Education

‘Tear it down’: Protesters gather at Silent Sam statue on UNC campus

Hundreds of people gathered at the Silent Sam statue at UNC-Chapel Hill on Tuesday evening to demand removal of the Confederate monument.

The crowd chanted “Tear it down!” and at one point marched along Franklin Street to UNC President Margaret Spellings’ residence, but the rally remained mostly peaceful. By 10 p.m. the crowd had thinned and some protesters kept a quiet vigil near the statue.

The event did become tense at times, with police wearing helmets and moving the crowds off the sidewalks. Officers surrounded Silent Sam within a ring of barricades, keeping protesters away from the monument. Some people yelled, “Why are you in riot gear? I don’t see no riot here.”

UNC officials said there were two arrests at the protest.

Tuesday’s rally put UNC in the position of protecting a statue that many say now poses a serious safety threat. It followed two days of back-and-forth between UNC officials and Gov. Roy Cooper about who has the authority to move the statue.

Silent Sam was erected in 1913 to honor UNC alumni who served in the Confederate army during the Civil War. The soldier holds a rifle but is silent “because he wears no cartridge box for ammunition,” according to the university.

Tim Carey, a professor at UNC’s medical school, attended the rally Tuesday. A decade ago, he said he believed that the statue was worth saving so new generations could understand the university’s past. Now he says the time for removal has come.

“Our country is not in a good spot right now,” Carey said. “The last thing we need is for statues to become lightning rods.”

McLain Saba, 20, a junior from Charlotte, went to the rally against her father’s wishes. She said she has heard her African-American friends say they’re hurt when they walk past the statue on their way to class.

“It’s unbelievably disgusting that it still stands,” Saba said. She said two of her black friends wanted to go to the protest but were afraid after the recent violence in Charlottesville, Va.

“Both their parents said, ‘Do not go,’ ” Saba said, adding that they stayed locked in their dorms instead.

Debate about the future of Confederate monuments has increased across the country since white nationalists and counter-protesters clashed in Charlottesville this month. One woman was killed during that event and several others were injured when someone drove a vehicle into the crowd.

At UNC on Tuesday, some protesters had heated exchanges with people who disagreed with them.

Glenn Lassiter, 56, a UNC alumnus and Chapel Hill resident, said he’s not sure whether the statue needs to come down, but he thinks it’s worth a debate. Protesters shouted at him, called him a white supremacist and said he wasn’t welcome at the rally.

He said the situation resembled mob rule.

“There are plenty of people here that don’t think I have the right to express my opinion on anything,” Lassiter said. “They’re nothing but big bullies and they’re trying to bully my right to free speech and to express my opinion on what I believe.

“I just don’t think that tearing down a bunch of statues is changing the world,” he added. “I think what changes the world is what’s in men’s hearts.”

Silent Sam’s ultimate fate is unclear. UNC officials sent a letter to Cooper this week asking him to convene the N.C. Historical Commission to decide what to do about it.

The letter, signed by Spellings, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and others, pointed out that the statue’s presence creates “significant safety and security threats.” Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger also said the monument represents a clear and present danger; she wrote to Folt asking that the university petition the state to remove it.

A 2015 state law prevents removing, relocating or altering monuments, memorials, plaques and other markers that are on public property without permission from the N.C. Historical Commission. But Cooper said an exception in the law would allow the university to remove it if they have imminent safety concerns. The exception refers to a safety risk as determined by a “building inspector” or “similar officials.”

“Other university leaders have taken decisive actions in recent days,” Cooper wrote to UNC. Duke University and the University of Texas took down Confederate statues in middle-of-the-night operations.

But UNC released a statement Tuesday saying it did not have “clear legal authority” to take down Silent Sam unilaterally, pointing out that the building inspector exception refers to a scenario where a monument poses a threat because of its physical disrepair. That is not the case with Silent Sam.

University officials say they are caught between conflicting legal interpretations of the law.

But UNC’s stance has shifted somewhat in the past two days. On Monday, UNC officials said it was problematic to either leave the statue up or take it down. By Tuesday, officials said that “removing the Confederate Monument is in the best interest of the safety of our campus, but the university can act only in accordance with the laws of the state of North Carolina. As we continue to seek clear guidance and legal authority to act, we ask for your patience and cooperation to help us maintain as safe an environment as we possibly can.”

As the rally waned late Tuesday, protesters on social media vowed to keep staging demonstrations until the statue is gone.

Afterwards, UNC spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny issued a statement: “As a University, the free exchange of ideas under the First Amendment is core to our mission. Carolina has long been a hospitable forum and meeting place for the peaceful dissemination of differing views. It’s important to note that the vast majority of those who attended tonight’s rally honored that tradition.”

Staff writer Jonathan Alexander contributed.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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