By Ashley Thompson
22 January, 2019

A group of five black men shouted insults while protesting centuries of oppression. Catholic high school students gathered in Washington to protest abortion. And Native Americans marched to end injustice for indigenous people around the world.

These three groups met just for a few minutes Friday at the base of Washington's Lincoln Memorial. The unexpected meetings were captured on video. Short parts of those videos then went viral on social media in the United States. They cast attention on a deeply divided nation that seems unable to agree on anything.

At first the attention of the internet centered on a short video of one of the high school students, Nick Sandmann. He wore a red "Make America Great Again" hat, demonstrating his support for President Donald Trump. In part of the video, he appeared to be smiling and facing off against a 64-year-old Native American, Nathan Phillips, who was playing a traditional song on a drum.

Sandmann's classmates gathered around the two, laughing.

In other videos taken Friday, members of a group calling itself the Black Hebrew Israelites were seen insulting many people marching on the National Mall, including Sandmann's student group. They also shouted offensive remarks to the Native Americans taking part in the Indigenous Peoples March.

Videos from Friday were all over social media. They became leading news stories in the United States.

Now, all parties involved agree: the short viral videos do not show the full story.

The videos showed students from Kentucky's Covington Catholic Highschool laughing at Phillips' Native American group and jokingly singing along with him. Phillips told reporters he had heard the students shout things like "Build that wall!" and "Go back to the reservation!"

A man leaves a sign with the words
A man leaves a sign with the words "This was not okay," at Covington Catholic High School in Park Kills, Ky., Sunday, Jan 20, 2019.

But Sandmann, the Catholic high school student, said in a statement over the weekend: "I would caution everyone passing judgment based on a few seconds of video to watch the longer clips that are on the internet, as they show a much different story..."

The fullest explanation of what may have happened comes from a long video published on Facebook by Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan. It showed members of his Black Hebrew Israelite group repeatedly talking with the crowd as people from the Indigenous Peoples March and the high school students argued with them.

Sandmann said in his statement that the students from his all-male high school were waiting for their buses near Banyamyan's group. Members of the group then started to shout insults at the students.

Phillips said he tried to step between the two groups to calm the situation.

The full video also shows some of the students trying to do a traditional war dance of New Zealand's indigenous Maori people. The dance was made famous by the country's rugby sports team.

Phillips and Marcus Frejo, another Native American, said they felt the students were making fun of the dance. They walked into the crowd to intervene.

Phillips and Sandmann locked eyes, their faces only centimeters apart. Both men said their goal was simply to make sure things did not get out of control.

The high school students felt they were unfairly seen as the enemies in a situation they said they did not start.

But the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington has apologized for the incident. It said it would carry out an investigation that could lead to punishment -- including dismissal -- if any wrongdoing by the students was found.

The Indigenous Peoples Movement felt the encounter was a reminder that the U.S. was founded on racism and that Trump's presidency is increasing hatred based on skin color.

On Tuesday, Trump commented about the situation on Twitter, writing, "Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be."

Banyamyan posted his own reaction on Facebook. He recalled the dozens of high school students in their "Make America Great Again" gear coming over to his small group and chanting. Banyamyan praised Phillips and called Sandmann evil.

After the sun set Friday and the high school students had left, Banyamyan's video recording showed a few police officers stopping by to check on the group. One of the officers said they were worried by the number of people who had gathered for a short time in that one place. One of the Black Hebrew Israelites said there were no problems.

"We weren't threatened by them," he told officers. "It was an okay dialogue."

I'm Ashley Thompson.

And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

oppression - n. the act of treating a person or group of people in a cruel or unfair way

indigenous - adj. living or existing naturally in a particular region or environment

caution - v. to warn or tell (someone) about a possible danger, problem, etc.

encounter - n. a violent or very unfriendly meeting

chant - v. to say (a word or phrase) many times in a rhythmic way usually loudly and with other people