By Katie Reilly
January 23, 2019

The student whose standoff on the National Mall with a Native American veteran went viral last weekend said Wednesday that he wished he had walked away and avoided the confrontation.

Nick Sandmann, a junior at Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School, was with classmates at the anti-abortion March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Friday. In a video that quickly went viral, he appears to stare down Omaha Tribe elder Nathan Phillips, a veteran and activist who was drumming and singing a ceremonial song after participating in the Indigenous Peoples March on the same day.

“I wanted the situation to die down and I just wish he would’ve walked away. But I knew as long as I kept my composure and didn’t do anything that he might perceive as aggressive or elevation of the conflict, that it would hopefully die,” Sandmann told the Today Show’s Savannah Guthrie in an interview that aired Wednesday morning.

“Now I wish I would’ve walked away. I didn’t want to be disrespectful to Mr. Phillips and walk away if he was trying to talk to me,” he said. “But I was surrounded by a lot of people I didn’t know that had their phones out, had cameras, and I didn’t want to bump into anyone or seem like I was trying to do something.”

The video quickly took on heightened meaning, representing national divisions as it showed Sandmann, a young white man, grinning and wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, face-to-face with a Native American veteran almost 50 years his senior.

Sandmann told Today that he wasn’t smirking. “I see it as a smile saying that this is the best you’re going to get out of me,” Sandmann said. “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.”

A video that circulated later provided a fuller picture of the entire interaction, which began with a group of Hebrew Israelites taunting the group of Covington Catholic students. “They started shouting a bunch of homophobic, racist, derogatory comments at us,” Sandmann told Guthrie. “I definitely felt threatened.”

Phillips said he started to move between the two groups “to use the drum, use our prayer and bring a balance, bring a calming to the situation.”

“I didn’t assume that I had any kind of power to do that, but at the same time, I didn’t feel that I could just stand there anymore and not do something,” he told CNN.

“When I started going forward, and that massive group of people started separating and moving aside to allow me to move out of the way or proceed, these young fellow put himself in front of me and wouldn’t move,” Phillips said. “If I took another step, I would be putting my person into his presence, into space, and I would’ve touched him, and that one thing would’ve been the thing that that group of people needed to spring on me.”

Sandmann said he was unsure of what Phillips was trying to do, “whether he was trying to join in and drum to our chants or what he was doing.”

In videos, the Covington students appear to mock Phillips’ singing and make tomahawk-chop motions — a gesture with a racist history that the boys have said was part of a school chant.

Phillips has said he heard the Covington crowd shouting “build the wall,” but Sandmann said he did not hear anyone say that. Asked if he heard any of his classmates shout racist slurs, Sandmann said: “We’re a Catholic school and it’s not tolerated. They don’t tolerate racism. And none of my classmates are racist people.”

Phillips told CNN he felt “fear” during the interaction — “fear for the next generation, fear of where this country’s going, fear for those youths, fear for their future.”

“What they were doing wasn’t making America great,” he said. “It was just tearing down the fabric.”

Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com.

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