A Kentucky high school student spoke out on Sunday after video appeared to show him taunting a group of Native American protesters in Washington, D.C., over the weekend.
Nick Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, was accused of taunting and mocking a Native American protester at the end of the Indigenous People’s March on Friday, but the teenager said he’d been falsely accused.
“The protestor everyone has seen in the video began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him,” Sandmann said in a statement on Sunday. “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.
“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,” he added.
The protestor, Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips, who was banging a drum and singing when he confronted Sandmann, said the teens yelled derogatory comments at him before the stare down took place.
“I heard them say, ‘Build that wall, build that wall,’ you know?” Phillips told reporters over the weekend. “This is indigenous lands, you know. We’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did. Before anybody else came here we never had walls. We never had a prison.”
In a separate interview with the Washington Post, Phillips said teens from Sandmann’s group had harassed him and other Native American protesters before the encounter.
“It was getting ugly,” he said, describing his confrontation with Sandmann, who was wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat at the time. “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.”
Sandmann disputed those claims in his statement on Sunday and said he never heard “any students chant ‘build that wall’ or anything hateful or racist at any time.”
“The protestor everyone has seen in the video began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him,” Sandmann said. “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.”
“I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation,” he added.
Sandmann said he and his family have received threats after the incident became public.
“I have received physical and death threats via social media, as well as hateful insults. One person threatened to harm me at school, and one person claims to live in my neighborhood. My parents are receiving death and professional threats because of the social media mob that has formed over this issue,” Sandmann said in the statement.
The Diocese of Covington and the Covington Catholic School issued a joint statement over the weekend as video of the encounter sparked outrage online.
“We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general,” the statement said. “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 matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion,” it added.
Sandmann defended his actions in the statement and said he planned to cooperate with the school’s ongoing investigation.
“I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict,” Sandmann said. “I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.”
“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,” he added.