Video shows Silent Sam being bashed, raises questions about its safety

A man shimmies up the Silent Sam Confederate statue, pulls a hammer out of a backpack and proceeds to pound the face of the soldier.

A 12-second video, shot at UNC-Chapel Hill by a passerby on Aug. 15, captures the clanging sound of the hammer striking the monument. The act occurred one day after protesters in Durham toppled a Confederate statue downtown, and three days after deadly violence broke out in Charlottesville during a white supremacist rally.

The video, obtained this week by The News & Observer, emerged as Orange County’s elected representatives discussed a plan to protect the statue by requesting that the legislature allow its relocation. Rep. Verla Insko, a Democrat, said this week that she plans to file a bill later this year that would set a deadline to move the statue to a safer place.

A 2015 state law prohibits the alteration of historic monuments on state property in most cases, but provides for temporary or permanent relocation when “appropriate measures are required by the State or a political subdivision of the State to preserve the object.”

That’s the argument Gov. Roy Cooper has made in his request to the state historical commission to move three Confederate statues away from the state Capitol to a battlefield site in Johnston County. The commission is inviting public comment on the issue.

At UNC, the question about what to do with Silent Sam still lingers, though protests aren’t as vigorous or frequent as they were in the weeks after Charlottesville.

So far, university officials haven’t focused on the preservation argument for moving the statue. They were more worried about the public safety threat from potentially violent protests.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt has said she’d like to relocate the statue but the university is hampered by the law. Last August, she and UNC President Margaret Spellings signed a letter to Cooper, saying they were worried about an impending protest that could have posed a danger to students. Cooper responded that the university could take down the monument immediately, citing an exemption in the law about safety.

However, university lawyers have interpreted that provision as pertaining only to situations where the monument itself is a physical hazard to the public — if a piece of it is about to fall, for example. So university leaders have pledged to adhere to the law for now and keep Sam in place.

Still image from a video from Aug. 15, 2017, shows an unidentified man hammering the face of the Confederate Silent Sam statue on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill. Contributed photo

Despite a widespread feeling on campus that Silent Sam should go, there is political pressure against it. A majority of the UNC Board of Governors expressed displeasure with the idea, and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger wrote to Cooper, calling his request to the historical commission “a fool’s errand” and suggesting that such a move would trigger a lawsuit.

Any legal battle might hinge on the question of whether a threat of vandalism is enough to endanger a historic object.

Last August, in a letter to Folt, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger brought up the issue when she requested that the chancellor petition the state’s historical commission to move Silent Sam.

“The possibility of a breach of the peace is high, and with it the likelihood that Silent Sam could suffer substantial damage,” Hemminger wrote. “This circumstance certainly calls for the University to be able to take the proactive step of removing the statue from harm’s way.”

In recent years, the statue has been vandalized, mostly with spray-painted slogans, which were pressure washed away in short order. The university installed surveillance cameras pointed at the statue and provides regular police patrols in the area.

The Aug. 15 video illustrates a more serious threat. It’s unclear if the statue sustained any damage from the unidentified man with the hammer. A UNC campus police spokesman said there were no police records or reports of the incident.

In her comments this week about introducing a bill on the matter, Insko said, “I think a lot of people don’t want the monument destroyed or damaged. It is a part of history, and we have lessons to learn from that. I think that preserving it for this purpose is really important.”

Staff writer Tammy Grubb contributed to this report.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill