Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann, who was seen in a widely circulated video appearing to have faced off with a Native American activist during protests in the nation's capital last week, said he wasn't disrespectfully smirking at the activist but rather smiling.
"I see it as a smile, saying that this is the best you're going to get out of me. You won't get any further reaction of aggression. And I'm willing to stand here as long as you wanna hit this drum in my face," said Sandmann, a junior at the Kentucky school, of the perceived confrontation.
"People have judged me based off one expression, which I wasn't smirking, but people have assumed that's what I have," Sandmann said.
Sandmann was in Washington with his classmates for anti-abortion rally the March for Life on Friday when he says people from a group called the Hebrew Israelites started shouting slurs at the students."I heard them call us incest kids, bigots, racists," Sandmann told Savannah Guthrie in an exclusive "Today" interview.
Sandmann, who said he felt "threatened," and his classmates started shouting back school chants with the permission of a chaperone, he said. Both the Hebrew Israelites and the Catholic school students have accused the others of hurling insults.
Nathan Phillips, the Native American activist, who was there for the Indigenous Peoples March, has said he stepped in to diffuse the situation.
As Phillips beat a hand drum, Sandmann stood close to his face, smiling silently. Phillips has not responded to a request for comment on Sandmann's "Today" interview, but has previously said he felt threatened by Sandmann's stance.
"As far as standing there, I had every right to do so. My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips. I respect him. I'd like to talk to him," Sandmann said."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," he added when asked if he felt he owed anyone an apology.
He said, at the time, he was unsure of Phillips' intentions, but didn't want to turn around because he "didn't want to be disrespectful to Mr. Phillips and walk away if he was trying to talk to me."NBC OUT
"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 said.
Sandmann also said he didn't want to risk escalating the tensions by bumping into anyone from the crown of people who had surrounded him with cameras.
Covington High School was closed Tuesday "due to threats of violence," the Diocese of Covington and the school said in a statement. Sandmann said that some in his group have received death threats.
The school was back in session on Wednesday with increased security. Sandmann, who was wearing a cap with President Donald Trump's "MAGA" (Make America Great Again) slogan, and his classmates have been accused of being racist and disrespectful.
He believes the widespread criticism is misplaced. "We're a Catholic school ... they don't tolerate racism, and none of my classmates are racist people."