Demonstrators and spectators gather around a toppled Confederate statue known as Silent Sam Monday, Aug. 20, 2018 at UNC- Chapel Hill, N.C. Demonstrators surrounded and obscured the statue with large banners before toppling it. (Julia Wall/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

UNC system officials and state leaders on Silent Sam: ‘Mob rule’ won’t be tolerated

August 21, 2018

CHAPEL HILL — UNC system officials issued a statement Tuesday about the protesters’ removal of UNC’s Silent Sam Confederate monument, saying “mob rule” won’t be tolerated.

A joint statement from UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith and UNC President Margaret Spellings said they had conferred with UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and Trustee Chairman Haywood Cochrane about next steps. They promised a full investigation into the protesters’ actions.

“Campus leadership is in collaboration with campus police, who are pulling together a timeline of the events, reviewing video evidence, and conducting interviews that will inform a full criminal investigation,” Smith and Spellings said.

“The safety and security of our students, faculty, and staff are paramount. And the actions last evening were unacceptable, dangerous, and incomprehensible,” the statement continued. “We are a nation of laws—and mob rule and the intentional destruction of public property will not be tolerated.”

The statement did not address what might happen to any protesters identified or what will ultimately become of the fallen statue, which was hauled away late Monday. On Tuesday, all that remained was the pedestal and mud where the protest had been staged.

The Republican leaders of the legislature, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger, issued prepared statements that also described the protesters’ actions as those of a mob. Their statements did not address whether the monument should go back up.

Moore, of Cleveland County, said those who toppled the statue should be prosecuted.

“There is no place for the destruction of property on our college campuses or in any North Carolina community; the perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted by public safety officials to make clear that mob rule and acts of violence will not be tolerated in our state,” Moore’s statement said.

Berger, of Rockingham County, suggested some politicians share blame.

“Many of the wounds of racial injustice that still exist in our state and country were created by violent mobs and I can say with certainty that violent mobs won’t heal those wounds,” Berger said. “Only a civil society that adheres to the rule of law can heal these wounds and politicians – from the Governor down to the local District Attorney – must start that process by ending the deceitful mischaracterization of violent riots as ‘rallies’ and reestablishing the rule of law in each of our state’s cities and counties.”

The legislature in 2015 passed a law making it difficult to relocate Silent Sam or any “object of remembrance” that sits on public property.

Sometime after 9:15 p.m. Monday, protesters managed to pull down the statue with ropes two hours into a march and protest. The demonstrators had taken banners on tall bamboo poles to the statue and shrouded it from view. The crowd surrounded the statue with police officers mostly keeping their distance from the perimeter.

Silent Sam, which was erected 105 years ago, was meant to honor alumni who fought in the Civil War. It was funded by alumni and Daughters of the Confederacy.

It has been the target of protesters and vandals for decades, but activity around the monument ramped up after last year’s deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Student activists, alumni, faculty and others have called for it to be removed, but UNC system and campus officials maintained that their hands were tied because of a 2015 state law that prevents moving historic monuments. Some alumni and others said the statue should remain in its spot as a part of history. A university panel had been developing a plan to erect signs and other information that would provide a more full context about the monument, including a speech made at the dedication by industrialist Julian Carr. In a statement that has been often repeated by protesters, Carr said: “I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”

Gov. Roy Cooper last year suggested UNC had the authority under the law to remove the statue to protect public safety. University lawyers disagreed, and nothing happened. The university never asked the N.C. Historical Commission to take up the issue, though Spellings, Folt, Cochrane and former Board of Governors Chair Lou Bissette wrote to Cooper in 2017 to suggest that avenue. The letter set off a majority of the members of the current UNC system board, including Smith, who chastised Spellings and Bissette about approaching the governor before conferring with the board.

UNC officials also never sought the relocation of the statue under another possible exception in the law. A UNC law professor suggested the state law on monuments allowed for a statue to be removed in order to protect it. Silent Sam has been vandalized repeatedly with spray paint, and last year a hammer wielded by a man who climbed the statue and beat it in the face. In April, a protester poured red ink and her own blood on the statue. The university has spent money to clean up the statue, install surveillance cameras and last year, $390,000 on police security.

Last year, former N.C. Deputy Attorney General Hampton Dellinger, representing the UNC Black Law Students Association and other UNC students, put the university on notice that students were prepared to sue in federal court if Silent Sam were not removed.

“Whether there will be any legal consequences for those involved in the toppling remains unclear but I’m certain that Silent Sam stood illegally,” Dellinger said in an emailed statement Tuesday.

Dellinger said the presence of the statue violated federal civil rights laws by creating “a racially hostile learning environment.”

“UNC officials were duty bound to remove it. They failed to and that’s a shame,” Dellinger said in the email. “It is hard to imagine in 2018 that an institution of higher learning would stoop so low as to host a Civil War monument in the middle of campus featuring a towering Confederate soldier with his rifle raised and his finger on the trigger. But that’s exactly what UNC was doing. It was not only wrong, it violated controlling federal law.”

Andrew Skinner, a 2018 graduate, arrived at Silent Sam shortly after protesters toppled the statue. He said the university would find it difficult politically to erect it again.

“They can put it back up, but now it’s down,” Skinner said. “They can put it back up that’s an action.”

Others said the protesters’ actions will only create problems for the university in the long run.

Recent UNC graduate Allyson Ford tweeted Tuesday that her university was “dumb,” adding, “violence is not the answer to your problems and it’s just going to fuel more problems and deepen the divide between a liberal student body in a vastly conservative state.”

The N.C. Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans issued a statement expressing “disgust and outrage” about what it called a celebration of anarchy. The group said UNC, “the People’s University, should suffer the consequences of turning its back on the people of North Carolina.”

Story by Jane Stancill with contributions from Lynn Bonner
News & Observer (Tribune News Service)

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