Phillips initially told The Washington Post that he was surrounded by the students after he approached them with his drum, and that "It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: 'I've got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial.' I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn't allow me to retreat."
Later, emerging video footage demonstrated that several of those demonstrating alongside Phillips approached the students, with some telling them to "go back to Europe," and swearing at them. And a 2015 report emerged in which Phillips claimed to have been the victim of a racist attack by students at Eastern Michigan University, whom, he told Fox 2 at the time, he approached, and who, he said, eventually taunted him with racial slurs and threw an unopened beer can at him. No charges were filed in connection to that incident.
Subsequent media reports and videos recounted that the high school students had been the subject of taunts by the Black Israelite group, demonstrating nearby, and that Phillips claimed he was trying to intervene between the two groups. However, Phillips did not identify himself or his intentions to the students when he approached them, rather, he continued drumming and chanting.
Phillips told the Detroit Free Press Sunday that the students "were in the process of attacking these four black individuals," and he intervened to stop the attack. He said the students then turned their anger toward him.
"There was that moment when I realized I've put myself between beast and prey," Phillips said. "These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey, and I stood in between them and so they needed their pounds of flesh and they were looking at me for that," he said.
"The Black Israelites, they were saying some harsh things, but some of it was true, too. These young, white American kids who were being taught in their Catholic school, their doctrine, their truth, and when they found out there's more truth out there than what they're being taught, they were offended, they were insulted, they were scared, and that's how they responded. One thing that I was taught in my Marine Corp training is that a scared man will kill you. And that's what these boys were. They were scared," Phillips said.
Video footage did not show the students attacking the members of the Black Israelite movement, who are heard to shout disparaging remarks at the students, most of them concerning the Catholic Church and Trump.
The student at the center of the firestorm, identified as Covington Catholic High School junior Nick Sandmann, issued a statement Sunday night.
Sandmann said he and his fellow students were waiting for their bus after the March for Life, when " we noticed four African American protestors who were also on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I am not sure what they were protesting, and I did not interact with them. I did hear them direct derogatory insults at our school group."
"The protestors said hateful things. They called us 'racists,' 'bigots,' 'white crackers,' 'faggots,' and 'incest kids.' They also taunted an African American student from my school by telling him that we would 'harvest his organs.' I have no idea what that insult means, but it was startling to hear.
In response to those taunts, students began chanting "school spirit chants," with permission of a chaperone, Sandmann said. He said he did not hear students chant other things.
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"After a few minutes of chanting, the Native American protestors, who I hadn't previously noticed, approached our group. The Native American protestors had drums and were accompanied by at least one person with a camera."
"The protestor everyone has seen in the video began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him. 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," Sandmann recounted.
"I never interacted with this protestor. 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. We had already been yelled at by another group of protestors, and when the second group approached I was worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers."
"I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation. I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict. I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand."
While Sandmann said that he heard protestors tell the students that he had "stolen" Native American land and should "go back to Europe," he urged calm from his fellow students.
"I never felt like I was blocking the Native American protester. He did not make any attempt to go around me. It was clear to me that he had singled me out for a confrontation, although I am not sure why."