to say “some harsh things” in retaliation and self-defense — Phillips made a spur of the moment decision to intervene and prevent the situation from escalating further. He physically placed himself between both groups, and the anger from the students, a group of mostly white, male teenagers, was then directed at him.
"There was that moment when I realized I've put myself between beast and prey," Phillips told the Free Press. "These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey, and I stood in between them and so they needed their pounds of flesh and they were looking at me for that."
The students, who attend Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, began jeering at Phillips as he took his drum and began singing. In the video, the teens can be heard chanting “Build the wall” and yelling derogatory language and slurs. One boy walked up to Phillips and stood inches away from his face, smiling and unmoving.
Phillips said the kind of glee in the teenagers’ face was “ugly” and reminiscent of photographed reactions to lynchings from the mid-20th century. He described their behaviour as a reaction to learning “there’s more truth out there than what they’re being taught” in their schools — and they took issue with people who are not like them.
“One thing that I was taught in my Marine Corp training is that a scared man will kill you,” he said. “And that's what these boys were. They were scared."
Phillips said that the students’ chaperones, teachers, and instructors should be held accountable for allowing the incident to happen. Speaking to the broader political climate, Phillips also said the incident was symptomatic of larger sociopolitical fissures in the United States, and he explicitly noted that President Donald Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric has only divided the country further.
Covington Catholic High School has since issued an apology to Phillips and condemned the students’ actions. In a statement, the school said that the matter is under investigation and appropriate action will be taken, including expulsion if necessary.