PARK HILLS, Ky. — Residents of this affluent northern Kentucky town emerged from a turbulent holiday weekend with a question: How did a viral video showing local students interacting with a drumbeating Native American man on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial suck their community into the fractious national debates about politics and race?

President Trump was tweeting about them. Out-of-town protesters were showing up with signs, chanting in the street. And death threats had shut down Covington Catholic High School. No one knew when it would be safe to open again.

Residents warily watched the furor unfold from behind closed doors, largely resisting the opportunity to speak out – even as they stewed over the way they were being portrayed. They felt they had become the latest victims of a hyper-political atmosphere, where one video clip can ignite a nationwide fury, magnified by social media and 24-hour news coverage.

“They are kids. Everyone forgets that,” said Park Hills Mayor Kathy Zembrodt, who expressed anger about the initial portrayal of the students as aggressors in the Lincoln Memorial encounter.

Her sentiments were reflected across this town of 4,000, where many said the students were unfairly maligned in a rush to judgment based on a truncated video clip. The viral video showed a large group of Covington Catholic High School boys on the memorial steps in Washington, where students travel annually for the antiabortion March for Life. One of the boys stands inches away from the face of Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder, who was beating a drum during the Indigenous Peoples March. The boy’s classmates stood nearby, laughing and gesturing – what many interpreted as mocking.

But longer versions of the encounter soon appeared, showing it began when a group of Hebrew Israelites hurled offensive language at the teens. And the students said they were dancing and singing along with the Native American music, not mocking it.

Like many Americans, Park Hills City Council member Wesley Deters discovered the original video clip on social media.

She found it odd. The behavior didn’t fit what she knew of the students at Covington Catholic, where her husband is an alumnus and her three sons are likely to enroll.

But after a nearly two-hour video of the incident started making the rounds, her confusion turned into anger.

“Our children were used as pawns for an ulterior leftist agenda,” she said.

In a series of tweets Tuesday, Trump emphasized that perspective, saying the students of Covington Catholic “have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be.”

On Tuesday morning, in the nearby city of Covington, a group of Native Americans braved frigid temperatures to protest. About 40 people, some from as far away as Chicago, shuffled and shared hand warmers as they listened to Native American prayers with throngs of journalists standing nearby.

They had come to the Catholic basilica that houses the Diocese of Covington in hopes of turning Friday’s toxic standoff into a teaching moment, the protesters said. Theirs was a message of reconciliation, as word came in about death threats against the school.

“Anybody threatening violence should be totally ashamed of themselves,” said Lance Soto, co-chairman of the American Indian Movement Chapter of Indiana and Kentucky, who helped organize the gathering.

Native American leaders have disputed student Nicholas Sandmann’s assertion that he was trying to keep the situation on the National Mall from escalating when he stood, grinning, in front of Phillips.

“His whole frame is that they were somehow attacked and behaving defensively,” said Daniel Paul Nelson of the Lakota People’s Law Project. “No, they were not, not towards Nathan. What they did to Nathan was completely offensive, not defensive.”

Phillips has offered to meet with the students and have a “dialog about cultural appropriation, racism, and the importance of listening to and respecting diverse cultures,” according to a release from the Indigenous Peoples Movement. Nelson said organizers plan to try to contact Sandmann and the school.

“The objective here is not to make the children (look) bad,” Nelson said.

But at Covington Catholic, concerns that the videos made the students look bad shifted to worries about actual threats of violence.

Before dawn Tuesday, police cars on Dixie Highway blocked the school’s entrances. Students and staff were ordered to stay away. The diocese issued a statement promising a “third-party investigation” into the Lincoln Memorial incident.

“This is a very serious matter that has already permanently altered the lives of many people,” the statement read. “It is important for us to gather the facts that will allow us to determine what corrective actions, if any, are appropriate.”

Websites for Covington Catholic High School and the Catholic Diocese of Covington have been taken down.

“They have been so slammed with messages and threats, very serious threats of violence, that I don’t know when they plan to reopen,” said Mike Schafer, director of communications for the neighboring Cincinnati archdiocese.

Regardless of whether Covington Catholic was going to be open Tuesday, Marty Boyer had already made his decision: He was going to keep his son, a junior, home for the day.

“When I think about security in the context of this, I evaluate how quickly this story was taken out of proportion; it is not a big deal to keep him home for a day,” Boyer said. “Keeping him safe at home for a day is not going to wreck his education.”

Many in the town rushed to defend the boys. In grocery stores, coffee shops and bars, adults closed ranks behind the embattled students.

Mary Sue Wigger, whose husband graduated from Covington Catholic and whose niece joined this year’s march, reflected on how her feelings had evolved as she followed the series of videos and the changing story.

“The scariest thing,” she said, “is there are so many different versions.”

Covington Mayor Joe Meyer condemned the boys’ behavior in an op-ed, distancing his own more diverse city from them and saying the videos “do NOT represent the core beliefs and values of this city.”

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