On Wednesday afternoon students at UNC-Chapel Hill will leave their classes for a day of protest action at the foot of the campus’ Wilson Library.
The move comes after what students say has been months of antagonism and brutality from police toward anti-racist protesters while white supremacist and neo-Confederate groups have been shown deference – even when carrying guns on campus.
The tensions began well before the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument was toppled by protesters last August. It has continued as the UNC Board of Governors considers the future of the statue and some of its members insist it must be returned to campus.
But students say the situation became intolerable last month. That’s when, on March 16, members of the group “Heirs to the Confederacy” walked through campus with weapons – at least one with a handgun – while anti-racist protesters were gathering at McCorkle Place, the former site of the monument.
Lance Spivey, a Randolph County man who is a co-founder of the Heirs to the Confederacy group, was among them. He was photographed carrying a camouflaged pistol on his hip.
The previous week Spivey had written a widely circulated blog post in which he angrily recounted a previous rally at UNC and wrote at length about the threat of Muslims, undocumented immigrants and “foreign invaders.”
“I am willing to die for what I believe,” Spivey wrote. “I am more so ready to kill for it.”
He called for the use of “excessive violence” toward protesters if police did not “do their jobs” and protect neo-Confederate groups.
He needn’t have worried, say student organizers. Despite the carrying of firearms on campus being a felony, no arrests were made. The group was politely informed of the campus boundaries and police were photographed shaking hands with them.
That’s in sharp contrast to the way they have treated unarmed anti-racist protesters for more than a year now, said Lindsay Ayling, a PhD student in UNC’s History department.
“When we had a canned food drive, the police confiscated the canned food and claimed it could be used as a weapon,” Ayling said. “Unarmed people have been punched, thrown to the ground and pepper sprayed. The police have then testified that they were assaulting them and there’s video showing that isn’t true.”
Asked for comment about those allegations, UNC Police referred this week to previous administration statements.
But earlier this month UNC Police Chief Jeff McCracken, who is retiring in July, fired back at student activists in a guest column in the campus newspaper, The Daily Tarheel.
McCracken wrote that his officers responded to the armed Heirs to the Confederacy group as soon as they were made aware of the situation, escorting them from campus and “trespassing” the member who had a gun in plain sight.
In the column McCracken, whose department has come under criticism from both sides of the political aisle since the toppling of Silent Sam, said he could no longer stand by “while the good men and women of the University’s Police Department are assaulted, both literally and figuratively.”
McCracken ended the column with a broad criticism of the protest movement at UNC-Chapel hill.
“These intentional, slanderous fabrications are an attempt to recruit for a cause that for some may have begun as an anti-racism campaign,” McCracken wrote, “but has now devolved into a concerted effort focused on the opposition to, and destruction of, all forms of campus authority. ”
That language echoes the sentiments of some of the most conservative members of the UNC Board of Governors. In discussions of the growing protest movement, the board has increasingly framed the issue as a question of whether authority, order and the rule of law will be maintained or devolve into “mob rule.”
Critics, however, reject this explanation. Ayling, for instance, says the racist and neo-Confederate groups have received “kid gloves” treatment (at least compared to the way anti-racist protesters have been dealt with) and that it has emboldened them.
Ayling points to a disturbing series of racist incidents over the last month, all tied to the same neo-Confederate groups and their allies.
Two weeks after police failed to arrest anyone from the neo-Confederate group that carried guns onto campus, the Unsung Founders Memorial, which honors the slaves who built the university, was defaced with what the university called “racist and other deplorable language.” Racist language was also found scrawled on a vandalized installation outside the Hanes Art Center.
Ayling was informed that vulgar insults against she and Maya Little, both prominent activists on campus, were part of the vandalism.
Police initially said they believed suspects in the case were connected to the Heirs of the Confederacy group. Its leaders denied they were involved.
On Sunday, April 3, a custom UNC System flag valued at more than $600 was stolen from the system office on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. The thieves took the flag down and ran up a Confederate flag in its place, the system office confirmed.
Later that day Nancy Rushton McCorkle, a 50-year old South Carolina woman who is a co-founder of Heirs to the Confederacy, was photographed brandishing the stolen flag at a protest with Ryan Barnett, a 31-year-old Sanford man active in protesting the removal of Confederate statues in the state.
On April 9 police arrested McCorkle and Barnett in connection with the vandalism of the Unsung Founders memorial and the theft of the flag. Both were charged with vandalism causing damage to real property and ethnic intimidation. Sanford was also charged with public urination.
Despite these repeated, demonstrable criminal acts, Ayling said, everyone from the police to UNC administration and the UNC Board of Governors have continued to discount the threat of racist groups while comparing anti-racist student protesters to terrorists.
By repeatedly extending the deadline for a plan on the future of the Silent Sam Confederate monument, Ayling said, the UNC Board of Governors is also fanning the flames of pro-Confederate sentiment. Groups like Heirs to the Confederacy believe they need to keep the pressure on until the statue is returned, she said.
By continuing to consider a plan for a UNC System “mobile force platoon” at a cost of more than $2 million, Ayling said, the Board of Governors is also emboldening racist groups who cheer as student protesters are arrested with force and frequency that is already out of line.
“I think it would be incredibly damaging if it went through,” Ayling said of the proposal. “We’ve already had problems with militarized police. Creating a militarized police force across the UNC system is dystopian.”
James Sadler, a PhD student in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education, agreed. He also said he isn’t impressed by this week’s announcement of a “Campus Safety Commission” by Interim UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.
“If you look at the list of people on this commission, it doesn’t have a lot of the people who have been directly affected by actions on campus and people who have helped organize protest movements over the last few months,” Sadler said. “It seems like an effort to create a perception that something is being done without actually including those people.”
The truth, Sadler said, is that the interim chancellor could unilaterally take a number of steps this week to improve the situation on campus without convening a commission for months of meetings.
Sadler points to the six demands made by the student movement in its announcement of Wednesday’s walk-out protest, most of which deal with methods of campus policing within the chancellor’s power to alter.
While the administration and Board of Governors don’t offer much hope for immediate change, Sadler said, he believes that a consensus among students, staff and faculty is building that the policing of student speech and complicity with racist groups is intolerable.
Members of the School of Education released a statement supporting Wednesday’s walk-out, Sadler points out. And a group of UNC faculty and staff have begun a group called Unsafe at UNC which has been documenting violence and police misconduct on campus.
“The wider community is starting to take a more critical look at policing on campus that wasn’t quite there even in December,” Sadler said. “I think having these neo-Confederate groups brings guns to our campus, it has definitely led to a wider push on this.”
“The barriers that are faced in the progress we want to see system wide are large,” Sadler said. “But I don’t think that’s going to stop anybody pushing for a safer campus community.”