Nathan Phillips, a Vietnam veteran and member of the Omaha Nation who was visiting Washington, D.C., to attend the Indigenous Peoples March, got into a confrontation with a group of white, male teenagers attending the March for Life protest against abortion rights happening that same day. Video of the incident quickly went viral, and the teenagers from Covington Catholic High School, an all-male school in Kentucky, were harshly criticized.
The video is a disturbing and eerie echo of angry white mobs yelling at Black Americans for protesting Jim Crow-era discrimination, but now streaming in full color on social media in the year 2019.
One final thought: Every student in America (no matter the racial composition of their school) needs to see images like this from the Civil Rights Movement.
If we can spread this knowledge of our past as a country, kids today will be more aware of how their actions echo history. pic.twitter.com/W5dDkX78kb
— Arlen Parsa (@arlenparsa) January 20, 2019
The incident appeared to begin when a small group of Black Hebrews were making anti-Trump remarks on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The Covington students, many wearing “Make America Great Again” memorabilia, crowded around the group and started yelling at them. Although it’s tough to make out what the students were saying in the video, it’s clear they are taunting the Hebrews.
Then, as tension appeared to escalate, Nathan Phillips and other Indigenous people stepped in between the two groups in what Phillips says was an attempt to deescalate the conflict. As Phillips beat his drum and sang “Raymond Yellow Thunder Song,” which is about “resistance and remembrance,” the students chanted around him and one smugly smiled directly in Phillips’ face.
“But this is the commitment when I picked up the pipe 27 years ago. It’s for the next generation. It’s when that moment comes and you got to stand your ground. That commitment that you made to either fulfill that or you don’t. I mean, I was scared and I didn’t want to. I really, I really didn’t want to, but nobody else was,” Phillips said, adding, “We’re indigenous. We’re different than that. When we see our youth going the wrong way, we will go up and say, ‘You are doing the wrong thing there nephew, or grandson. This is just the wrong way.’ I tell them, ‘This is the way you have to behave. This wrong, this is right.'”
Conservatives, however, have begun circulating a video clip showing Phillips approach the group of students, claiming this exonerates the teens, since they did not confront him first. But it’s clear from the full video that the students were engaged in a shouting match with and had surrounded the Black Hebrews before Phillips walked between them. At one point, you can even see one student lead the others in a loud chant to intimidate the men before Phillips got involved.
Here is a video clearly showing that Nathan Phillips approached the students. On the basis of the evidence we now have, I believe that people who issued categorical and one-sided condemnations of the students should retract and apologize. pic.twitter.com/GxmXcMuQgC
— Matthew Schmitz (@matthewschmitz) January 20, 2019
“Your children was mocking us while we were teaching… running their mouth with their little MAGA hats on,” Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan, one of the Black Hebrews involved in the encounter, said in a video posted to his Facebook page after the incident.
“There was that moment when I realized I’ve put myself between beast and prey,” Phillips told the Detroit Free-Press. “These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey, and I stood in between them and so they needed their pounds of flesh and they were looking at me for that.”
These teens did not get this way on their own. They were taught to hate like this, to believe in white supremacy. Plus, making an annual, school-sponsored trip specifically to protest women’s reproductive autonomy surely contributed to their attitudes of superiority and aggression. And they were also fueled by the words of President Donald Trump, who has embraced white supremacy and racism on the campaign trail and in the White House.
The boys’ school has issued an apology for their students’ behavior and said it would investigate and take disciplinary action “up to and including expulsion.”
But Phillips has not given up hope on the MAGA-hat-wearing youths: “I see a future though. I do see a future. I see a bright, beautiful future if we want it, if we’re willing to pray for it, it’s there for us. It’s ours to pass on to the next generation, but we got to be willing for it,” Phillips said.