After Covington Catholic students caught in social media maelstrom, fuller picture emerges

Video footage did not show the students attacking the members of the Black Israelite movement, who are heard to shout disparaging remarks at the students, most of them concerning the Catholic Church and Trump.

Students from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., stands in front of Native American Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips Jan. 18 near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in this still image from video. An exchange between the students and Phillips Jan. 18 was vilified on social media the following day, but the immediate accusations the students showed racist behavior were stepped back as more details of the entire situation emerged. (CNS photo/Kaya Taitano, social media via Reuters)

Washington D.C., Jan 21, 2019 / 01:28 pm (CNA).- A wave of media attention engulfed this weekend a group of students who attended last week’s annual March for Life in Washington, DC. The students, most of whom attend Catholic high schools in Kentucky, were accused on Saturday of harassing and taunting a Native American drummer, but subsequent revelations revealed a decidedly more complicated picture.

Videos began to circulate on Saturday that depicted portions of a Jan. 18 incident close to the Lincoln Memorial, in which students who had attended the March for Life were part of a confluence of demonstrators near the Memorial, some from a Washington-based religious group called the Black Israelites, and some from the Indigenous Peoples’ March, which took place in Washington on the same day as the larger March for Life.

Initially, the portions of the video that emerged, and quickly went viral, depicted a crowd of teenage boys chanting, dancing, and doing the “tomahawk chop” cheer, while a Native American man played a drum in chanted in close proximity to one teenage boy, who stood squarely before the drummer, without saying anything as the drumming and chanting continued directly in front of him.

The drummer was soon identified as Nathan Phillips, an elder of the Omaha Tribe and Native American rights activist.

The students were described in some media reports as “surrounding” Phillips, or “taunting” him, and became the subject of widespread condemnation from media figures and some Catholic leaders, who accused them of disrespect, racism, and antagonism. Some students were wearing hats depicting the 2016 campaign slogan of President Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again,” some commentators and social media figures suggested the hats could be evidence of racist motives on the part of the students.

Within hours, the school some of the students attended, Covington Catholic High School, along with the Diocese of Covington, issued a statement condemning “the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general…We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips. This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person”

“This matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion,” the statement said.

“We know this incident also has tainted the entire witness of the March for Life and express our most sincere apologies to all those who attended the March and all those who support the pro-life movement.”

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, Archbishop of Louisville, and Kentucky’s metropolitan archbishop, issued a statement shortly thereafter.

“I join with Bishop Foys in condemning the actions of the Covington Catholic students towards Mr. Nathan Phillips and the Native American Community yesterday in Washington.  I have every confidence that the leadership of the Diocese of Covington will thoroughly investigate what occurred and address those all involved in this shameful act of disrespect,” Kurtz wrote Jan. 19.

Similarly, the March for Life itself also tweeted a statement criticizing the reported actions of the students.

Congresswoman Deb Haaland, (D-NM), tweeted Saturday: “This Veteran put his life on the line for our country. The students’ display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance is a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration. Heartbreaking.”

However, even as initial footage went viral, facts began to emerge that pointed to a more complicated narrative. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Phillips approached the students, who, he claimed, were chanting “Build that Wall,” a chant associated with Trump’s call for a security wall, or fence, at the U.S. border with Mexico.

Phillips initially told The Washington Post that he was surrounded by the students after he approached them with his drum, and that “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.’ 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.”

Later, emerging video footage demonstrated that several of those demonstrating alongside Phillips approached the students, with some telling them to “go back to Europe,” and swearing at them. And a 2015 report emerged in which Phillips claimed to have been the victim of a racist attack by students at Eastern Michigan University, whom, he told Fox 2 at the time, he approached, and who, he said, eventually taunted him with racial slurs and threw an unopened beer can at him. No charges were filed in connection to that incident.

Subsequent media reports and videos recounted that the high school students had been the subject of taunts by the Black Israelite group, demonstrating nearby, and that Phillips claimed he was trying to intervene between the two groups. However, Phillips did not identify himself or his intentions to the students when he approached them, rather, he continued drumming and chanting.

Phillips told the Detroit Free Press Sunday that the students “were in the process of attacking these four black individuals,” and he intervened to stop the attack. He said the students then turned their anger toward him.

“There was that moment when I realized I’ve put myself between beast and prey,” Phillips said. “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,” he said.

“The Black Israelites, they were saying some harsh things, but some of it was true, too. These young, white American kids who were being taught in their Catholic school, their doctrine, their truth, and when they found out there’s more truth out there than what they’re being taught, they were offended, they were insulted, they were scared, and that’s how they responded. One thing that I was taught in my Marine Corp training is that a scared man will kill you. And that’s what these boys were. They were scared,” Phillips said.

Video footage did not show the students attacking the members of the Black Israelite movement, who are heard to shout disparaging remarks at the students, most of them concerning the Catholic Church and Trump.

The student at the center of the firestorm, identified as Covington Catholic High School junior Nick Sandmann, issued a statement Sunday night.

Sandmann said he and his fellow students were waiting for their bus after the March for Life, when “we noticed four African American protestors 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.”

“The protestors said hateful things. They called us ‘racists,’ ‘bigots,’ ‘white crackers,’ ‘faggots,’ and ‘incest kids.’ They also taunted an African American student from my school by telling him that we would ‘harvest his organs.’ I have no idea what that insult means, but it was startling to hear.

In response to those taunts, students began chanting “school spirit chants,” with permission of a chaperone, Sandmann said. He said he did not hear students chant other things.

“After a few minutes of chanting, the Native American protestors, who I hadn’t previously noticed, approached our group. The Native American protestors had drums and were accompanied by at least one person with a camera.”

“The protestor everyone has seen in the video began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him. I did not see anyone try to block his path. 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 recounted.

“I never interacted with this protestor. I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves. To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me. We had already been yelled at by another group of protestors, and when the second group approached I was worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers.”

“I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation. I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict. I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.”

While Sandmann said that he heard protestors tell the students that he had “stolen” Native American land and should “go back to Europe,” he urged calm from his fellow students.

“I never felt like I was blocking the Native American protester. He did not make any attempt to go around me. It was clear to me that he had singled me out for a confrontation, although I am not sure why.”

“I was not intentionally making faces at the protestor. 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 said.

The student said that he had provided his account to the Diocese of Covington.

After a fuller picture of events emerged, many media and Catholic figures apologized for their initial characterization of the event, with some admitting they had made judgments without sufficient information.

The March for Life tweeted Sunday night that “Given recent developments regarding the incident on Friday evening, March for Life has deleted its original tweet and removed our statement on this matter from our website. It is clear from new footage and additional accounts that there is more to this story than the original video captured.  We will refrain from commenting further until the truth is understood.”

The Diocese of Covington has not indicated what the next steps will be in its investigation of the matter.

CNA attempted to contact the Diocese of Covington and the Archdiocese of Louisville. Neither was available for comment as of press time.

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  1. If you were able to contact the Diocese of Covington, you were more fortunate than I; their website showed nothing but a screen condemning the children’s actions.

    I was able to find what I believe was the email of the principal of the high school, and I sent him a message telling him that he owed those students an apology and should be ashamed of himself. What sort of principal believes the worst of his students without checking the facts? What sort of bishop or archbishop throws his spiritual children to the wolves without talking to them to find out what really happened?

    • Its all about smelling good.

      They believe that if they can heap garbage upon these students they would smell good before the secular world.

      They have to be seen to be doing something even when they are doing nothing.

    • Tues 22nd, AM, website is down. Phones not answered.

      The principal and bishops (of course) are all cowards. Once again, the RCC eats its young.
      That any man, young or old, has any faith at all in the apparatus of the RCC is a miracle, indeed.

      • I have three sons, two legal adults, one mid-teens. All three have left the Church. Two had themselves rebaptised (yes, I know, not actually possible) by a different denomination.
        They are not coming back to the RCC. For one thing, I do not believe the RCC will exist (in the US) to come back to even if they decide to do so.

  2. Putting all interpretations of whom is in the right. As a Catholic high school over 20 years ago, I was appalled by the teens and their chaperones thinking that wearing MAGA hats was appropriate. The purpose to attend the event was to represent the faith, not a political movement or affiliation. Also, the chaperones violated their responsibility to supervise and protect the teens’ safety allowing the display of something that would obviously attract undue attention. Lastly, the encouragement to escalate in response to irrational rage teaches nothing of descalation or quiet strength. A vigil of peace has greater impact than a rally of pride.

    • Simply wearing the hat at a Life March is such provocation that the students deserved the obvious setup??? The purpose was actually to affirm life not faith as the March for Life draws atheists as well as various believers and agnostics.

      One would rather have the students run away and cower in some hidden corner?

      Do you ever stand up for anything?

      • Are you standing up for Covington students wearing black face at basketball games? Explain that to Jesus. The catholic high school i went to would not allow that crap. is that a Kentucky thing? Since when is Trump and his BS intertwined with the catholic church? If you are racist and proud of it stop lying and hiding and be proud of it, like your orange dictator

        • If you read the explanation, it was part of a school sports spirit Blackout, where they dressed head-to-toe in black; sometimes they do Blueouts, or Whiteouts. There are lots of people in this world who don’t view absolutely everything as a racial matter. Or are you going to be pitching fits that they are offending Andorians?

          Apparently the Catholic high school to which you went would allow you to assume the worst about some kids who have done nothing wrong because it fits in with your political views. For shame.

          As to President Trump, he is defending the right to freedom of religion – as, for example, in trying to protect the Little Sisters of the Poor from those who are trying to force them to cooperate in evil – and is speaking out in defense of life; for example, ” This is a movement founded on love and grounded in the nobility and dignity of every human life. When we look into the eyes of a newborn child, we see the beauty and the human soul and the majesty of God’s creation. We know that every life has meaning and that every life is worth protecting. As president, I will always defend the first right in our Declaration of Independence — the right to life. ”
          So right there he is “intertwined with the Catholic Church (your Catholic high school also doesn’t seem to have taught you how to capitalize properly).

          We aren’t racist; and I haven’t seen any evidence that President Trump is, either. If you’re going to make an accusation, provide evidence, beyond “because I said so.”

        • It’s not specifically a catholic march and Trump is our president and he has supported the March for life. He has done much to support the prolife movement. Furthermore, there were myriads of political figures present at the March. So why do you think the boys can’t wear political hats? And just because some people insist on reading racism and ugliness into everything, doesn’t make their hats somehow indecent. I wonder if you supported all those pink hat, vulgarity spewing women who had their march last year. Plenty of Catholics claimed that display was totally fine. Interesting disparity.

    • I don’t know whether they wore the hats at the march; do you? And given that half the country voted for President Trump, MAGA caps are hardly outré or rare.

      What “encouragement to escalate in response to irrational rage?” I saw no such encouragement and no such rage, just young men displaying admirable self-control in the face of hatred, vile insults, and bullying.

    • Overturning ‘Roe’ *is* a political act with transcendence consequences. The speeches at the event made that quite clear.

      And this, President Trump has been the most public supporter of the Pro-Life Movement of all who ever held that office. By far. Why the Catholic professional class – and the Vatican – despise the man is beyond my understanding. Wearing a MAGA hat is a pro-life statement.

    • Devin Simmons

      You are incorrect in multiple respects. I would guess you have not seen the 1 hour 46 minute video
      1. As for chaperones, the 1 hour 46 minute video clearly shows them supervising the kids vis a vis the black militants, telling the kids (as the group grows because they were supposed to meet there for the bus) to turn around and not engage, which almost all of the kids did. Apparently they were told they could do school cheers which they did but facing each other in a circle and away from everything else going on on the steps. The kids behaved beautifully
      2. As for the escalation by the native Americans, the 1 hour 46 minute video clearly shows about 10 native Americans — with cameramen carrying professional equipment (one for the A roll and one for the B roll) and a separate person (or two) carrying high lumen professional lighting — invaded the kids’ circle. It was not the other way around as you are trying to claim is open for interpretation
      3. They can wear their MAGA hats. You can wear your pink hat with the bunny ears. Why would you possibly care? I think we see the real underlying intent of your comment with that statement
      4. As for the March for Life, it IS a political rally.

    • “…..allowing the display of something that would obviously attract undue attention.”

      Like the pink “pussy hats” at the so-called “Women’s March”?????

      Like the outlandish garb (some of it BDSM gear) worn by participants in Sexual Perversion Pride Parades each June?????

    • You mean you are trying to tell me that 15 and 16 year old boy’s are asking for trouble by wearing a hat emblazoned with a slogan from the sitting President of the United States of America? Do you know how ridiculous that sounds? I can remember when the Catholic Church encourage all of their student’s to wear Kennedy buttons.
      You sir are a hipocrat, you would never think of telling a black kid what he can and can’t wear!

  3. The pro-abortion movement knows no shame. This was a complete fabrication – cameras, lighting, provocateurs, and all. Nick Sandman comes off as a hero – a good, solid, self-controlled, Catholic young man. There wasn’t a thing wrong with his behavior. His Bishop does not sound nearly as bright or intelligent. He is owed a sincere public apology from a lot of people – Bishop, school, media (Ha! He’ll wait a long time for that.)

  4. An American bishop jumping into a media manufactured controversy without any knowledge of what is actually goin on, and using the March for Life not to support life, but to make some virtue signaling gesture to the leftists who give the USCCB their marching orders. Nothing new here. Just our crazy bishops carrying on with their crazy agendas.

  5. Hardly anyone points that essentially NOTHING HAPPENED here. NOTHING. No violence, no hateful words. Nada.

    And yet in a heartbeat the kids are hung out to dry by the diocese, by Fr. Jim, and by CNN, WAPO, and even National Review. I’m amazed we still haven’t heard from hermeneutics over at CT.

    Man, if people feel this bad about the Indians, just go ahead and give’em back the freaking country already.

    Utterly ridiculous.

  6. This country is turning on Catholics because Satan rules the media and the internet. One day we will lose all our rights to worship much less think as Catholics – and the abuse scandals and silence from the Pope are not helping. I am a little man with a modest life who works to keep my family fed and clothed and to send my kids to Catholic school. Sometimes I wonder aloud if it is just a lost cause and that if it would be easier to just give up and join secular liberals in their attempt to destroy Catholicism once and for all…but thank the Lord for my parish family, for the strength given by the Holy Spirit and for the love of Jesus Christ. Catholics, be strong, hang tight, and pray for the strength of the Saints to proclaim the Way even if unto martyrdom…Nathan Phillips, as a Catholic father I am proud of you!

    • I’m proud of him too. What composure beyond his years. Too bad some of our church leaders seem to lack the maturity and composure of this teenager.

  7. There is a much larger issue here. Catholics in general and Catholic Clergy, particularly the bishops have caved on abortion. Sure there is Priests for Life and other catholic organizations that stand up against abortion, but as a percentage of Catholics it is small. Think about it, 64,000.000 babies plus have been aborted since Roe. This is a tragedy of epic proportions in this country. But the March for Life is composed of high school kids as a show case of Catholics against abortion. Come On!!! Where are the Bishops, Where are the Cardinals, Where is the Pope. I know there they are, they are planning where they will be for the Super Bowl game. Okay this is a little hyperbolic, but they just do not care. They will not step up and put themselves on the line. (As a side note do you wonder why boys do not want to priest, when leading clerdy are hiding in there residences, totally capitulating on this core issue) For a minute think about it, 64,000,000 plus babies, God’s children never had a chance for life and we as members of the Catholic Faith, and who go to church, in essence have done nothing to stop it. So why would God step in to stop the new attempt to destroy Catholicism. It is only right and just God should let us suffer and see who are the real Catholics. If we and I mean all Catholics, including the clergy, can’t protect God’d children, how can we ever expect God’s help and I include my self in this too.

  8. One would think that a bishop and an Archbishop would have done a bit more research before condemning their own parishioners.

    I read many articles on this case and watched a good portion of the 2-hour video of the DC event before I made up my mind. The bishop and Archbishop could have done the same.

    I honestly don’t think my Archbishop would have condemned these kids based on such flimsy information.

    There is too much virtue signaling in the Catholic Church today. Time to get back to doctrine and shed the fear of not fitting into the current culture.

  9. The March for Life needs to apologize. The Bishops and the school who condemned these teenagers need to apologize. And then they all need to do something to repair the damage they have done to these boys and to the pro-life cause and to the morale of the faithful people entrusted to their care. And they need to apologize to God for condemning his children and once again throwing faithful Catholics under the bus for a political opportunity. And they need to offer reparations to God. Shame.

    • I truly feel so sorry for those children and what so many said about them. That young boy was truly being brave. I pray that Jesus stands beside him.

  10. Thank God for Nick and his young friends. Reminds me of honorable SCOTUS Cavanagh. Saints of the sad CC, USA– such as it is — with exception of the few real priests and leaders, left. What a pathetic, sick culture to give the youth. Thanks, kids… standing up to it. God bless and keep you.


    I recently saw the TV interview of one of the school’s chaperones, a woman, defending the conduct of her students, saying that – at their request– she gave them permission to sing their school fight songs during the melee, while waiting for their bus, instead of looking on helplessly.

  12. Though I have many excuses, I have to admit to cowardice in this MAGA hat thing. My own hat still lies safely in the closet where it was put over two years ago. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I ask understanding/forgiveness.

  13. Well, I have pretty mixed views of this situation. #1) Adults created this mess; 2) Why are “Catholic” school kids wearing political advertisements and NOT their school’s attire at a school-sponsored function; 3) why in the world were those kids kept in that environment?; 4) Do people really think these boys are alter boys? hah!; As a devout practicing Catholic that attended Catholic School and sent one of my kids to “catholic” school AND ‘catholic’ college I see ‘catholic’ schools to be nothing but secular because the priority is secular ($$$$$, prestige, sports, SAT scores, etc). “Catholic” school is a marketing tool to attract privileged spoiled kids. Catholic schools are nothing but high priced day care centers. Don’t for one second believe that Covington or any other ‘catholic’ school is about Catholicism. It’s about money! Go to the web site, their priority is sports not teaching the Gospel or the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Something is rotten in Denmark and fish stink from the head down!

  14. Interesting that the statement preceding this box to comment on this story, says obscene language will not be tolerated in light of the fact that obscene foul language by the black adult cult members was completely what was heard in the full video the black adults cussing them posted on the internet. Amazing that I have heard no media reporters/journalist fail to address this demonic group of cult members. Their language was disgusting and no journalist ever mention this foul treatment of these students!

  15. Lousy reporting, but what else can we expect from the “Catholic” News Agency other than its usual anti-Catholic bias. I make these comments several days later, but the information was available then that refute the misinformation in this article. The native American was not a Vietnam veteran but was a professional agitator planning to later go and desecrate a Eucaristic event. There were no tomahawk chops. There was no moblike massing of the young people who were merely waiting for a bus and victims of Phillips unwarranted approach, and who lied about everything afterward.

  16. Our shepherds are not protecting their flock. I feel the cap probably what not something to wear at a school function although I think a Pro-Life cap would have most likely produced the same results. We do live under a “freedom of speech” country (spoken or unspoken) so where is the line?

    I think the quickness of some Archbishops and Bishop to condemn these students shows just how much they are allowing themselves to be swayed by the culture of the times and the media. In addition, our shepherds are not protecting their flock. They fail to realize that these students daily are being bullied and tormenting by the Left for just being in a Catholic school, being Prolife and in addition for the sins of the fathers-leadership of the church with the sexual scandal.

    The first thing the church leaders do with the sex abuse scandal is circle the wagons and hide. The first time a Catholic student gets caught up in a media frenzy lie, the church father-leaders do is condemn him and feed him to the lions. Shame on you! Our youth is the future of our church, stand up and be real leaders instead of politicians. The church leader sure didn’t speak out when children were being abused.

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