Maya Little led the charge for anti-racism demonstrators, just as she has time and time again since covering UNC-Chapel Hill's Silent Sam with her own blood at a protest in May.
On Thursday night, the UNC graduate student's "charge" was more literal: Little found herself at the front of a crowd of more than a hundred protesters and journalists trailing a group of pro-Silent Sam demonstrators heading home from a "twilight service" honoring "our fallen boy soldier," who'd been toppled on August 20.
Those pro-Sam demonstrators, members of Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, a "Southern heritage" group better known by the acronym ACTBAC, had spent the night behind heavy iron barricades placed around the base of the statue-less monument. After arriving at about 7:45 p.m., they'd unfurled a massive Confederate flag, posed for pictures, and occasionally prayed. Mostly, they'd just eyed the horde of anti-Sam protesters just beyond the barricades.
The mood outside the barricades could hardly have posed a starker contrast to the reverence displayed within. The student group UNC Students of the Silent Sam Sit-in had organized a "Silence Sam Dance Party and Speakout" almost immediately after learning about ACTBAC's plan for a quiet night of remembrance, and speakers pumped out Fall Out Boy's angsty emo-punk, saccharine pop from Ke$ha, and Boots Riley and The Coup's anti-establishment hip-hop as protesters still energized from another triumph Saturday—when activists, expecting a potentially violent clash with militia types, instead booed away a rather pathetic group of about twenty Confederate flag enthusiasts—danced and shouted gleefully.
By the time police began moving ACTBAC demonstrators off-campus, however, those punchy choruses had yielded to a familiar indignation. "Go home, Nazis!" Little chanted with counter-protesters as they moved north. It was unclear if their cries were directed at the Confederate flag wavers or officers from Greensboro, who had maintained a defensive perimeter around the pro-Sam demonstrators all night and who were now surrounding them with a mobile wall of bicycles.
After a ten-minute march from the base of Silent Sam toward Franklin Street, cops funneled ACTBAC members into the parking lot of UNC's Morehead Planetarium and allowed them to disperse. The chanting of counter-protesters had grown to a roar.
Without warning, there was a hiss. Protesters and reporters staggered backward, coughing and wheezing and frantically wiping tears from their eyes. The more prepared among them produced bandanas to cover their faces. One videographer, a veteran of last year's rally at Charlottesville, pulled on a gas mask.
"Be brave!" yelled one protester, apparently indifferent to the "pepper fogger" that had been sprayed by police officers just a few feet away.
On Friday, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt declared her intention to find a new home for Silent Sam, somewhere besides the prominent McCorkle Place location the Confederate monument has called home since 1913.
"The Confederate Monument, known as Silent Sam, has been a focus of conflict for many decades," Folt wrote in a statement. "As the intensity of that conflict has accelerated, it has become apparent to all that the monument, displayed where it was, is extremely divisive and a threat to public safety and the day-to-day mission of the University."
She continued: "Three days ago, the UNC System Board of Governors gave the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and me a clear path to identify a safe, legal, and alternative location for Silent Sam. We are instructed to present our plan to them by November 15, 2018."
The announcement should have been a cause for celebration for Sam's opponents, but the actions of school officials since its fall have cast a pall over the festivities. Indeed, the Board of Trustees appears to have pushed the limits of at least one state law in crafting its response to Sam's toppling, and the Board of Governors might have outright broken another.
- Photo by Cole Villena
- Cops await the dueling protests on Thursday.
The Daily Tar Heel reported last week that, during a conference call regarding plans for the statue's future, the Board of Trustees asked UNC student body president Savannah Putnam to dismiss herself over a supposed conflict of interest that did not, in fact, exist. Conflict of interest laws are designed to prevent board members from voting in ways that benefit themselves financially; Putnam has merely offered public statements calling for the statue's removal. (Student body presidents are defined as ex officio Board of Trustees and Board of Governors members and are typically allowed to be present even in sessions in which they cannot vote.)
In addition, the November 15 deadline for a decision on Sam's future was also instituted via a Board of Governors resolution written behind closed doors—a possible violation of state law that prohibits such resolutions from being crafted in closed session except in a few specific cases.
Meanwhile, the Board of Governors has seen Thom Goolsby emerge as its most outspoken pro-Sam member. The Wilmington-based lawyer has posted several videos decrying the manner of Sam's removal to his personal YouTube and Twitter accounts, concluding that the statue was downed by outside agitators, not students, and must be replaced by UNC officials.
"We will do all we can ... to see to it that the perpetrators are punished, that justice is sought for their felonious criminal acts," he said in one video. "Also, please be aware that N.C. Statute 100-2.1 requires that the Silent Sam memorial be placed back on the campus within ninety days of it being pulled down."
That law regulates the replacement of "objects of remembrance" that were temporarily relocated by legal means—for example, to make way for construction or for their own preservation. Silent Sam was clearly not removed from its pedestal for its own preservation. That distinction, as UNC law professor Eric Muller wrote in The News & Observer, is critical: Because Sam was taken down illegally, the state is under no obligation to put him back up.
"If [Silent Sam] once again is to stand his northward-facing vigil against invading Union forces trying to take away the right of a state to let one human being own another, that will be because the Board of Governors wants him there," he wrote. "Not because the law requires it."
Goolsby hasn't let that slow him down. He posted his own "play-by-play documentation of the toppling of the Boy Soldier Monument" to YouTube on August 30, in it calling bandanas worn by anti-racism protesters "reminiscent of the Klan" and condemning UNC and Chapel Hill police for allowing "mayhem" to ensue on UNC's campus on August 20.
While it's true that texts from Chapel Hill police chief Chris Blue to officers at the Silent Sam site on August 20 show directives to give protesters "lots of space," it's also true that zero injuries were reported that night.
Folt had avoided speaking directly about the statue's future before Friday. The dueling protests on Thursday night seem to have forced her hand.
Within twenty-four hours, she'd decided that "Silent Sam has a place in our history and on our campus where its history can be taught, but not at the front door of a safe, welcoming, proudly public research university." The pro-Sam demonstrators—who had found themselves outnumbered and surrounded by raucous attendees of the Silence Sam Dance Party—had lost.
Theirs was not a complete defeat, however. The entire point of their twilight service was to "respectfully, calmly, and honorably show remembrance to Silent Sam," and widely circulated footage of ACTBAC demonstrators enduring all manner of verbal abuse from anti-Sam counter-protestors can only have served to energize Sam's defenders.
"God bless you brave people for standing up to those wicked degenerate hate mongers of the left," wrote one commenter on an ACTBAC Facebook post summing up the night's events. "This is what it's going to take to win this fight; to show up in strong numbers to counter their lies and deception."
There are three important things to note about Thursday's protest. The first is that there was no direct violence between ACTBAC and anti-racism counter-protesters. The second is that the cops were protecting the pro-Sam contingent because they were demonstrating legally; UNC doesn't require permits for such gatherings. The third is that police officers deployed pepper spray against nonviolent counter-protesters and journalists at least two additional times.
Reports later suggested the cops who deployed it were members of Greensboro's Civil Emergency Unit. Officers from at least five law-enforcement agencies, including UNC-Wilmington police and the Orange County Sheriff's Office, were also at McCorkle Place that night.
The last look protesters got at cops on Thursday, though, was that of a group of Chapel Hill officers outside Graham Memorial Hall. The building had been used as a holding area for the night's three arrestees and, after clearing a path for their extraction down Franklin Street, CHPD officers moved back toward their holding area and slowly backed up a flight of stairs.
A group of fewer than forty anti-Sam protesters remained by this point, neither dancing nor chanting as loudly as they had earlier. By 11:00 p.m., most had left. Given the use of riot control weapons against peaceful protesters and the pro-Sam rhetoric coming from at least one member of the Board of Governors, most figured there'd be more to yell about tomorrow.