UNC campus braces for Silent Sam rally

The first day of classes seemed relatively normal at UNC-Chapel Hill except for the early-morning arrival of metal fences around the Silent Sam statue on campus.

Police erected a double ring of barricades around the Confederate soldier statue ahead of a planned protest Tuesday night.

It was part of the preparation that included a letter Monday from UNC officials requesting help from Gov. Roy Cooper with the statue, which they said posed “significant safety and security threats” to the university. They asked him to convene the state historical commission to decide the ultimate fate of the statue, following vandalism of statues in Durham and deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Cooper responded that the university had the power to move the statue if there’s a threat to public safety, citing an exception written into the 2015 law that prevents removal of historic monuments. But UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said the university didn’t have the unilateral authority or legal ability to relocate the statue. “And the University must obey the law,” she wrote to the campus community.

UNC also asked Cooper for security help. On Tuesday, governor’s office spokeswoman Noelle Talley said state agencies were in discussions with the university.

“As the Governor said, public safety is paramount and the Highway Patrol and other state resources stand ready and available to assist local law enforcement as necessary upon request,” she said. “State Emergency Management officials continue to monitor the situation and are staying in close contact with local emergency managers.”

The fences are designed to protect the statue and help police keep the public safe on McCorkle Place, the expansive quadrangle where Silent Sam is located.

Beyond that, the university was not divulging its security plans for Tuesday night. UNC spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny said university police “will take strong measures to help ensure the event tonight is safe, just as they do for any expected large gathering.”

Chapel Hill police said they stand ready to assist, and Carrboro police could be called in as well.

“We are certainly in close contact with the university and preparing to assist them if that is necessary,” said Ran Northam, community safety communications specialist for the town of Chapel Hill. “If anything were to spill onto Franklin Street, that automatically activates things.”

Folt wrote to the campus community urging people to avoid the rally, which she said was being promoted by groups not affiliated with the university. She cautioned any attendees to be vigilant, “considering the potential for a highly charged atmosphere and the very real possibility for confrontation with outside groups.”

Tuesday’s planned 7 p.m. rally was advertised on a flier that said, “The first day of Silent Sam’s last semester,” hinting at efforts to take down the statue.

William Sturkey, assistant professor of history, said the prudent course of action would have been for the university to remove the statue before Tuesday’s protest.

“Why are we keeping the thing up when there’s all these sorts of threats to the public good of our campus?” he asked.

Carrboro Alderman Sammy Slade agreed, tweeting on Tuesday: “UNC should not expect #Carrboro PD’s help holding perimeter line protecting Silent Sam tonight, #UNC should remove #SilentSam instead.”

Herald-Sun staffers Casey Toth and Tammy Grubb contributed.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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