Police response to Silent Sam protest will be reviewed, UNC board chairman says

The UNC Board of Governors will hire an outside firm to look into university and police actions at the protest where Silent Sam was toppled this week, the board’s leader said Wednesday.

At least one board member, former Republican state Sen. Thom Goolsby, posted a YouTube video with his questions about the incident, including what’s being done to repair and re-install the statue.

Harry Smith, who became chairman last month, said Wednesday in an interview that he wants an independent group to study the facts of what happened, or what didn’t happen, during Monday’s rally. A group within a crowd of about 250 protesters used rope to pull down the controversial Silent Sam Confederate monument Monday night, more than two hours into a rally.

Smith described the firm’s assignment as “an exhaustive and complete review” of what occurred Monday to “encompass any instructions that were given or not given.” He said UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt did not give any orders to police to take a hands-off stance at the rally but added that there are many other employees at the university.

“The facts will come out,” Smith said. “That is our goal here, and that is to just get the facts.”

Any action that the board could take would be dependent on the facts discovered.

Police lead a protester away near the Silent Sam statue on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill on Monday. Travis Long News & Observer

Though there was one arrest following a scuffle between police and protesters early in the rally, no one was apprehended when the statue later tumbled down in the darkness. Some have questioned the police response.

In a Facebook post Wednesday, state Rep. Bob Steinburg said he was outraged protesters got the opportunity to tear down Silent Sam.

“It is absolutely inexcusable and those responsible, including security who stood by and let it happen, need to be prosecuted, no excuses!!” Steinburg posted.

In a telephone interview, Steinburg said he was appalled at the reaction of law enforcement officers — standing back, “even smiling” as protesters took down Silent Sam.

“Whoever was on that security detail that allowed this to take place and are seen in this video and can be identified ... need to lose their jobs,” Steinburg said.

He added that he’s heard from many constituents, even Democrats, who want to keep the monuments in place.

On Wednesday, Goolsby, the UNC Board of Governors member, tweeted: “NC State law is CLEAR. Silent Sam MUST be reinstalled,” along with a link to the 2015 state law governing historic monuments. The law says, in part: “An object of remembrance that is temporarily relocated shall be returned to its original location within 90 days of completion of the project that required its temporary removal.”

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith is seen here in September. Julia Wall

Smith said he went to see the Silent Sam statue Tuesday, which he said was being stored in “a secure location.” He said the statue did not appear to be seriously damaged.

He said the process for deciding the future of the statue is a little unclear. But he expects campus trustees and Folt will consider next steps with the statue, make a recommendation and then the Board of Governors would “have a seat at the table.”

When asked if the university would request the state Historical Commission to consider what to do about Silent Sam, he said he didn’t know.

The Historical Commission had already received six or seven petitions, depending on how you count them, from people who want Silent Sam moved.

The petitions were still relevant even though the statue was removed, said Special Deputy Attorney General Karen Blum, the commission’s general counsel. The pedestal with a plaque and inscriptions remained, even though the statue is gone, she said.

“The commission does not move monuments,” she said. “It considers petitions before it. They are essentially seeking permission for somebody else to move the monuments. That somebody else would be the University of North Carolina..”

The commission voted to acknowledge receipt of the petitions but declare the petitioners aren’t the people who would properly bring the request to move Silent Sam.

A group called Hillsborough Progressives Taking Action objected to the commission’s interpretation, saying in a news release that it lacked “legal substance.”

“Once again, meaningful action to dismantle hateful symbols in public space seems out of reach, thus leaving in place public trophies to white supremacist organizations,” the Hillsborough group’s news release said.

When asked whether re-installing Silent Sam could spur more protests or violence, Smith said, “I think that needs to be a part of the conversation.”

Smith said he didn’t have a sense of the timeline for the decision. “There’s a lot of emotions in this, as there should be,” he said.

He did say the criminal investigation of the protesters’ actions is underway. Earlier this week, Smith, Folt, UNC President Margaret Spellings and UNC-CH Trustee Chairman Haywood Cochrane announced that they had asked the State Bureau of Investigation to assist the university police to investigate what was a “highly organized” protest.

“There’s a lot of videotape,” Smith said. “They’re reviewing the videotape and trying to identify actions taken by people who were involved actively.”

Smith said there must be accountability for criminal acts. “We’ve got to set the standard in the UNC system of what’s unacceptable behavior, and that’s what we’re going to do here.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill
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