A teen from viral videos of students appearing to harass Indigenous protesters at the Lincoln Memorial has responded with his version of the events. Nick Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, KY, is the teen seen smiling in front of Native American elder Nathan Phillips.
In his statement, given to the press on Sunday, January 20, Sandmann explains that a group of students were gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to await buses for a return trip to Kentucky after participating in the March for Life. As the students waited, Sandmann says that four Black Hebrew Israelite protesters were yelling racially incendiary remarks at the mostly-white students. “When we arrived, we noticed four African-American protesters who were also on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I am not sure what they were protesting, and I did not interact with them. I did hear them direct derogatory insults at our school group,” he writes. Sandmann also says that the four protesters targeted an African-American student in their group.
Video of the incident shared on Facebook by the the Black Hebrew Israelites corroborates that they were verbally harassing passersby, including some participating in the Indigenous Peoples Rally, for at least an hour before the incident with Covington Catholic students began.
Sandmann said the students asked permission from adult chaperones to recite their school spirit chant to counter the protesters. In a video from the day, a student can be seen removing his shirt as the students performed the chant, arms raised, which Sandmann says is “commonly used at sporting events.” Sandmann disputes accusations that he and his fellow students were chanting “Build the wall,” or anything other than school spirit chants, though he later describes motioning to a classmate to not engage with a Native American protester.
At this point, Sandmann says that the Indigenous Peoples marchers approached the students with their drums. The video confirms his account, and students began circling the Native group. Sandmann writes, “[Phillips] locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face.” Their interaction is not visible in the video, until it later captures the two appearing to face-off.
“We had already been yelled at by another group of protesters, and when the second group approached I was worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers,” Sandmann recounts.
As Phillips and his group continued to drum and sing, the students can be seen jumping and clapping in what many consider to be a mocking manner. In his statement, Sandmann characterizes his emotions as “startled and confused” to be “singled out.”
Sandmann has been widely criticized on social media for smiling, or smirking, at Phillips. He defends his actions, saying, “I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation.” He adds that he was praying for a peaceful resolution. The Native protesters and the students parted ways without further incident.
Sandmann notes he and his parents have received death threats and been the focus of online harassment since video of the incident went viral. He then cautions against “passing judgment” based on video clips and urges people to watch longer video of the events. “I cannot speak for everyone, only for myself. But I can tell you my experience with Covington Catholic is that students are respectful of all races and cultures. We also support everyone’s right to free speech,” he writes, and indicates that he is willing to cooperate with any investigation into the incident.