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How the story of a clash between a boy in a MAGA hat and a Native American elder unfolded

It started as a viral tweet and video clip and ended in a political firestorm.

Covington Catholic High School has received national attention in the wake of videos showing students from the school mocking Native Americans outside the Lincoln Memorial after a rally in Washington.
Lisa Cornwell/AP Photo
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Viral footage of white Catholic students clashing with a Native American man after the March for Life anti-abortion rally on Friday swept across the internet over the long weekend. Initially, what happened appeared clear-cut: young boys were mocking a peaceful Native American elder. The boys had early defenders, and many more stepped forward after additional video footage emerged showing a fuller picture of the confrontation — turning the incident into a politically charged controversy.

Here’s how it started: On Friday, videos began to percolate online of a teen boy wearing a MAGA hat staring at an older Native American man playing a drum and singing on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. The video showed other boys, many also in MAGA hats, laughing and looking on, seeming to make fun of the man at times. The footage quickly picked up steam online, the narrative being that the boys were harassing the Native American elder, who was there for the Indigenous Peoples March.

The boys were identified as students at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky. On Saturday, the school and diocese condemned the students’ actions and apologized to the man, later identified as Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old veteran of the US Marines. Phillips spoke with multiple publications about the incident, saying he was trying to diffuse a tense situation between the teens and another group nearby, later identified as the Black Hebrew Israelites, who believe they are the descendants of ancient Israelites. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, extremists in the movement have a “long, strange list of enemies” including white people, Jewish people, and the LBGTQ community.

As more information and videos came out — and the student at the center of the controversy, Nick Sandmann, came forward — the picture of what happened on the Lincoln Memorial stairs on Friday became more complex. Longer videos have emerged showing the Hebrew Israelites taunting the students, who then started chanting and shouting, including when Phillips came in. The students still don’t look great, but neither do a lot of the adults involved.

The saga has stirred up many on the right, who say that the students were unfairly maligned and that the media ran with one narrative before having the full picture. (Vox ran a story about it over the weekend.) Some have employed the “boys will be boys” argument in defense of the teens, essentially arguing that young people sometimes just do dumb stuff. Some journalists have said they should have waited for more information, while others say the teens still screwed up and deserve to be publicly maligned.

And President Donald Trump has weighed in on behalf of the teens, indicating he’s aware this is the type of cultural hot-button issue he can leverage to stir up division.

We’re probably never going to know exactly what happened on the Lincoln Memorial steps

The first one-minute video, showing Sandmann smirking and students chanting as Phillips drummed and sang, seemed to tell a pretty clear story of what happened on Friday. But the more details that emerge — including a nearly two-hour video of the rally (Phillips appears at about the 1:12 mark) — the more complicated it gets. And the participants aren’t making it more clear.

Phillips told CNN on Saturday that he found himself in the middle of an “ugly situation” between the Covington students and the Hebrew Israelites and decided to “use the drum, use our prayer, and bring a balance, bring a calming to the situation.” He told the Washington Post “that guy in the hat stood in my way, and we were at an impasse,” referring to Sandmann, and said that he thought of his deceased wife as he chanted.

He told the Post that some people in the March for Life group chanted, “Build that wall.” Jon Stegenga, a photojournalist who spoke with the Post, said he also heard students saying “build the wall” and “Trump 2020,” but those chants aren’t audible in the videos. Videos also show some of the students doing a “Tomahawk chop” around Phillips, who told the Post he also heard students saying, “Go back to Africa.”

Sandmann said in a statement released on Monday that he “did not witness or hear any students chant ‘build that wall’ or anything hateful or racist at any time.” He said the students had asked for permission to “begin our school spirit chants to counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group.”

In an interview with Savannah Guthrie on Today aired on Wednesday, Sandmann again denied any charges of racism against him and his classmates. “We’re a Catholic school, and it’s not tolerated. They don’t tolerate racism, and none of my classmates are racist people,” he said.

Phillips appeared for a separate interview on Today on Thursday and said he had heard students saying “build the wall.”

In the video footage, audio can be heard of the Hebrew Israelites seemingly mocking the students. Ephraim Israel, one of the Hebrew Israelites there on Friday, told the Post that the teens were “mocking me as I was trying to teach my brothers, so, yes, the attention turned to them.”

“I explained to them, you want to build for Mexicans and other indigenous people, but you’ve never seen a black or a Mexican shoot up a school,” he said.

Sandmann, who is in 11th grade, said that in staring down Phillips he thought he was remaining “motionless and calm” to help “diffuse the situation.” He said he didn’t feel like he was blocking Phillips and that he felt he had “singled me out for a confrontation, though I am not sure why.”

Phillips told the Post that even before the confrontation, he and other Native American activists had issues with the students during the day. And it wasn’t just him and the Hebrew Israelites — a video surfaced on Twitter purporting to show the Covington boys harassing a group of girls as they walked by.

Hunter Hooligan, a 27-year-old from Baltimore who went to the Indigenous Peoples March with his sister, told BuzzFeed News that the Covington boys “just kind of, like, surrounded us” as they tried to move. “What made me feel scared was the mob mentality of the situation,” he said.

Sandmann told Guthrie that he “certainly hope[s]” no one felt threatened by his group and said he’s not apologizing for what happened. “I mean, in hindsight, I wish we could have walked away and avoided the whole thing, but I can’t say that I’m sorry for listening to [Phillips] and standing there.”

Phillips on Thursday said Sandmann’s statement and Today appearance seemed “coached and written up for him” and displayed “insincerity” and a “lack of responsibility.”

“Even though I’m angry, I still have that forgiveness in my heart for those students,” he said.

This has sparked criticism that the media got out ahead of its skis

As more details have emerged about what happened, those who were quick to react to initial video have come under scrutiny — some from the outside, some self-imposed.

Robby Soave in Reason on Sunday slammed the media for its handling of the situation, claiming that it “wildly mischaracterized” the video.

“Far from engaging in racially motivated harassment, the group of mostly white, MAGA-hat-wearing male teenagers remained relatively calm and restrained despite being subjected to incessant racist, homophobic, and bigoted verbal abuse by members of the bizarre religious sect Black Hebrew Israelites, who were lurking nearby,” Soave wrote.

Fox News has done extensive coverage of the incident. It brought on one of the group’s chaperones who claimed the boys were targeted because of “what they stood for” and “partially because of the color of their skin.” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said the response to the incident was “people in power attacking those below them as a group.” Laura Ingraham interviewed Glenn Greenwald, co-founding editor of the Intercept, who said the reaction had been a sort of “trial by Twitter mob.”

Trump weighed in on Twitter, saying that the students have become “symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be” and lamenting that they had been “smeared by the media.”

March for Life organizers, who on Saturday had condemned the teens’ actions as “reprehensible,” have removed the statement from the event’s website and say they will “refrain from commenting further until the truth is understood.”

Twitter suspended the account, @2020fight, that helped spread the initial viral video of the confrontation. Covington Catholic, which in a statement over the weekend before much of the controversy took hold said it might go as far as to expel the students involved, was closed on Tuesday.

Julie Irwin Zimmerman, a Cincinnati-based writer, wrote for the Atlantic that she believes she, and many online, got ahead of herself in the Covington narrative. “Next time a story like this surfaces, I’ll try to sit it out until more facts have emerged,” she said.

Some on the right have questioned Phillips’s account, noting that in 2015 he claimed to have been harassed by students in Michigan.

These kids still don’t look great

While the Friday incident is a lot more complicated than originally thought, these teens aren’t exactly blame-free either. Doing “Tomahawk chops” and chanting around a Native American man isn’t a good look, even if their chaperones did approve it.

Some people, including journalists and Twitter personalities, very well may have gotten ahead of themselves in characterizing the situation based on the one-minute clip that initially emerged. All this doesn’t help to fight against the constant maligning of the media by Trump, Fox News, and others on the right.

Still, longer videos and more details don’t exonerate the boys entirely.

As Slate’s Ruth Graham points out, the Covington teens greatly outnumbered their antagonists, and a lot of them were making fun of Phillips’s chanting. “There’s no mistaking the core dynamics of the encounter: Sandmann smugly grins in Phillips’s face and declines to step backward, and he’s backed by dozens of boisterous teens who are jeering and mocking the much smaller group of Native marchers,” Graham writes.

The MAGA hat-wearing teens versus peaceful Native American elder image is an easy one to create a narrative around, perhaps too quickly, but those MAGA hats also come with a lot of baggage: The hats have become a symbol not only of support for Trump but also of racism, bias, and hate. The boys wearing them bring that with them, like it or not.

Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said that Native American activist Nathan Phillips fought in the Vietnam War. Phillips served in the US Marines, but he was never deployed to Vietnam.