What do we know? Drum chants 3.0 at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (updated)


So what else happened after the 2019 March for Life?

At this point, do new developments matter? What are the odds of journalists managing to cover them in a calm, professional manner?

However, I think it’s crucial to keep paying attention and asking practical journalism questions.

So with that in mind, let’s turn to the Catholic News Agency — yes, a conservative Catholic news outlet — report about a tense confrontation at the faith’s most symbolic site in Washington, D.C. Here’s the overture:

While chanting and playing ceremonial drums, a group of Native American rights activists reportedly led by Nathan Phillips attempted Jan. 19 to enter Washington, D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during a Saturday evening Mass.

The group of 20 demonstrators was stopped by shrine security as it tried to enter the church during its 5:15 pm Vigil Mass, according to a shrine security guard on duty during the Mass.

“It was really upsetting,” the guard told CNA.

“There were about twenty people trying to get in, we had to lock the doors and everything.”

The key phrase, of course, is this one — “reportedly led by Nathan Phillips.”

In light of the ongoing journalism train wreck surrounding the confrontation between Phillips and students from Covington (Ken.) Catholic High School, it’s totally valid to ask questions about sourcing on volatile information such as this.

What’s going on? If you read carefully, it appears that the “reportedly” reference is to draw a distinction between information that is clearly shown on videotape and information drawn from eyewitnesses.

Normally, journalists place a high degree of trust in eyewitness accounts — especially the testimony of participants in an event. However, these are not normal times. For example, Phillips continues to insist that the Covington students chanted “Build the wall!” in the moments leading up to his drum-and-chant confrontation with them. Multiple video recordings of the standoff do not support his claim.

So what happened at the basilica?

We start with the testimony of a security guard. Let me make this observation, as a journalism professor who worked inside the Beltway for 12 years: I predict that there are security cameras at all of the basilica’s doors. Will news consumers ever see those security tapes?

let’s read on:

The guard told CNA the situation was “tense.”

“I’m just really grateful that nothing too bad happened, they were really angry.”

A source close to the shrine’s leadership corroborated the security guard’s account, telling CNA that during the Mass, Phillips and the group tried to enter the church while playing drums and chanting, and were prohibited from entering the building by security personnel, who locked the main basilica doors with the congregation still inside.

The shrine’s spokeswoman would not confirm or deny that the group attempted to enter the Mass. She told CNA that “a group did assemble on Saturday evening outside the the shrine” and that they “left without incident.”

Now there are several ways to interpret that material. Here’s a crucial question: Were the demonstrators trying to interrupt the Mass or were they simply trying to enter the basilica, to pay their drums and chant inside that massive, sacred space? In other words, were there any verbal exchanges indicating that Native American leaders knew that a Mass was in progress?

Also, what do we know — from this story — about the involvement of Phillips?

This leads us (Where else?) to the Internet and to social media.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that about 60 people gathered outside the shrine in support of Phillips on Saturday night, though it did not mention reports that Phillips and some supporters attempted to disrupt the evening Mass.

Video footage showed one supporter saying that the group had gathered at the shrine to listen to Phillips, and to hold the Catholic Church “accountable” for the alleged actions of the Covington Catholic students and for the “colonial violence that the Catholic Church reproduces every day.”

A photograph attached to the post shows Phillips addressing the group outside the shrine.

Here’s what’s going on there. A former CBC news anchor — one Michelle Brass — was in Washington to attend (a) the Women’s March and (b) “Indigenous Climate Action meetings.”

She ended up in the crowd of 60 or so outside the basilica at the rally supporting Phillips. She posted commentary and video at Facebook. Some of that made its way to CBC.

"The action that happened at the church was peaceful, the songs that were sung were prayer songs, they're songs that convey a fierce love and determination for our people—and all people," Brass said.

"This act of hatred was not retaliated in a similar way. It was responded to with love and dignity."

She said Phillips set the example of being a kind and loving individual that translated to the group of supporters that gathered outside of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

So Phillips was at the scene? Check.

So there was a demonstration near the basilica? Check.

So some Native American demonstrators and their supporters attempted to enter the sanctuary? Security guards and basilica officials say, “Yes.”

Phillips was among those attempting to enter, during the Mass? Security guards and basilica officials say, “Yes.”

Did the demonstrators know that, if allowed in, they would be interrupting a Mass?

That’s a question worth asking. Journalists cannot be too careful, at this point in time.


The Catholic News Agency report has been greatly updated and expanded — after the emergence of another video.

Here is a large chunk of the new material:

The video begins as a group including Phillips prepares to approach the main steps of the basilica. One participant announces that the group will march to the front of the shrine for “a non-violent peaceful action.”

Another participant tells the group that if they want to enter the basilica, they can do so if they go “in small groups” to pray.

“Just say you are going to Mass,” a third participant advises, and another demonstrator says the basilica is “a public space.”

As the participants begin walking, one demonstrator advises participants: “I’ll watch the cops.”

The video next shows the group, led by Phillips, ascending the front staircase of the basilica, chanting and playing drums. A smaller group of protesters appears to attempt entering the basilica, while the larger group, estimated by some reports at about 60 people, continues to ascend the front stairs before stopping at a landing.

The participants who attempted to enter the shrine can eventually be seen returning to the larger group of protesters.

A California seminarian, who was not permitted by seminary officials to be publicly identified, spoke to CNA about his experience of the events.

“I was outside when the protesters were coming up the steps of the basilica. I was curious because of the noise and chanting. At first I didn’t take it too seriously, but as they came up the steps we were told to go inside - I was with a group of people from California there for the March for Life. The security people shut the doors and locked them.”

“I was inside and the protesters were banging on the doors.”

On the basilica steps, Mr. Phillips read a statement which said: “We demand that the students of Covington Catholic High School be reprimanded not just by their school officials but, as seniors, by their upcoming universities.”

“We demand that the Catholic Church hold itself responsible for the [indistinct] hundred-plus years of genocide that indigenous peoples have endured and endure persistently by implementing the following: with reparations of land and restorations to the indigenous peoples in the U.S. and across the world.”

“We demand that the Catholic Church revoke the papal bulls related to the doctrine of discovery, which laid the foundation for religious prejudice and the dehumanization of indigenous peoples.”

The video shows several shrine security guards standing between the group and the basilica's entrance.

Stay tuned. I will watch Twitter for signs of a URL to this new Facebook video.

MAIN IMAGE: A photo of the 2018 March for Life Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Screen shot of coverage in The Arlington Catholic Herald.

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