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The long fight to topple ‘Silent Sam’

Tony Crider/Flickr

Pushback against Confederate monuments hasn’t died out—and isn’t any less complicated.

In the wake of the violent Charlottesville protests over the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue last year, debates about Confederate monuments were had across the country. Historians came forward against the statues. White supremacists rallied around them. The movement to remove them from public spaces of honor swelled.

In some places, like Baltimore, local officials had statues and memorials removed overnight, to avoid a repeat of the violence in Charlottesville. Some statues were moved by direct action from civilians, such as in Durham and Columbus. Still, hundreds of Confederate memorials remain, often due to state laws that prevent them from being removed. Although conversation faded from the national spotlight in late 2017, these statues still have a profound effect on the communities they are standing in. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is one of these communities.

From 1913 until August 2018, the Confederate statue dubbed Silent Sam by students stood prominently at a major entrance to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. The man who dedicated the statue boasted in his speech about whipping a Black woman who tried to seek shelter on campus. Supporters of the statue frame it as “history,” not white supremacy. But for almost as long as students of color have been allowed to attend UNC-Chapel Hill, there has been debate and protests around Silent Sam. It was only “without controversy” for so long because Black people were excluded from the school.

One of the most famous protests followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., with demonstrators splashing the statue with red paint. However, it didn’t take long before student volunteers cleaned it off and decorated the statue with Confederate flags—an expression of pain and anger over racist violence was erased and covered with signs of white supremacy.

Protests and debates have continued on and off for the past five decades, but the latest fight isn’t about to be quelled and whitewashed so easily. It began in April, when student activist and doctoral candidate Maya Little took a page from the King demonstration and splashed Silent Sam with both red ink and her own blood. She was arrested and charged by the UNC Honor Court.

In a statement for a petition requesting UNC drop the charges, Little noted that the students who painted the statue for sports games in the past hadn’t been charged, but they refused that same leniency for a student of color protesting racial violence. She also noted that the police had destroyed the markers she and other protesters had erected to memorialize the 1971 murder of a Black student on campus by a white motorcycle gang. Once again, a battleground was set for those who wished to protest and remember racist violence and those who wished to cover it up by whatever means possible.

Four months later, in August, the night before classes started, protesters gathered on campus against Silent Sam again and to show support for Little. After speeches, demonstrators surrounded the statue with black banners disavowing white supremacy and honoring the victims of racial violence. One banner naming victims of racist violence started with “1865 unnamed Black woman beaten by Julian Carr,” referencing the statue’s dedication.

Protesters chanted, “Tear it down!” And around 9:20pm, they did. A small group within the protest were able to pull the statue off of its base with ropes hidden by the signs. Video of the moments after the statue came down shows protesters cheering and hugging. After 50 years of Black students making their cases to unlistening administrations, the symbol of racist violence stood no more.

But the celebration couldn’t last forever.

North Carolina is one of many states where laws prevent the removal of Confederate monuments. The law says monuments can’t be moved or altered in any way without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission. But when the governor of North Carolina requested its approval to remove three monuments from capitol grounds in 2018, the commission said the law didn’t allow it. While Gov. Roy Cooper denounced the protesters who brought down Silent Sam, he was clear about why they did it. “Protesters concluded that their leaders would not—could not—act on the frustration and pain it caused,” he said.

As is often the case with struggles for equality, protesters—many times marginalized folk—are willing to break unjust laws because they have everything to lose, if they haven’t lost it already. Meanwhile, their leaders have the safety, resources, and legal framework to challenge the laws from within. Litigator Hampton Dellinger pointed out on Twitter that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act forbids racially hostile campus environments, and Silent Sam certainly has created that. In other words, while state law may prevent permanent removal, federal law may prevent its return. However, protesters have said that the university administration won’t challenge these laws due to its connections with racist organizations and industries, and its ties to conservative politicians who they don’t want to work against.

In the weeks following Silent Sam’s toppling, people branding Confederate flags came to demonstrate on campus, clashing with students and staff. Eighteen people, both UNC community members and outsiders, were arrested or charged. This included a neo-Confederate who punched a student but many peaceful anti-racist protesters as well, including the granddaughter of a former UNC chancellor, for defacing a monument.

When Chancellor Carol Folt said that the statue would be brought back to campus, just not to its original place, the Faculty Council passed a resolution requesting “the permanent removal of the statue.” But that didn’t matter. A proposal was announced by the Board of Trustees in early December to build a new home for Silent Sam on campus. This building would cost $5.3 million to erect and an additional $800,000 in operating costs.

But if the school thought they weren’t going to get a fight, they were wrong. Faced with the possibility of an expensive new memorial to celebrate the Confederate monument, a group of faculty members and teachers assistants got involved. Over 80 teachers organized to withhold grades until the Silent Sam proposal was abandoned. Announcing their plan, the anti-racist coalition said, “UNC students should not be expected to continue their studies, take exams, and live on campus under this racially hostile and dangerous learning environment.”

Support only grew from there. Several departments aligned with those withholding grades and condemned any disciplinary action against them. Over 200 current and former UNC athletes signed a petition against the return of Silent Sam. The Faculty Union for Duke, the school’s rival, also put out a statement supporting the protest. Thousands more from the university, local community, and across the country put out petitions and open letters against the return of the statue and supporting the protest.

The #StrikeDownSam hashtag spread across social media, bringing visibility to not just the protest, but the cost of keeping Silent Sam on campus. After the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, it became clear to many that it was necessary to prevent white supremacist organizing for the safety of students and faculty. Silent Sam was the latest flashpoint for white supremacists both online and in person, and the masses were no longer able to sit back and watch it be forced back onto the community that had rejected it.

At one point, the administration was so nervous about the protest, vice-chancellor Bob Boulin and Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, sent an email to the coalition threatening “serious consequences” if the protest wasn’t called off.

As the Board of Governors meeting about the vote approached, tensions only continued to grow. A group of students disrupted a Faculty Council meeting, and the co-chair of the UNC Black Congress, Angum Check, confronted Folt saying, “You handed me the Martin Luther King Student Scholarship Award this year… and I want to tell you, you are a disgrace. Never utter MLK’s words ever again.” Some members of the faculty snapped or stood in solidarity.

Likely in response to this meeting, a note was added to the Board of Governors’ meeting schedule that anyone who “substantially disrupts” the meeting would be arrested and may face criminal charges. The warning continued, “Any University student, faculty member, or staff employee who engages in such misconduct will be subject to a full range of disciplinary sanctions, including suspension, or, as appropriate, expulsion or dismissal.”

These threats, while serious, were also a clear sign of fear. Much of the school now stood in opposition to the white supremacy represented by Silent Sam. This wasn’t the ‘60s anymore. The administration was grasping at its last straws of power.

On the day of the Board of Governors’ meeting, people gathered outside the building early, chanting and giving speeches. Before the board had even begun to discuss the statue, a protester was arrested. When it came time to discuss the proposed building for Silent Sam, the board went into a closed session that lasted over three hours. When they finally came out to vote, their decision shocked many: They rejected the proposal. Then they put a deadline for a new plan for March 15.

The striking coalition held their ground until Folt said in a statement that they would be “more fully exploring off-campus options.” They released the grades on Dec. 17, saying in a statement that they “will be in a strong position to continue our action in spring 2019 if the BOG, BOT, or members of the University administration decide to place UNC students at risk.”

It is clear that this is not a complete victory. Anti-racist advocates on campus will have to bring new strategies in the spring semester. They know they’ll be faced with new obstacles.

The new deadline is during spring break, making it harder to organize protests against it. More worrisome to student activists is the resolution the Board of Governors passed, suggesting minimum sanctions against faculty and students who “engage in unlawful activity.” Many of the unlawful activities listed are charges often leveled against protesters, such as disobeying lawful orders and participating in a riotous act. Take Action Chapel Hill told the Daily Dot that 28 anti-racist activists have been arrested on campus since Silent Sam was brought down. This resolution puts every student and staff member in that group at risk for further punishment.

To students and faculty who organized against Silent Sam, it appears that the Board of Governors is simply kicking the decision down the road, while also limiting the communities’ ability to participate in the conversation further. The coalition of protesting students called the resolution “a naked attempt to intimidate dissenting students who are routinely punished by police for peaceful assembly and protest.”

Even though the Board of Governors and chancellor are standing their ground and working on a new plan, the protesters and their campus allies aren’t backing down either. They’re ready to push back from every angle. They’re louder and more united than ever before.

Editor’s note: Updated to include most recent arrest totals. 

Update 9:30am CT, Jan. 15: On Jan. 14, Chancellor Folt announced both her resignation and her authorization for the removal of Silent Sam’s base.

After nightfall on Monday, a crew took out the remnants of the statue, drilling into the pedestal to attach hooks, and then lifting it from the base with a crane. Students watching the removal sung the school’s anthem as the pedestal was pulled away.

One person was arrested for attempting to stop the removal, causing a brief pause in the process. It wasn’t until around 2:40am that the base was fully removed and loaded onto a truck that took it to an undisclosed location off-campus.

Board of Governors chairman Harry Smith said in a statement that they were “incredibly disappointed at this intentional action.” He said that the board will continue working on a plan to relocate Silent Sam, possibly to another location on campus. The deadline for this new plan remains March 15.

Alex Dalbey

Alex Dalbey

Alex Dalbey is a writer and zinester currently working out of St. Paul, Minnesota. They have bylines at The Daily Dot, Kill Screen, and Bullet Points. Follow them on Twitter @thedialogtree