Day after protest, Silent Sam controversy continues at UNC-Chapel Hill

Posted August 23, 2017 1:15 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 11:19 a.m. EDT

— The day after 800 people gathered at McCorkle Place to demand the removal of the Silent Sam Confederate statue from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus, several protesters still sit at the base of the statue, determined to continue fighting.

"We are going to continue to stand here until Silent Sam is taken down," protester Mario Benavente said.

On Wednesday night, student organizations sent a statement to Chancellor Carol Folt, Gov. Roy Cooper, the UNC Board of Trustees and the North Carolina Historical Commission stating that the student community will continue to "act and flight every single day until Silent Sam is taken down-one way or another."

"The university's claims of prioritizing student safety and protection are deceptive. As the events of Charlottesville and Durham have shown, Confederate statues have become a symbol and rallying point for white supremacists, neo-Nazis and alt-right organizations," the statement read.

A student was arrested along with other protesters during the rally Tuesday night. At times, police had difficulty controlling the crowds as protesters chanted and marched for several hours, taking to Franklin Street and forcing the closure of the road, as officers dressed in riot gear guarded the monument.​

The statue was surrounded by two sets of barricades beginning Tuesday morning in an effort to prevent protesters getting close to it. The barricades were taken down Wednesday morning.

The barriers, combined with the fact that the statue is continually monitored by surveillance cameras, prompted many to state that Silent Sam is better protected than any student on the campus.

University officials said two people were arrested by campus police in connection with the protest. One man was arrested by Chapel Hill police and charged with wearing a mask on public property and resisting arrest- both misdemeanor charges.

Those were not affiliated with the university, UNC officials said.

Protestors pointed to this speech given at the statue's dedication in 1915. When a man named Julian Carr spoke to the crowd about the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon race and whipping a negro woman.

"A statue celebrating those who really wanted to enslave others," Benavente said.

Another person arrested was 19-year-old Claude Wilson, a UNC student who was taken into custody after officers said he retreated from the crowd and pushed away officers when he was told to move.

The crowd dwindled by about 10 p.m., although many protesters remained seated by the barricades around the statue late Tuesday night.

Some who attended the rally were calling for the statue to remain on the campus, including alumni Cheyenne Wiley, who said that the statue commemorated those who fought and died in the Civil War.

"I went to school here. Those 56 students joined the Confederacy for whatever reason. That's what the statue is here for," he said.

Much of the controversy stems from confusion over the legality of removing the monument.

Gov. Roy Cooper released a statement Monday, saying that UNC system officials have the authority to take immediate action if they believe the statue is posing a risk to public safety.

A spokesperson for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released a response on Tuesday, saying the university does not legally have authority to remove the statue from campus unless a building inspector concludes physical disrepair of the statue poses a threat to public safety.

"We continue to believe that removing the Confederate Monument is in the best interest of the safety of our campus, but the university can act only in accordance with the laws of the state of North Carolina," the statement read.

Speech: 1913 Unveiling of Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill

But protesters are still directing pressure on UNC Chancellor Carol Folt.

"I feel like Chancellor Folt, to me, has remained almost as Silent as Silent Sam on the issue," student Tahj Warren said.

In an interview with Education Matters, UNC System President Margaret Spellings touched on some of those issues, including a law passed in 2015.

"That does not give the university the power to remove those monuments and memorials, that is in the hands of the state historical commission and our state legislature," Spellings said.

Demonstrators held signs that read "No Trump, No KKK, No Racist USA" and "Stop pretending racism is patriotism."

"I would like to give the administration the opportunity to stand on the right side of history because I think they deserve that," Warren said. "But I am also prepared if they don't want to make the history happen, that's what I'm here for, that's what we're all here for."

The future of Silent Sam could involve the State Historical Commission. A request has been made to Governor Cooper to consider convening that commission.