CV NEWS FEED // Five years after the life-changing day when he encountered activist Nathan Phillips and became the target of a national frenzy, Nicholas Sandmann published an article explaining why he still refuses to capitulate to the massive media platforms that slandered him.
“My Catholic faith has been present from the beginning of all that happened to me,” Sandmann wrote on January 18 in an article for Newsweek. “The day after the incident at the Lincoln Memorial, with the help of [Conservative commentator] Scott Jennings, I released my first written statement. It all came from me. They were my words.”
In 2019, Nicholas Sandmann attended the national March for Life with his school, Covington Catholic High School. On the same day in Washington, D.C., a separate Indigenous Peoples March was taking place.
Sandmann recalled attending the March as a “naïve” young pro-lifer who didn’t fully grasp how emotionally-charged the climate in D.C. was, especially that day.
“We were 16. You’re young and naïve, and you don’t really understand just how emotional both sides are in issues like abortion,” Sandmann wrote. “You know why you believe what you do, and that’s vital, but you don’t comprehend the strength of feeling in response, or that it creates a lot of tension.”
A video of an encounter at the Lincoln Memorial between Sandmann and Nathan Phillips, a man taking part in the Indigenous Peoples March, quickly went viral. In the video, Phillips is seen beating a drum as he approaches Sandmann. Sandmann is standing and smiling as Phillips beats his drum in front of him. No words are exchanged between the two.
CNN, The Washington Post, and NBC Universal among other mainstream media platforms publicized the video and framed Sandmann and his classmates as racist.
Before the incident began, Sandmann recalled “standing around talking to my teachers and, slowly, students start coming in from different directions.”
“And then I noticed the Black Hebrew Israelites who were starting to insult the students. I found out later that with our school was an African-American freshman, aged about 13, who the Black Hebrew Israelites called ‘Uncle Tom’ and other names,” he wrote:
Our teachers told us not to respond to the berating. Instead, we started our high school spirit chants that we do at basketball or football games to drown out the hatred. It was fun, light-hearted stuff. Just boys being dumb, nothing inappropriate.
We got spirit! Yes we do! We got spirit! How about you!
“And it worked. How do you even respond to that? We threw them off and it was perfect,” Sandmann continued. “But it’s at this point Nathan Phillips gets the wild idea that the situation is going to descend into a fight between a mob of white kids and a small group of African-Americans.”
Sandmann emphasized that this “was not the case at all… I can’t name a time I ever witnessed a fight in my years at CovCath.”
“Phillips decides to intercede so he walks over. I’m standing on a set of stairs on a patch of ice. There are people all around me, and I can’t really move because I don’t want to slip,” Sandmann wrote. “I see him moving through the crowd with his drum and I’m confused about what’s going on. Everyone was bewildered and nobody really knew the gravity of what was going on.”
After the story was framed and publicized, Sandmann and his family received hateful messages, and his school even began receiving bomb threats. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security became involved.
Sandmann sued for defamation and won a settlement with CNN in early 2020. He also sued and settled with The Washington Post and NBC Universal.
“At 16, your brain hasn’t fully developed. Then suddenly you wake up one day believing that 150 million people—half the country—think you’re a vile racist,” Sandmann wrote. “It’s almost impossible to put into words or to explain to somebody else how that feels. But it definitely had an effect on me.”
“It’s a reason why I sued the news organizations that spread the story; it had a clear and demonstrable effect on me. It was sad to have friends come to me worried about what this situation was going to do to me and how it would change my life,” Sandmann continued:
I’ve always tried to hold the mentality that if I just rolled over and let it all happen—especially if I went to the public to say sorry and beg for forgiveness—then that wouldn’t have added any meaning to my situation.
In many ways, capitulating would have been so much worse for me mentally, and wouldn’t have worked.
Standing up for myself and adding meaning has been a powerful driver. And my faith has helped; believing that this situation was given to me by a higher power.
In the original video, Sandmann is also seen wearing a MAGA hat. “People usually perceive my incident as a political issue. But it’s not. Obviously, I was wearing the red hat, so that added a political shade to it,” Sandmann wrote. “Really, though, it’s a case about me and journalism not done correctly.”
Once Sandmann was back home from the March in 2019, he emailed his principal immediately and asked “him not to do anything without talking to me first because the situation isn’t as he may believe.”
“But the internet had already found out who I was and where we went to school, and his inbox was flooded—so he never saw my email. From there, the media coverage spiraled, and people were reacting to a misrepresentation of what happened,” Sandmann wrote.
Sandmann recalled the difficulty of trying to explain his half of the story to the media.
“I was accused of stealing Phillips’ talking points about the incident because he had been beating a drum in a prayer of his own,” he wrote. “But praying in that moment—which was a weird and unfamiliar situation for me—was a logical reaction. I was applying what I know in response to what I don’t know.”
“I mentioned that I was praying when Nathan Phillips was up in front of me. I was praying for the situation to be done with,” wrote Sandmann:
The reaction to my statement was frustrating. His story seemed to change between different outlets and networks, whereas my account of what happened has stayed the same from day one.
My faith was questioned, but his never was. I’m not saying his should have been. But it was a double standard.
“I don’t talk about how it affected me a lot. It’s an ongoing thing for me to figure out how to get over it,” Sandmann wrote. “So I’ve dealt with it by talking to people and finding purpose in what I do, and I’ll keep figuring it out and moving forward.”
“My advice to someone that goes through something like I did is, number one, you need a good support structure around you,” Sandmann wrote, stressing that “a support system is essential.” “For me, that was my family and a great set of friends; religious people that I trust and could go to. I really needed that.”
Additionally, “don’t expect the court to be friendly to you. We thought our case was cut and dried. If this isn’t defamation, then what is? That was my thinking. But you need to be prepared for that long haul,” Sandmann advised:
Going through that slow court process on your own would be agonizing. People should be mentally prepared for it to last years. It will drag out and you need people that care about you around you.
Sandmann also recommended “[trying] to avoid doing media. I stay away unless I see a purpose.” Sandmann wrote that while he receives a large amount of podcast requests, “I generally try to stay away from media unless I can see a clear goal of how it will help, instead of me just being a talking head all the time.”
Sandmann is now a senior at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky studying philosophy, politics, and economics. “I took a turn towards politics in high school, particularly with the March for Life and some of the advice I got after what happened. That was a catalyst,” Sandmann wrote.
“My end goal is to help people by bringing about change in their lives, and I can do that by working with elected representatives,” Sandmann wrote, adding that he hopes to work at Capitol Hill post-graduation.