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The MAGA hat-wearing teen at the center of a viral video firestorm isn’t sorry

Nick Sandmann, the student seen standing face to face with a Native American elder in footage that went viral over the weekend, spoke about what happened on Today.

Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High School student seen in viral footage wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and seemingly in confrontation with a Native American elder, says he wishes the incident could have been avoided — but he doesn’t feel any need to apologize for what happened, either.

“As far as standing there, I had every right to do so ... my position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips. I respect him. I’d like to talk to him,” Sandmann said in an interview with Today’s Savannah Guthrie that aired on Wednesday, referring to Nathan Phillips, the Native American man seen in videos drumming and chanting face to face with Sandmann. “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 him and standing there.”

Videos first surfaced on the internet on Friday showing Sandmann staring at Phillips as Phillips sang and played a drum at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. The two were surrounded by Sandmann’s classmates, many of whom were wearing MAGA hats (as was Sandmann), chanting, and jumping. The initial narrative was that the boys were harassing Phillips, but there were later more layers added to the story: Longer videos emerged showing a few members of the Black Hebrew Israelites taunting the students, and Phillips says he stepped in to try to defuse the tension.

As the controversy continued, Sandmann’s family hired a PR firm to help them deal with the situation, and on Sunday, the teen released a three-page statement explaining his side of the story. That continued with the Today interview.

Sandmann told Guthrie that it was “weird” seeing his face on television and that he had received messages of support as well as “a lot of hateful things.” He defended his and his classmates’s decision to chant at the Lincoln Memorial steps as they waited for their buses after attending the anti-abortion March for Life — a decision he says was sanctioned by one of the group’s chaperones — in response to the small group of Hebrew Israelites, who on footage can be heard insulting the students and others.

“I definitely felt threatened,” Sandmann said.

Guthrie pointed out that his group far outnumbered the handful of men who made fun of them and the Native Americans at the Indigenous Peoples March. “I certainly hope they didn’t feel threatened by us,” Sandmann said. “I would just say that the fact remains that they initiated their comments with us, and, I mean, they provoked us into a peaceful response of school spirit.”

He said that what many perceived as a “smirk” on his face as he looked at Phillips was really “a smile saying that this is the best you’re going to get out of me, you won’t get any further reaction of aggression.”

Sandmann also denied claims by Phillips and others in the area on Friday that some of his classmates were chanting “build the wall” and “Trump 2020,” which aren’t audible in the videos.

“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.

Of course, whether or not you go to a Catholic school says nothing of whether or not you might be racist.

That Sandmann, who is white, would get airtime on Today in the first place has raised eyebrows and spurred questions of whether a black teen would get the same treatment. New York Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie noted the racial dynamics in play on Twitter.

Today seemed aware of the critique and pointed out that they’ve interviewed Phillips three times since Friday’s incident and plan to do so again on Thursday.

All eyes are on Covington Catholic

All this has put scrutiny on Covington Catholic and the school’s culture.

The private, all-male high school was founded in 1925 and is located in Park Hills, Kentucky, a suburb south of Cincinnati, Ohio. According to the Courier Journal, citing the Covington Diocese, the school has around 585 students and 42 teachers; 213 students attended the March for Life in 2017.

Footage posted on Covington’s YouTube page in 2012 showing students dressed in all black and with their faces painted black has also been surfaced on the internet. (The school’s official YouTube page has since been taken down.) Some people online have accused the students of wearing blackface as a sign of racism, though it’s not clear that was the actual intent. The fact-checking website Snopes dug into it:

Based on comments in the BluegrassPreps message board, the intent of the black body paint was not racial but was instead a school tradition related to “black out” games, during which fans wore black to support the team. That being said, at least one person in the thread posited a connection to racist minstrel shows from the 19th century that used blackface on white actors to depict African Americans unfavorably. “That guy on the right looks like he might have been researching minstrelsy before the game,” one post read.

Intentional or not, given the historical gravity and racism of blackface, the students — and adults — could have known better.

Fox & Friends on Wednesday interviewed two Covington Catholic students and asked about the face paint. The students said they’re no longer allowed to wear black paint, but it was “just showing school spirit.”

HuffPost also detailed more stories that have come out about Covington after Friday’s incident:

One man said on Twitter that he was harassed by Covington students for being gay, documentarian Arlen Parsa said that members of the community said there “is an ingrained sexism problem” at the school and quoted black students who said they got bullied there, and many on Twitter pointed to a recent news report detailing rape charges against former Covington Catholic basketball player Jacob Walter, 18, after a student was caught on video shouting, “It’s not rape if you enjoy it.”

The school was closed on Tuesday and Wednesday and according to school officials will remain so until “law enforcement says it is safe” to reopen.