Silent Sam protesters have a new strategy to remove Confederate statue

UNC alumni, students and faculty vocal in debate over Confederate monument “Silent Sam”

The UNC Board of Trustees listen to over two dozen speakers as they weigh whether or not to remove the controversial statue of a Confederate soldier from campus.
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The UNC Board of Trustees listen to over two dozen speakers as they weigh whether or not to remove the controversial statue of a Confederate soldier from campus.

Several people have submitted petitions to the N.C. Historical Commission to move the Silent Sam Confederate statue from the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

Four petitions were received in January and February, said Neel Lattimore, director of communications for the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The documents are identical to each other, and similar to the one filed by Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration, which last year petitioned the commission to move three Confederate monuments from the State Capitol grounds to a historic battlefield in Johnston County.

A study committee is now taking public comments on the issue of whether to move the State Capitol monuments. It will make a recommendation to the full commission in April.

The petitions on Silent Sam say the statue poses “an ongoing threat to public safety,” citing potential violence between protesters and counter-protesters, continued police presence at the monument and even UNC’s deployment of an undercover officer who befriended protesters last year. The petitioners quoted previous statements from UNC Police Chief Jeff McCracken, who wrote last year that “the statue now serves, more than ever, as a magnet drawing together extreme factions intent on committing acts of violence.”

In a video taken by a passerby on Aug. 15, 2017, a man takes a hammer to the face of the Silent Sam Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The statue has also been vandalized in recent years, prompting the university to install 24-hour surveillance cameras. Earlier this month, a video emerged from last summer, showing a man climbing the statue and beating it with a hammer.

One of the petitioners, Heather Redding, a 39-year-old Orange County resident, said there is nothing in state law that prevents private citizens from petitioning the commission.

“We figured it wouldn’t hurt to try,” Redding said.

The petitions come from members of the Campaign to Move Silent Sam, a group that wants to remove what it views as a monument to white supremacy and racism. University leaders have said they cannot take action on Silent Sam because of a 2015 state law that prohibits the alteration of historic monuments on state property. There are exceptions, however, to preserve the object, to make way for construction or transportation projects, or in cases when a building inspector has determined that the object poses a hazard because of its physical condition.

Tempers flare and emotions run high in August during a rally and march calling for the removal of the Confederate statue known as 'Silent Sam' on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill.

Last August, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC President Margaret Spellings signed a letter to Cooper, saying they were worried about an impending protest that could have been dangerous for students. Their letter followed deadly protests in Charlottesville. Cooper responded that the university could act to take down the statue, citing the safety threat. But university leaders declined, arguing that their lawyers interpreted the law differently. Because the statue itself was still in good condition, they said, it didn’t qualify under the physical hazard exception.

Folt and Spellings have been under pressure from many students and faculty who want to see the statue gone, as well as others, including alumni, politicians and the Republican-majority Board of Governors, who want Silent Sam to remain.

The university did not join the Cooper administration’s petition to the historical commission. For now, Silent Sam still stands on campus, its fate in question.

“I think a lot of people are waiting for the university to make a move,” Redding said. “It doesn’t seem like they ever will petition the historical commission, or they’re waiting to see what happens with the statues in Raleigh. ... Even if the monuments in Raleigh are moved, then we’re going to have to start over by asking the university to make a similar request, and so it’s going to be this long, drawn-out process. I feel like they will make every excuse they can.”

So the petitioners decided to go it on their own, Redding said, and they hope the commission will act on their request.

Lattimore said the petitions are under review.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill