The controversy over “Silent Sam,” the Confederate monument on UNC’s Chapel Hill campus, has been raging for decades. But it appears to be approaching a critical point this year as students, faculty, staff and community members push for removal of the statue in the wake of deadly white supremacist violence at the University of Virginia.
At a rally on campus Tuesday and a UNC Board of Trustees meeting Thursday, those who oppose the statue again called for its removal and decried the recently revealed UNC Police operation that infiltrated the protest movement using an undercover officer.
UNC History Professor William Sturkey spoke at a rally on campus Tuesday, saying the undercover operation undercut the central values of the university.
“We’re here today because police officers not only infiltrated student protesters who were exercising that right to free speech, but they actually misrepresented themselves and lied to those students they were supposed to be there to protect,” Sturkey said. “Those students were told that state law prohibited the university from taking down the monument because there did not appear to be an obvious threat to student safety – yet student groups were infiltrated because of ‘concern about students getting caught in the middle of violent conflict similar to that in Charlottesville.’”
“The logic here is that the monument is not dangerous enough to remove, but it is dangerous enough to infiltrate peaceful protesters despite the fact that they already had uniformed officers at the statue,” Sturkey said. “So, that’s either one of two things. Either it’s a failed logic – not a flawed logic but a failed logic – or it’s quite simply a lie.”
Sturkey said the revelation of the police operation is part of a much larger problem on campus that seems to be getting worse.
“This is just one component of a current campus environment where police lie, campus administrators dodge questions and refuse to directly engage students with straight answers, politicians and administrators issue politically-based statements that only serve to mislead and divide and various boards who govern our campus remove institutions and programs for political reasons,” Sturkey said.
With campus administrators and UNC system officials apparently unwilling to provide strong, principled leadership, Sturkey said, students have moved to fill that void.
One such student is Mya Robertson, a Public Health graduate student who was one of many to speak regarding Silent Sam at a public comment session before UNC’s Board of Trustees Wednesday morning.
“You may be tempted to call me a coddled millennial, and that is fine,” Robertson said. “But I am human, I am black, and I am fed up.”
“I am reminded every day that this institution was built by people like me and not for people like me,” Robertson said. “If it was up to the people that Silent Sam represents, I would be counted as three-fifths of a human and would be shackled.”
Heather Ahn-Redding, who has been active in the movement to remove Silent Sam, unfurled a Confederate flag before the board members Wednesday. Seeing visible discomfort, Redding said that was appropriate – as is the discomfort felt by people of color when confronted with Silent Sam on campus.
“In today’s climate, where white supremacists don suits rather than hoods and march proudly in our communities, you cannot afford to yield to political or financial pressure in your roles at this institution,” Redding said.
“The stakes are too high,” she said.
A few alumni of the university defended Silent Sam during the session.
“I do not believe it expresses racism,” said UNC alumna Eunice Brock. “Silent Sam was sponsored and money raised by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the university and the citizens of this state as a monument to honor the 321 university alumni who died in the Civil War. What good would it actually accomplish if it is torn down? It represents a part of history which is both good and bad. It cannot be erased.”
But an overwhelming number of speakers – students, faculty, staff and alumni – condemned the statue, the UNC Police undercover operation and the unwillingness of the Board of Trustees and UNC Chancellor Carol Folt to act.
“The courage to stand by our most fundamental values will be remembered forever,” UNC Economics Professor Buck Goldstein told the board.
“Your hands are tied only if you tie them,” he said.
Over the summer Gov. Roy Cooper urged the university to move the statue. Though a 2015 law prohibits the movement of “objects of remembrance,” Cooper maintains that safety concerns would allow for the removal.
But Folt and the university’s Board of Trustees have declined to do so, citing the law. The UNC Board of Governors and the GOP leadership of the North Carolina General Assembly have warned the university and its administration against taking action on the statue and condemned administrators for even talking to Cooper, a Democrat, about the issue.
Folt said she urged the Board of Trustees to hear the growing concern at Wednesday’s meeting and assured those who spoke that their words did not fall on deaf ears.
“I wanted them to hear the caring, the humane, the thoughtful, the terrified, the angry,” Folt said. “The full scope of voices that we are hearing every day. We said we were going to listen and truly that is our intention – to truly hear.”