Nick Sandmann
Today

Covington Catholic student Nick Sandmann, whose standoff with a Native American elder went viral, is explaining his actions in an interview on Today

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January 23, 2019 12:17 PM

The Catholic high school junior whose standoff with a Native American elder went viral this past weekend is explaining his actions in his first interview since the incident.

Nick Sandmann, who attends Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, told Today‘s Savannah Guthrie on Wednesday that he believed he was respectful during Friday’s interaction.

“As far as standing there, I had every right to do so,” the 16 year-old said.

When asked whether he felt he should apologize to anyone — including the elder member of the Omaha tribe, 64-year-old activist Nathan Phillips, whom Sandmann was filmed standing face-to-face with, smirking — Sandmann said no.

He added that he wished the situation had been avoided though.

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“My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips. I respect him. I’d like to talk to him,” the teen told Guthrie. “I mean, in hindsight, I wish we could’ve walked away and avoided the whole thing. But I can’t say that I’m sorry for listening to him and standing there.”

The viral standoff started when Sandmann’s group of about 100 students, many of whom were wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, left the March for Life protest on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

They crossed paths with a few members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, and the two groups began taunting each other. Today reports it’s unclear who started it.

At certain points the Black Hebrew Israelites hurled obscenities at the teens and criticisms of their attire in support of President Donald Trump.

Nick Sandmann (center, in red hat) staring at Nathan Phillips
Hunter Hooligan Instagram

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

He added that while his group was bigger than the other, he “definitely felt threatened. … They were a group of adults and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next,” he said.

Things escalated when Sandmann’s chaperone gave them permission to yell back at the Hebrew Israelites, Sandmann said, adding that none of his classmates said anything racist to the group, most of whom were black men.

“We’re a Catholic school and it’s not tolerated,” he asserted. “They don’t tolerate racism, and none of my classmates are racist people.”

RELATED: Native American Veteran Says He Tried to Keep Peace as MAGA-Hat-Wearing Teens Harassed Him

Phillips, however, told The Washington Post in a previous interview that he heard the students say “Go back to Africa” and that some chanted “build that wall, build that wall.” (Sandmann disputed that in a previous statement.)

Videos of the incident show the students began reciting school chants back at the Black Hebrew Israelites.

It was amid this escalating volley that Phillips, who was on the National Mall for the Indigenous Peoples March, decided to stand and play music between the groups to defuse the tension.

Sandmann said on Today that it wasn’t immediately clear to him what Phillips was “trying to accomplish” and that he briefly thought Phillips wanted to drum in support of his group’s chants.

Video shows some of the students in the group around Phillips did mocking tomahawk chops as he played. A student near Sandmann got into an argument with another activist next to Phillips.

In his earlier statement, released on Sunday, Sandmann dismissed initial information circulating about the incident “outright lies.”

“The protestor everyone has seen in the video began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him,” Sandmann wrote. “I did not see anyone try to block his path. He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face. He played his drum the entire time he was in my face.”

Nathan Phillips
Michael Nigro/Sipa

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“I never interacted with this protestor,” Sandmann continued in his first statement. “I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves. To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me.”

Video shows Sandmann smirking at Phillips, a Marine veteran, former director of the Native Youth Alliance and father of two.

Sandmann explained his demeanor differently, maintaining he was as “remaining motionless and calm” to help “diffuse the situation.”

“I was not intentionally making faces at the protestor,” he said. “I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation.”

In response to the statement, Phillips told PEOPLE, “At first I only wanted chaperones and teachers to be fired right away to never let that kind of situation to happen. I didn’t ask for an apology.

“Now today, since I’ve heard Mr. Sandmann’s statement and how he’s tried to flip the narrative on me, maybe he needs to have some kind of cultural sensitivity training, maybe that’s what he needs.”

Sandmann’s catholic school has closed until further notice. Church officials have said a third-party investigation will begin this week into the incident.

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