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Silent Sam Comes Down in Organized Protest

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Silent Sam base

The 9-foot marble base in McCorkle Place remains empty after the Confederate monument Silent Sam was toppled by protestors. (Photo by Grant Halverson ’93)

Silent Sam, the Confederate monument that has been a lightning rod for the campus dialogue about race in recent years, was pulled off its pedestal Monday night by organized protesters. On Tuesday morning, the statue’s empty 9-foot marble base remained.

The statue came down at about 9:15 p.m. on the day before fall classes started after protesters — who had erected anti-racism banners around it in an action that started at 7 p.m. — worked behind the cover of the banners to attach ropes and pull it down. One witness said it came down in about 10 seconds. The phrase “Do it like Durham” was seen on T-shirts and on a cap that was placed on the statue’s head — a reference to a Confederate soldiers monument that was pulled down by protesters last year.

Protesters then began covering the statue with dirt as smoke bombs were ignited. Campus police formed a perimeter around the monument but did not take physical action to stop what was happening.

Silent Sam lies face down in the dirt after being toppled from its base  on the day before fall classes were to start. (Photo by Alex Kormann)

“It was face down in the mud as a late night thunderstorm passed through town,” The News & Observer reported. It was later loaded onto a truck and taken away.

A single arrest was reported, involving resisting, delaying and obstructing an officer. Video shows several police officers trying to subdue one participant and protesters and others — some wearing what appear to be gas masks — arguing and shoving in Franklin Street.

Late in the week, three people were charged with misdemeanor riot and defacing of a public monument in warrants filed by UNC Police. Those arrested are not UNC students and are not otherwise affiliated with the University, police said.

Seven more people — again, none of whom are students or are affiliated with UNC, according to police — were arrested Aug. 25 after a small contingent of people protesting the pulling down of the statue clashed with a much larger group of those supporting the removal. The air on McCorkle Place on a Saturday morning was electric with a large police presence — some of them in riot gear — among the some 200 people. Scuffles broke out between the opposing protesters and between protesters and police.

The arrests were for assault, damage to property and inciting a public disturbance. Two also were charged with resisting arrest; again, those arrests did not involve students or individuals affiliated with UNC, police said.

The tearing down of Silent Sam was prominent in the national news all week. “Protesters on Monday night toppled Silent Sam, the prominent Confederate monument whose presence has divided the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus for decades,” The Chronicle for Higher Education reported. “After the statue fell, jubilant protesters cheered, chanted and embraced as the police looked on.”

“I watched it groan and shiver and come asunder,” Dwayne Dixon, an assistant professor of Asian studies, told The Daily Tar Heel. “I mean, it feels biblical. It’s thundering and starting to rain. It’s almost like heaven is trying to wash away the soiled contaminated remains.”

Natalia Walker, a freshman from Charlotte, told the paper: “I feel liberated — like I’m a part of something big. It’s literally my fourth day here. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever been a part of in my life, just activist-wise. All of these people coming together for this one sole purpose and actually getting it done was the best part.”

Social media filled up early Tuesday with comments from people who decidedly did not agree that the statue should have come down.

Early Tuesday morning, Chancellor Carol L. Folt wrote to the University community: “As you are probably aware, a group from among an estimated crowd of 250 protesters brought down the Confederate Monument on our campus last night.

Silent Sam

Protesters — who had erected anti-racism banners around the statue in an action that started at 7 p.m. — worked behind the cover of the banners to attach ropes and pull it down. (Photo by Alex Kormann)

“The monument has been divisive for years, and its presence has been a source of frustration for many people not only on our campus but throughout the community.

“However, last night’s actions were unlawful and dangerous, and we are very fortunate that no one was injured. The police are investigating the vandalism and assessing the full extent of the damage.”

The office of Gov. Roy Cooper ’79 (’82 JD) released a statement that said he understood the frustration over the issue, “but violent destruction of public property has no place in our communities.”

On Saturday, Folt told a news conference safety was still her primary concern — “preparing for events and identifying a sustainable solution.”

The Monday protest started as a demonstration in support of Maya Little, a doctoral student in history and a consistent leader of the protest movement who was arrested in May after she dumped red ink and what she said was her own blood on the monument in full view of the police.

Little was at Monday’s protest and told the crowd: “Right now, we do have a memorial on campus. A memorial to white supremacy and to slave owners. And to people who murdered my ancestors.”

Folt sent a message Tuesday saying the State Bureau of Investigation would be called in. The message also was signed by trustees Chair Haywood Cochrane ’70, UNC System President Margaret Spellings and Harry Smith, chair of the system Board of Governors.

“The safety and security of our students, faculty and staff are paramount. And the actions last evening were unacceptable, dangerous, and incomprehensible,” Spellings and Smith wrote in a separate statement. “We are a nation of laws — and mob rule and the intentional destruction of public property will not be tolerated.”

Tim Moore ’92, speaker of the N.C. House and a past member of the GAA Board of Directors, called for prosecution of those involved.

“There is no place for the destruction of property on our college campuses or in any North Carolina community; the perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted by public safety officials to make clear that mob rule and acts of violence will not be tolerated in our state,” Moore’s statement said.

Smith said he wants the board to hire an independent firm to study what happened on Monday — with an eye toward whether anyone in the UNC administration or campus police gave any orders other than full protection of the statue during the rally.

On Tuesday night, Folt addressed the issue in a statement to the campus community that also was signed by Smith, Spellings and Cochrane: “Since the Confederate Monument was brought down last night, many have questioned how police officers responded to protesters and how the University managed the event. Safety is always paramount, but at no time did the administration direct the officers to allow protesters to topple the monument. During the event, we rely on the experience and judgment of law enforcement to make decisions on the ground, keeping safety as the top priority.”

She added, “This protest was carried out in a highly organized manner and included a number of people unaffiliated with the University.”

There is also talk among BOG members and members of the General Assembly that the statue should be replaced; the 2015 law stipulates that any monument removed temporarily must be replaced within 90 days.

The North Carolina division of Sons of Confederate Veterans sent a letter to Folt Tuesday demanding that Silent Sam be “put back in its rightful place.”

The outcry against the monument’s continued presence has grown louder in the past 10 years. An organization of students and others called the Real Silent Sam Coalition emerged in about 2011, calling the statue offensive to people of color and at first suggesting UNC erect a reinterpretation plaque to explain it.

Students have said they are insulted by its presence — what they call a symbol of the Confederacy’s loyalty to the institution of slavery — some adding that they didn’t feel safe when counterprotesters came to the campus.

Others see Silent Sam as a tribute to those who fought for their homeland in the Civil War, perhaps without regard to the slavery issue. Many have said that removing the statue would be detrimental to the understanding of history.

Rallies grew angrier about the time that the UNC trustees voted in May 2015 to change the name of Saunders Hall; William Saunders, an 1854 graduate of UNC, was the North Carolina leader of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 19th century.

One year ago, on the eve of the start of classes, UNC Police erected two concentric circles of steel barricades around Silent Sam in anticipation of a protest rally that also included supporters of the statue that evening, amid talk that the statue might be taken down. That protest, which came in the wake of a rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., was the largest before Monday night’s.

Cooper at that time said that UNC officials could take the statue down as a safety measure, but campus administrators cited a state law that prohibits removal of historic monuments. Folt and others have said repeatedly over the past year that they would like to see it removed.

The University spent about $390,000 to provide police security for the area around the statue between July 2017 and this past June.

Silent Sam was commissioned by the Daughters of the Confederacy and finished in 1913. It was erected, as the Alumni Review reported at the time, “in memory of all University students, living and dead, who served in the Confederacy.”

One of the speakers at the dedication, Julian S. Carr, an 1866 graduate, hailed Confederate soldiers as the saviors “of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.” Carr told the crowd he had “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” within sight of the statue after she allegedly offended a white woman on Franklin Street.

When the trustees voted to rename Saunders Hall — now known as Carolina Hall — they also enacted a 16-year moratorium on renaming buildings. The campus has several buildings named for individuals who have been identified as white supremacists.

A University task force is at work carrying out a three-year-old directive from the trustees that signs be placed in McCorkle Place, the oldest quad on the campus, to address issues of race in UNC’s past.


A Timeline of Silent Sam and Related Issues

Calls for the removal of the Confederate statue Silent Sam — and rallies for its support — have occurred periodically for decades. This timeline is not all-inclusive.

1992

• Silent Sam is the site chosen for Chancellor Paul Hardin and others to speak to students about the controversial beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles police and the issue of whether UNC should erect a freestanding Black Cultural Center

2000

February
• Gerald Horne, then director of UNC’s Black Cultural Center, writes a newspaper column in which he likens the statue to a Confederate battle flag, and says it was hypocrisy and slavery denial for UNC to leave it standing

2011

September
• Members of the Real Silent Sam Coalition hold a protest at the statue, calling it offensive and suggesting UNC erect a reinterpretation plaque to explain it

2015

January
• Students lead a large, angry rally around Silent Sam, demand the renaming of Saunders Hall for author and activist Zora Neale Hurston

April
• UNC trustees hold a special meeting to hear comments on the name-change issue

May
• Trustees vote 10-3 to change the name of Saunders Hall to Carolina Hall, approve a 16-year moratorium on other renamings, and order “curating” of UNC’s racial history

July
• Although not for the first time, vandals deface Silent Sam, painting “KKK” and “murderer”

• N.C. General Assembly enacts a law prohibiting removal of any publicly sited “monument of remembrance” without approval of the N.C. Historical Commission

September
• Chancellor Carol L. Folt announces a task force to carry out the trustees’ directives

November
• Students of color speak out at a large rally outside South Building in the aftermath of racial unrest at the University of Missouri; a week later, a town hall meeting fills Memorial Hall, where students present a long list of demands

2016

January
• Folt meets with leaders of the movement, who amplify demands; later she reports to the campus on required racial sensitivity training for administrators and a dedicated gathering place for black students, and promises results of a survey on diversity

November
• Carolina Hall lobby display is unveiled

2017

August
• UNC Police erect two concentric circles of steel barricades around Silent Sam because of concerns about a situation similar to the events in Charlottesville, Va., in which opposing sides could come into contact. Gov. Roy Cooper tells UNC officials they can take it down, circumventing the 2015 removal law, in the event of an imminent threat to public safety and security. UNC attorneys disagree with Cooper’s interpretation. The UNC System Board of Governors would have had to challenge the law; the UNC campus does not have that authority

November
• Trustees hold a listening session on Silent Sam — 28 people speak, two of whom support keeping the statue. Chancellor Folt says: “I’d like to reiterate that, if I had the authority, in the interest of public safety, I would remove the monument to a safer location on our campus, where we could preserve, protect and teach from it. What I heard yesterday reinforced that belief”

• A campus police officer goes undercover at the statue to engage both sides in conversation

2018

May
• Maya Little, a familiar leader of the protesters, throws red ink and what she said was her own blood on Silent Sam in full view of the police assigned to protect it, is arrested

July
• UNC reports it spent about $390,000 to provide police security for Silent Sam, July 2017 through June 2018

Aug. 20
• A Franklin Street protest is a diversion for an organized offensive on the statue, and protesters pull it off its pedestal, igniting a response marked by jubilation and by angry street confrontations

Aug. 25
• Seven people are arrested – none with ties to the University – when a small group of Confederate monument supporters clashes just off Franklin Street with those supporting removal

Aug. 28
• Board of Governors passes a resolution directing Folt and the trustees to come up with a “lawful and lasting” plan to preserve the monument with attention to safety, and sets a Nov. 15 deadline

 


 

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