President Donald Trump started off the week by mocking one of the worst Native American massacres in US history in order to score some political points. By Friday, a group of young white teenagers were following in his footsteps by taunting Native American elders at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, DC — on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, no less.
In videos shared widely on YouTube and Twitter, a young man wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat stands inches away from a native elder who is beating a drum. Different angles of the incident show a group of a few dozen young people, mostly boys, in the background, jumping up and down and jeering in unison at the group of elders present for the day’s march. In some shots, the teens appear to be shouting, “Build that wall, build that wall.”
The boys’ school announced late Saturday that it is now investigating the incident to see what punishment for the students is appropriate — even expulsion could be on the table.
According to Vincent Schilling from Indian Country Today, the elder targeted in the video clip is Nathan Phillips, a Vietnam War veteran and former director of the Native Youth Alliance. Phillips is a keeper of a sacred pipe, Schilling reports, and each year hosts a ceremony honoring Native American veterans at Arlington National Cemetery. The commemoration coincided Friday with the first annual Indigenous Peoples March, which was organized by a coalition of tribal councils, activists, and youth leaders to raise awareness on issues facing their community, from police brutality to mental wellness to violence against women.
More video shows Phillips wiping away tears after the incident.
“This is Indigenous land, you know; we’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did for millenniums — before anybody else came here, we never had walls,” he says in the clip. “I wish I could see that energy in that young mass of young men down there. To put that energy into making this country really, really great — helping those that are hungry.”
Heartbreaking to see him like this. I’m glad he showed no fear and kept singing. Our people are powerful beyond belief ❤️Posted by Dyami Thomas on Saturday, January 19, 2019
The teenagers in the clip have yet to be identified, though young men in the background appear to be wearing clothing with the insignia for Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky. The Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School on Saturday afternoon condemned the harassment and said in a statement that an investigation is underway and “we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.”
“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,” the statement said.
The episode casts a dark shadow over the March for Life, an annual anti-abortion demonstration that drew thousands of protesters and surprise appearances Friday from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. The students had traveled to DC to attend the gathering, which held competing rallies on the day of the Indigenous Peoples March. It was after demonstrations had begun to die down that the students began harassing the Native American elders in the video.
“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,” the diocese and school statement continues.
We now know more about the events leading up to when the cameras starting rolling
Since the videos began circulating widely, new details have emerged calling into question the circumstances leading up to the incident.
A Covington student who said he was present during the incident emailed a local TV network saying the elder approached the students — not the other way around. Phillips confirmed that he was the one who initiated their interaction after witnessing what he considered a looming scuffle between the crowd of white teens and four black members affiliated with the religious group, Black Hebrew Israelites.
In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Phillips says the members of the Black Hebrew Israelites were “saying some harsh things” — which reportedly included homophobic remarks — and that one of them even spit in the students’ direction. Phillips said he decided to step in and defuse the situation.
“They were in the process of attacking these four black individuals,” Phillip said. “I was there and I was witnessing all of this. ... As this kept on going on and escalating, it just got to a point where you do something or you walk away, you know? You see something that is wrong and you’re faced with that choice of right or wrong. “
It’s after this point, that Phillips says his own altercation with the students began as they redirected their energy toward him.
“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,’” Phillips told the Washington Post in a separate interview. “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.”
Backlash over “boys will be boys”
The original video was met with swift outrage and disgust online, with rounds of criticism aimed at the young teens’ seemingly smug attitude and show of disrespect toward a community that has experienced a dark history of racism, bigotry, and violence dating back centuries.
The impassioned response online fed into to divisions over how to process the young teens’ actions, with calls to resist absolving their behavior because of their youth or writing their actions off as “boys will be boys.”
The video of the MAGA kids harassing an indigenous veteran further demonstrate the consequences of having public displays of racism & bigotry sanctioned by the most powerful person in the country. It should disabuse ppl of the notion that such public racism will simply “die out.”— Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII) January 19, 2019
White kids in MAGA hats jeering a Native American Vietnam veteran. This era is just a series of extremely heavy-handed metaphors— Adam Serwer (@AdamSerwer) January 19, 2019
Rep. Deb Haaland, one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, tweeted on Saturday calling the incident “heartbreaking” and a display of “blatant hate and disrespect.”