Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

Tensions flare among high school students, indigenous rights activist, and black religious militants at Lincoln Memorial – January 2019

Washington, DC

A confrontation among a group of white high school boys, black religious militants, and a Native American activist in front of the Lincoln Memorial, underscored by racial and ideological tensions, was caught on video and went viral in January 2019. Release of further video contextualized the incident, but also muddled blame, creating a microcosmic culture war in the online reactions to the event.

Key Players

Nick Sandmann is a junior at Covington Catholic High School, an all-boys private school in Covington, Kentucky, a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. Sandmann and other Covington Catholic students traveled to Washington, D.C., in January 2019 to participate in an anti-abortion March for Life.

Nathan Phillips is an Omaha tribal elder and Native American activist. The Omaha reservation is located mostly in northeastern Nebraska, with parts in western Iowa. Phillips was at the Lincoln Memorial on the day of the encounter for a rally supporting Native American and indigenous people’s rights.

The Hebrew Israelites is a movement of black Americans who believe they are descended from the 12 ancient tribes of Israel, according to CNN. Such groups were established in the early 20th century across the United States. Emphasizing their ancestral connections rather than their religion, members of the movement generally do not identify as Jewish.

Further Details

On Jan. 19, a video surfaced showing Sandmann engaging Phillips at the Indigenous Peoples March, which had been held the day before. Sandmann was surrounded by other boys from Covington Catholic, and he was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat that invoked President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric.  Some thought Sandmann appeared to be mocking and laughing at Phillips as the elder beat a ceremonial drum, chanted a song, and prayed.

Outrage exploded online, evoking swift condemnation. “This Veteran [Phillips] put his life on the line for our country,” tweeted Rep. Deb Haaland (D.-NM), one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress. “The students’ display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance is a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration. Heartbreaking.”

Days later, a second video emerged online, showing a group of Hebrew Israelites shouting derogatory slurs at the students from Covington Catholic and other passerby at the march. Before long, Covington students surrounded the Hebrew Israelites and began shouting their school chant back at them, according to Sandmann. The person who shot the initial video said the students were yelling “Build the wall,” a commonly invoked reference to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. But CNN reported that such chants were not discernible in the video.

As tensions mounted, Phillips walked into the crowd of students, beating his drum and seeking to intervene in the increasingly tense confrontation. When Phillips stepped forward, however, Sandmann blocked his path and continued to mock him, the Native American activist told the New York Times. The two men stood just inches apart, Sandmann grinning at the elder as he continued to chant.

“I was scared,” Phillips said in an interview with CNN. “I don’t like the word ‘hate.’ I don’t like even saying it, but it was hate unbridled. It was like a storm.”

Sandmann rejected this characterization and denied that the Covington Catholic students chanted anything hateful or inflammatory.


Sandmann releases statement of explanation, defense

In the days after the first video’s release, Sandmann identified himself, seeking to clarify his own involvement in the situation. Among other subjects touched on in the statement, Sandmann invoked Phillips’s right to Free Speech.

“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 wrote in a Jan. 20 statement released by a public relations firm. “I respect this person’s right to protest and engage in free speech activities, and I support his chanting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial any day of the week. I believe he should re-think his tactics of invading the personal space of others, but that is his choice to make.”

Conflict goes viral amid TODAY show interviews

Featuring conflicting narratives and drawing on national racial tensions, Phillips’s and Sandmann’s encounter went viral online, leading both to give interviews on the TODAY show on Jan. 23 and Jan. 24.

Covington Catholic closes amid safety concerns, issues apology along with diocese

The private high school was forced to close on Tuesday, Jan. 22, after safety concerns emerged from its being thrust into the national spotlight. It reopened the following day, according to NPR.

After the initial video began to spread, Covington Catholic apologized to Phillips, the New York Times reports. “We will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion,” the school wrote in a joint statement with the Diocese of Covington, in which an investigation into the incident was also announced.

But following launch of the investigation and release of the second video, the diocese backtracked: “We should not have allowed ourselves to be bullied and pressured into making a statement prematurely,” said Bishop Roger Joseph Foys, head of the Covington Diocese, in a Jan. 23 statement.

The diocesan investigation found “no evidence” or “offensive or racist statements” by Sandmann or the other Covington Catholic students, according to a report by the Greater Cincinnati Investigation, Inc. firm, released on Feb. 13. The report did find that the students performed “tomahawk chops,” an action mimicking a tomahawk axe swinging that is offensive to Native Americans, according to the Washington Post.

While Foys welcomed and lauded the report’s exoneration of the students, critics argued it dismissed inappropriate behavior by ignoring the broader context.

External References

Video of Boys Mocking Native American Vet, Unchecked by Adults, Sparks Uproar, EdWeek

Fuller Picture Emerges of Viral Video of Native American Man and Catholic Students, New York Times

A new video shows a different side of the encounter between a Native American elder and teens in MAGA hats, CNN

In Kentucky, Covington Catholic High School Reopens After Threats, NPR

Nick Sandmann speaks out on viral encounter with Nathan Phillips, TODAY Show

Native American elder Nathan Phillips on confrontation: ‘I forgive him’,  TODAY Show

Bishop apologizes to teen who faced off with Native American, NBC News

Investigation finds no evidence of ‘racist or offensive statements’ in Mall incident, Washington Post

Final Investigative Report, Greater Cincinnati Investigation, Inc.

Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20

Uploaded February 19, 2019