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Trump backs students from Lincoln memorial confrontation

Confusion over incident at Lincoln Memorial

President Trump has weighed in on the controversy surrounding a confrontation Friday at the base of the Lincoln Memorial involving three groups. The incident was caught on video that went viral. The story behind it has evolved several times since first coming to light, and accounts still differ.

The trouble involved a group of five black men shouting vulgar insults while protesting centuries of oppression, dozens of white Catholic high school students visiting Washington for a rally to end abortion and Native Americans marching to end injustice for indigenous peoples across the globe who have seen their lands overrun by outside settlers.

Mr. Trump tweeted his support Monday night for the students from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, as some news reports questioned whether early criticism of them was warranted:

Covington Catholic was closed Tuesday. A letter from the school's president Robert Rowe, obtained by CBS affiliate WKRC, said the school would close "to ensure the safety of our students, faculty and staff."

At the base of the memorial Friday, the three groups met for just a few minutes in an encounter that again cast a spotlight on a polarized nation.

At first the focus was on a short video showing one of the high school students, Nick Sandmann, wearing a red "Make America Great Again" hat and appearing to smirk while a crowd of other teens laughed derisively behind him as a 64-year-old Native American veteran, Nathan Phillips, played a traditional chant on a drum.

Pull back farther and a different view emerges, however, in a separate video showing members of a group calling itself the Black Hebrew Israelites taunting everyone on the mall that day, calling the Native Americans who had gathered there for the Indigenous Peoples March "Uncle Tomahawks" and "$5 Indians" and the high school students "crackers" and worse.

It was an ugly encounter of spewed epithets but one that nevertheless ended with no punches thrown or other violence.

"I would caution everyone passing judgment based on a few seconds of video to watch the longer video clips that are on the internet, as they show a much different story than is being portrayed by people with agendas," Sandmann, a junior, said in a statement released late Sunday.

Nathan Phillips
Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann face off at Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 18, 2019. Courtesy Kaya Taitano via Instagram

Sandmann's statement does seem at odds with some video from the confrontation that showed students from Covington Catholic laughing at Phillips' Native American group and mockingly singing along with him, as well as interviews with Phillips, who said he heard the students shout "Build that wall!" and "Go back to the reservation!"

The fullest view of what happened came from a nearly two-hour video posted on Facebook by Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan. It showed members of his Black Hebrew Israelite group repeatedly interacting with the crowd as people from the Indigenous Peoples March and the high school students vigorously argued with them for a few minutes.

Sandmann said in his statement the students from his all-male high school were waiting for their buses near Banyamyan's group when the latter started to taunt them. One of the students took off his shirt and the teens started to do a haka - a war dance of New Zealand's indigenous Maori culture, made famous by the country's national rugby team.

Phillips, an elder of the Omaha tribe, and Marcus Frejo, a member of the Pawnee and Seminole tribes, said they felt the students were mocking the dance and walked over to intervene.

Phillips and Sandmann locked eyes, their faces inches apart. Both men said their goal was simply to make sure things didn't get out of hand. But caught on video, the encounter still went viral.

The high school students felt they were unfairly portrayed as villains in a situation where they say they were not the provocateurs.

"I am being called every name in the book, including a racist, and I will not stand for this mob-like character assassination," Sandmann said in his statement.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington apologized for the incident, promising an investigation that could lead to punishment up to expulsion if any wrongdoing by the students was determined.

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

"Trump has riled up a reactionary voting block that reminds us that we are a nation founded on patriarchy, genocide and racism. Trump is clearly giving these archaic instincts license, encouraging the kind of aggressive goading that I witnessed," movement spokesman Chase Iron Eyes said in a statement.

Phillips is now offering to travel to northern Kentucky to meet with the students for a "dialog about cultural appropriation, racism, and the importance of listening to and respecting diverse cultures," according to the Lakota People's Law Project.

"Race relations in this country and around the world have reached a boiling point," the group quotes Phillips as saying. "It is sad that on the weekend of a holiday when we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., racial hostility occurred on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, where King gave his 'I Have a Dream' speech."

Banyamyan posted his own reaction on Facebook, referencing the dozens of high school students in their Make America Great Again gear coming over to his group of five and chanting. In a rambling video, he also praised Phillips and compared Sandmann to the devil.

After the sun set and the Covington high school students left, Banyamyan's video showed a few police officers stopping by to check on his group as they were wrapping up their protest. One of the officers said they were worried by the number of people who briefly massed in that one spot. One of the Black Hebrew Israelites said there were no problems.

"We weren't threatened by them," he said. "It was an OK dialogue."