A five-minute walk from Covington Catholic High School, Reality Tuesday Cafe has developed a close relationship over the years with students. It has provided brownies for the school’s pep rallies and hosted study groups after class. Its menu offers a blended coffee drink called the Colonel, a nod to the high school’s mascot.
So when the all-boys school became the center of the growing controversy this week over a viral video of white teenage students in “Make America Great Again” hats surrounding an elderly Native American drummer by the Lincoln Memorial, it became the talk of customers at the otherwise quiet coffee shop in the Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati.
And like the rest of the country — which has debated who was wrong and who was right in the viral moment that struck sharp at tensions over race, religion and politics — they too were not in sync.
“We’re failing as a community. We’re failing as a country,” said Toby Myrick, 53, who was looking on his laptop at news articles about the incident. He blamed the school’s culture and said “entitlement” among the boys was at play.
Chris Wilson, 54, sat a few feet away. She saw things differently.
“It’s a mob mentality,” she said, adding that the boys in her community were being “crucified” on social media and in the news before the facts were sorted out.
The views represented the range of opinions being bandied about nationwide and in the area. Covington, a community of 40,000, and Park Hills, a city of just under 3,000 where the school is located, are both mostly white in a county that leans Republican. And their leaders have said they were not prepared for the national attention that a tweeted video has brought upon them.
Classes after the holiday weekend were supposed to resume Tuesday, but the Catholic diocese that oversees the school cited threats in keeping it closed. Police cars blocked the campus entrance as more officers patrolled nearby streets.
“This is a very serious matter that has already permanently altered the lives of many people,” the diocese said in a statement on its website as it promised an independent investigation. Calls to the diocese seeking further comment were not answered. It closed its main administrative office, where representatives of the American Indian Movement Chapter of Indiana and Kentucky held a small protest with drums.
“Your God doesn’t teach hate so why do you,” read one sign. “Making America great means respecting those we stole it from!” said another.
At one point, a car drove by with the words, “Fake news enemy of the people,” written on its windows. A man walking near the diocesan office was blunt in his assessment. “It’s all on the leftist media,” he said while taking a drag from a cigarette. He shook his head and walked away.
President Trump also waded into the debate.
“The students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be. They have captivated the attention of the world, and I know they will use it for the good — maybe even to bring people together. It started off unpleasant, but can end in a dream!” he tweeted late Monday.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House had invited the students to visit but that a meeting would not take place until the partial federal government shutdown was over.
The incident took place Friday afternoon in Washington, steps away from the Lincoln Memorial. Students from the Catholic school were bused into the city to attend the March for Life, an annual antiabortion demonstration. Native groups had gathered that day by the memorial for the Indigenous Peoples March. Both events were ending.
A short clip shared late Friday on Twitter showed a group of students laughing and making mocking gestures and sounds at a Native American man, later identified as Omaha Tribe elder Nathan Phillips, as he drummed and sang the American Indian Movement song.
The Twitter account on which the clip was posted, @2020fight, was later suspended over “misleading account information.”
In interviews, Phillips has said the students had chanted “Build the wall!” toward his group and that he attempted to defuse a verbal clash between the students and members of a mainly African American religious group known as the Hebrew Israelites who protested nearby. He has described the students as “angry” at the other group. Phillips said he believed they turned to taking their anger out on him.
Videos from different angles and of longer lengths that were later released, including one that lasts for more than two hours, added more details to the picture. They show the Hebrew Israelites harassing the students, including using a homophobic slur, and making statements insulting Native American spiritual traditions. Phillips appears with his drum partway through.
Nearly all the videos show one student in a “Make America Great Again” hat who stands close to Phillips, smiling and staring at him. That student identified himself as Nick Sandmann. In a statement he released, he said his classmates did “spirit chants” to counter the Hebrew Israelites. He said he was confused about why Phillips was “invading the personal space of others.”
“I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to [defuse] the situation” Sandmann said, adding that he would not “stand for this mob-like character assassination of my family’s name.”
Sandmann is scheduled to appear on the “Today” show Wednesday. In a preview of the interview, Sandmann is asked whether he feels the need to apologize or was at fault in the encounter. He does not reply directly to the question. “I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips,” he says.
In a statement Tuesday through the Lakota People’s Law Project, Phillips said he wanted to meet with the students and church officials to turn the experience into a “teachable moment.”
“Let’s create space for the teaching of tolerance to happen,” he said. “I have faith that human beings can use a moment like this to find a way to gain understanding from one another.”
Before more videos of the encounter came out, Covington Catholic High School said over the weekend that the encounter showed its students behaving in a way that is “opposed to the church’s teachings,” and the school suggested that they could be expelled.
Its statement Tuesday was more neutral.
We pray that we may come to the truth and that this unfortunate situation may be resolved peacefully and amicably and ask others to join us in this prayer,” it said. “We will have no further statements until the investigation is complete.”
Kaleem reported from Los Angeles and Lee from Park Hills, Ky.