Mon, 26 Aug 2019

Students at a Kentucky Catholic school who were involved in a video showing them mocking Native Americans outside the Lincoln Memorial after a Washington rally could potentially face expulsion.

In a joint statement, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School apologised and said they are investigating and will take "appropriate action, up to and including expulsion."

The Indigenous Peoples March in Washington on Friday coincided with the March for Life, which drew thousands of anti-abortion protesters, including a group from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky.

Videos circulating online show a youth staring at and standing extremely close to Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American man singing and playing a drum. Other students, some wearing Covington clothing and many wearing "Make America Great Again" hats and sweat shirts, surrounded them, chanting, laughing and jeering.

'I didn't provoke'

Meanwhile, the student says he did nothing to provoke the man in the videotaped confrontation and was only trying to calm the situation.

The student identified himself in an email statement on Sunday evening as junior Nick Sandmann of Covington Catholic High School in a northern Kentucky suburb of Cincinnati. An official working with the family confirmed Sandmann's identity, speaking on condition of anonymity because the source didn't want to distract from the statement.

Videos posted of the confrontation drew wide criticism on social media. "I am being called every name in the book, including a racist, and I will not stand for this mob-like character assassination of my family's name," wrote Sandmann, who added that he and his parents have received death threats since video of Friday's confrontation emerged.

Both Sandmann and Phillips say they were trying to defuse tensions that were rising among three groups on a day Washington hosted both the March for Life and the Indigenous Peoples March. But video of Sandmann standing very close to Phillips, staring and at times smiling at him as Phillips sang and played a drum, gave many who watched it a different impression. Other students appeared to be laughing at the drummer; and at least one could be seen on video doing a tomahawk chop.

The duelling accounts emerged on Sunday as the nation picked apart footage from dozens of cellphones that recorded the incident on Friday in Washington amid an increasingly divided political climate fuelled by a partial government shutdown over immigration policy.

Phillips had approached Sandmann, but well before that, both his group and Sandmann's, which had taken part in the anti-abortion rally, were confronted by a third group that appeared to be affiliated with the Black Hebrew Israelite movement.

Insults

Videos show members of the religious group yelling disparaging and profane insults at the students, who taunt them in return. Video also shows the Native Americans being insulted by the small religious group.

Sandmann wrote that the students were called "racists," ''bigots," ''white crackers" and "incest kids" by the third group. He said a teacher chaperone gave the students permission to begin their school chants "to counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group."

One of those chants, however, is what led Phillips and Marcus Frejo, a member of the Pawnee and Seminole tribes, to approach the youths.

It was a haka - a war dance of New Zealand's indigenous Maori culture, made famous by the country's national rugby team. Frejo, who is also known as Chief Quese Imc, told the AP in a phone interview that he felt the students were mocking the dance.

Phillips, an activist described by the Indian Country Today website as an Omaha elder and Vietnam War veteran, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he was trying to keep peace between the high school students and the religious group.

He said he heard people chanting "Build that wall" or yelling, "Go back to the reservation." At one point, he said, he sought to ascend to the Lincoln statue and "pray for our country." Some students backed off, but one student wouldn't let him move, he added.

"They were making remarks to each other ... (such as) 'In my state those Indians are nothing but a bunch of drunks.' How do I report that?" Phillips said. "These young people were just roughshodding through our space, like what's been going on for 500 years here - just walking through our territories, feeling like 'this is ours.'"

Not intentionally making faces

Sandmann said he heard no student chant anything beyond school spirit chants, and that he hadn't even been aware of the Native American group until Phillips approached him.

"The protester 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," Sandmann wrote. "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 said one of the Native American protesters yelled at them that they "stole our land" and they should "go back to Europe," but that he never spoke to or interacted with Phillips. "To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me."

He wrote that he "believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping defuse the situation."

"I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand," he wrote. He said the incident ended when the buses arrived and his teacher told him it was time to leave.

Though many commenting on the internet were taken back by Sandmann staring at Philipps, the teen said he was "not intentionally making faces at the protester. 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." He said he had never encountered any kind of public protest before.

Sandmann said he has provided a copy of his statement to the diocese and said: "I stand ready and willing to cooperate with any investigation they are conducting." A spokesperson for the diocese did not return an email on Sunday night.

Covington Catholic High School was quiet on Sunday as the area remained snow-covered with temperatures in the teens. The all-male school, which has more than 580 students, appeared deserted with an empty police car parked in front of the building.

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