Kentucky student accused of taunting Native American activist wishes he ‘would have walked away’ from incident in viral video

Nicholas Sandmann, center left, stands in front of an Native American Nathan Phillips, who is singing and playing a drum on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
(AP / AP)
New York Daily News

The Kentucky student center stage in a viral video that sees a group of teens tangling with a Native American activist wishes he could have avoided the entire incident — but he’s not apologizing for it.

Covington Catholic junior Nicholas Sandmann, during an appearance on the “Today” show Wednesday defended his encounter with Omaha elder Nathan Phillips on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The teen, sporting a red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap, can be seen with a big grin on his face standing toe-to-toe with the 64-year-old Phillips, who continues playing his traditional chant, pounding his drum and remaining stoic, as the high school students yell and laugh in the background.

“Now I wish I would have walked away,” he said in his first interview since sparking backlash. “I didn’t want to be disrespectful to Mr. Phillips and walk away if he was trying to talk to me.”


The interaction occurred Friday during a Covington Catholic class trip to the Washington, D.C., for the March For Life anti-abortion rally. Video of the incident quickly circulated online the following day, sparking widespread condemnation of the teens’ behavior.

Covington Catholic canceled classes Tuesday amid the backlash, while Sandmann said he and his family have received death threats.

The high schooler added he was unaware everyone had pulled their phones out and filmed the standoff — but more than two hours of video have emerged since the incident unfolded in the nation’s capital, just after the Indigenous People’s March on Friday. Critics were quick to walk back their initial judgments, with many saying the added context exonerates the Covington Catholic students.

The additional cell phone footage also sees a group of Black Hebrew Israelites taunting people on the mall, including the teens, prior to Phillips’ arrival. The chaperones granted them permission to sing school chants in an effort to drown out their insults, Sandmann said.

“They started shouting a bunch of homophobic, racist, derogatory comments at us,” Sandmann said. “I heard them call us incest kids, bigots, racists.”

The students outnumbered them but Sandmann said he “definitely felt threatened.”

“They were a group of adults and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next,” he said.

“In hindsight, I just wish we found another spot to wait for our buses. At the time, being positive seemed better than letting us slander us with insults.”

The viral video and subsequent headlines were enough to catch the attention of President Trump, who tweeted his praise for the students while slamming the “Fake News” for its portrayal of the incident.

“Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be,” he said Tuesday. “They have captivated the attention of the world, and I know they will use it for good — maybe even bring people together.”

Others though have slammed the students’ behavior as disrespectful, specifically pointing toward Sandmann’s smirk in the video.

“I see it as a smile saying ‘this is the best you’re going to get out of me,’” he said in defense of his facial expressions. “You won’t get any further reaction of aggression. And I’m willing to stand here as long as you want to hit this drum in my face.”

Sandmann’s interview was with Savannah Guthrie, and the “Today” host and NBC took heat for talking to the teen.

“How did nobody at your network step in and say “hey maybe let’s not do this segment,” tweeted a user with the handle “very legal and very cool.”

Another Twitter user, Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, wrote “Will you be giving 9 minutes of national attention to any of the children separated from their parents at the border?”

Phillips in an interview with New York Daily News earlier this week said he “didn’t agree” with Sandmann’s version of events and compared the students to a “lynch mob.”

“Here this young guy doesn’t see me as a human being,” he remembered thinking. “I started praying in my mind for him. All the atrocities that have happened to indigenous people. And this boy was there, full of all this privilege He could have just not gotten in my way.

“He decided he just needed to move over a few more inches just to be in front of me,” Phillips continued. “He put himself there.”

Sandmann denied blocking Phillips’ path, maintaining that he “would have let him go” if he “wanted to walk past me.”

“As far as standing there, I had every right to do so,” Sandmann said. “My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips. I respect him. I’d like to talk to him. In hindsight, I wish we would have walked away and avoided the whole thing.”