Politics & Government

UNC faculty and students tell chancellor that police are too cozy with Confederate protesters

Two campus groups — one made up of faculty and staff, the other of students — say UNC-Chapel Hill interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz has mishandled a March 16 incident in which Silent Sam supporters brought a gun and other weapons to campus.

Both groups say campus police have been sympathetic to people identifying as “Confederate” or pro-monument protesters, including those who have threatened violence against student activists in social media posts. Meanwhile, the groups note, student protestors who identify as “anti-racist” have been tackled and pepper-sprayed by police for alleged misbehavior during on-campus clashes with Confederates.

Confederates and anti-racists have had regular, vocal interactions at UNC since last August, when the anti-racists pulled the statue of a Confederate soldier to the ground from its pedestal in McCorkle Place. While UNC debates what will become of Silent Sam, the two groups continue to argue for and against its return to campus.

Though it’s a felony to carry a firearm and a misdemeanor to carry a knife or other weapon onto any UNC campus, members of the Confederate group had the items in plain sight when they came to UNC on March 16. Campus officers asked them to leave, and no charges were filed.

Pro-Confederate demonstrators talk with UNC-Chapel Hill police who asked them to leave campus because they were carrying weapons on Saturday, March 16, 2019. Daniel Hosterman

The school said later that UNC police were confused at the time as to whether they had jurisdiction over the man with the handgun because he was on the right of way of a Chapel Hill city street that runs through campus.

The faculty-staff group, which posts on Twitter under the heading “Unsafe at UNC,” demands in an anonymous, open letter that police involved in the incident “be immediately placed on unpaid leave while an independent investigation is conducted into their actions, including analyzing their own relationships to white supremacist organizations.”

The student group, which calls itself Defend UNC, goes further in a letter sent to Guskiewicz this week urging the chancellor to “call for the immediate disarmament or disbandment of UNC Campus Police.”

Both groups criticized Guskiewicz’s statement about the incident, in which he praised police, saying they “prevented the situation from escalating.”

“To be clear,” Guskiewicz said, “weapons, especially guns and the threat they convey even when holstered, have no place here and will not be tolerated. In the future, those found with a weapon on campus will be arrested and issued a warning of trespass.”

In his statement, Guskiewicz said he would convene a campus safety commission “to look at all aspects of community safety, including building relationships with campus police.” He said the group would consist of students, faculty and staff and that he will announce the members of the commission and outline their charge in April.

Pro-Confederate demonstrators brought weapons to UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus where anti-racist demonstrators were having a party on Saturday, March 16, 2019. Daniel Hosterman

Also, the chancellor said, he plans to meet with campus groups to hear their ideas about how to eliminate racism and inequality on campus.

Finally, Guskiewicz said, he is ordering a review of the gun-toting incident and convening a team to review “all significant campus police actions and major emergency management and public safety events in the future.”

Guskiewicz could not be reached to discuss the plans or the calls for the changes within the UNC Police. A spokeswoman said more information about the chancellor’s plan would be available toward the end of the semester.

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.