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UNC system officials and state leaders on Silent Sam: ‘Mob rule’ won’t be tolerated

Republican political leaders and UNC system officials promised a full investigation into the toppling of the Silent Sam Confederate monument and called Monday night’s protest “mob rule” that won’t be tolerated.

Others said the vandalism could have been avoided if university and political leaders had taken action. UNC’s student government officers praised the downing of Silent Sam, saying protesters took it upon themselves to erase what they called a symbol of the university’s history of white supremacy and bigotry.

A joint statement from UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith and UNC President Margaret Spellings said they had conferred with UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and Trustee Chairman Haywood Cochrane about next steps.

“Campus leadership is in collaboration with campus police, who are pulling together a timeline of the events, reviewing video evidence, and conducting interviews that will inform a full criminal investigation,” Smith and Spellings said.

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

Late Tuesday, Smith, Spellings, Cochrane and Folt said they had called in the State Bureau of Investigation to join the probe of the “highly organized” protest that included people unaffiliated with the university, according to a prepared statement. They insisted that at “no time did the administration direct the officers to allow protesters to topple the monument.”

The statement did not address what will ultimately become of the fallen statue, which was hauled away late Monday.

Politicians respond

Republican political leaders joined in the condemnation of vandalism at the monument. House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger issued prepared statements that also described the protesters’ actions as those of a mob. Their statements did not address whether the monument should go back up.

“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,” said the statement from Moore, of Cleveland County.

Berger, of Rockingham County, suggested some politicians share blame.

“Many of the wounds of racial injustice that still exist in our state and country were created by violent mobs and I can say with certainty that violent mobs won’t heal those wounds,” Berger said. “Only a civil society that adheres to the rule of law can heal these wounds and politicians – from the Governor down to the local District Attorney – must start that process by ending the deceitful mischaracterization of violent riots as ‘rallies’ and reestablishing the rule of law in each of our state’s cities and counties.”

Tuesday was the first day of classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, and instead of drinking from the Old Well for good luck, students engaged in a new campus activity — taking photos of the pedestal where Silent Sam had stood for more than a century. Posters featuring the names of former and current African-American students were put on the base.

The officers of the undergraduate student government executive branch posted a letter to all students, assuring them that it was OK to be frightened and confused. But the letter said the African-American activists had “courage and resilience” and had “corrected a moral and historical wrong that needed to be righted if we were ever to move forward as a university.”

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Sometime after 9:15 p.m. Monday, protesters managed to pull down the statue with ropes two hours into a march and protest. The demonstrators had taken banners on tall bamboo poles to the statue and shrouded it from view. The crowd surrounded the statue, with police officers mostly keeping their distance from the perimeter.

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Silent Sam, which was erected 105 years ago, was meant to honor alumni who fought in the Civil War. It was funded by alumni and Daughters of the Confederacy.

It has been the target of protesters and vandals for decades, but activity around the monument ramped up after last year’s deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Student activists, alumni, faculty and others have called for it to be removed, but UNC system and campus officials maintained that their hands were tied because of a 2015 state law that prevents moving historic monuments. Some alumni and others said the statue should remain in its spot as a part of history. A university panel had been developing a plan to erect signs and other information that would provide a more full context about the monument, including a speech made at the dedication by industrialist Julian Carr.

In a statement that has been often repeated by protesters, Carr said: “I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”

Gov. Roy Cooper last year suggested UNC had the authority under the law to remove the statue to protect public safety. University lawyers disagreed, and nothing happened. The university never asked the N.C. Historical Commission to take up the issue, though Spellings, Folt, Cochrane and former Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette wrote to Cooper in 2017 to suggest that avenue. The letter set off a majority of the members of the current UNC system board, including Smith, who chastised Spellings and Bissette about approaching the governor before conferring with the board.

UNC officials also never sought the relocation of the statue under another possible exception in the law. A UNC law professor suggested the state law on monuments allowed for a statue to be removed in order to protect it. Silent Sam has been vandalized repeatedly with spray paint, and last year a hammer wielded by a man who climbed the statue and beat it in the face. In April, a protester poured red ink and her own blood on the statue. The university has spent money to clean up the statue, install surveillance cameras and last year, $390,000 on police security.

Silent Sam ‘stood illegally’

Last year, former N.C. Deputy Attorney General Hampton Dellinger, representing the UNC Black Law Students Association and other UNC students, put the university on notice that students were prepared to sue in federal court if Silent Sam were not removed.

“Whether there will be any legal consequences for those involved in the toppling remains unclear but I’m certain that Silent Sam stood illegally,” Dellinger said in an emailed statement Tuesday.

Dellinger said the presence of the statue violated federal civil rights laws by creating “a racially hostile learning environment.”

“UNC officials were duty bound to remove it. They failed to and that’s a shame,” Dellinger said in the email. “It is hard to imagine in 2018 that an institution of higher learning would stoop so low as to host a Civil War monument in the middle of campus featuring a towering Confederate soldier with his rifle raised and his finger on the trigger. But that’s exactly what UNC was doing. It was not only wrong, it violated controlling federal law.”

Three Democrats in the legislature who had proposed a change in the monuments law said it was past time for Silent Sam to be moved from a place of honor on UNC’s campus.

“It is unfortunate that state legislators chose not to hear and pass the bill we filed earlier this year to move the monument to an indoor site where it would stand as an reminder of the bitter racial struggle that continues to burden our country,” tweeted Rep. Verla Insko, on behalf of her and Sen. Valerie Foushee and Rep. Graig Meyer. The three represent Orange County.

Andrew Skinner, a 2018 graduate, arrived at Silent Sam shortly after protesters toppled the statue. He said the university would find it difficult politically to erect it again.

“They can put it back up, but now it’s down,” Skinner said. “They can put it back up. That’s an action.”

Others said the protesters’ actions will only create problems for the university in the long run.

Recent UNC graduate Allyson Ford tweeted Tuesday that her university was “dumb,” adding, “violence is not the answer to your problems and it’s just going to fuel more problems and deepen the divide between a liberal student body in a vastly conservative state.”

The N.C. Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans issued a statement expressing “disgust and outrage” about what it called a celebration of anarchy. The group said UNC, “the People’s University, should suffer the consequences of turning its back on the people of North Carolina.”

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Staff writer Andrew Carter contributed.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill
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