On Monday evening, UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student Jerry Wilson hung a noose around his neck and vowed not to remove it until Silent Sam—the campus’s 105-year-old monument to students who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War—came down. At a rally called “Until They All Fall,” he encouraged the mostly white crowd of 150 to reflect on the university’s history of institutional racism.
“If the act of wearing a noose around my neck seems extreme, then I encourage you to reflect upon the violent ideology of white supremacy to which Silent Sam is a monument,” Wilson said. “I also encourage you to consider the psychological violence enacted upon black students and its physical manifestations.”
Wilson didn’t have to wait long.
Silent Sam came tumbling down a couple of hours later, yanked from its foundation by a group of protesters whose cheers drowned out the sound of hundreds of pounds of metal hitting the ground. Students and alumni flooded social media with reactions to the monument’s collapse, most of them expressing relief that it was finally gone.
“About damn time!” tweeted former UNC basketball star Brice Johnson. “Good riddance.”
Silent Sam’s presence on UNC’s north quad has caused headaches for university administrators since at least 1965, when the first calls for its removal rang throughout the campus. Opposition to the statue intensified following last August’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and the subsequent fall of Durham’s Confederate monument. A similar protest to the one Monday kicked off a round-the-clock sit-in at the statue; statements of condemnation from students, faculty, and entire departments; and the emergence of an anonymous faculty group that said it would remove the statue itself if university chancellor Carol Folt didn’t. According to a July report in The News & Observer, UNC spent $390,000 on security for the statue last year alone.
Police mostly stood by during and immediately after Sam’s fall, allowing students and demonstrators to rush the fallen statue, spit on it, take pictures of it, and begin a short-lived effort to bury it. A perimeter was eventually created around the statue, but the demonstration remained mostly peaceful and resulted in only one arrest, when a man refused to take off a mask and was arrested for resisting arrest. Officers might have had more to do if a storm hadn’t blown through shortly after Sam came down; by midnight, the statue had been carted off campus in a dump truck to an unknown location.
With the infamous statue’s pedestal now empty, it remains to be seen what happens next.
“Will the legislature and Board of Governors be quietly happy students solved this problem for them—the smart answer,” tweeted UNC journalism professor John Robinson, the former editor of the Greensboro News & Record, “or will they be angry and seek retribution?”
Judging by the statements blasted out almost as soon as Silent Sam came down, the latter seems more likely.
“Tonight’s actions were dangerous,” UNC said in a statement, “and we are very fortunate that no one was injured. We are investigating the vandalism and assessing the full extent of the damage.”
Chancellor Folt echoed that sentiment an email sent to students, faculty, and staff early Tuesday morning, acknowledging that the statue’s presence “has been a source of frustration not only on our campus but throughout the community” but calling the manner of its removal “unlawful and dangerous.”
Republican lawmakers—from Senate leader Phil Berger to House Speaker Tim Moore, Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest of NCGOP executive director Dallas Woodhouse—issued statements bemoaning “lawlessness” and “mob rule,” with Berger all but equating the protesters to lynch mobs.
Even the office of Governor Cooper—who a year ago said “these monuments should come down” and who gave UNC officials the green light to remove Silent Sam if its presence posed a “real risk to public safety”—released a statement thanking law enforcement and UNC officials for keeping protesters safe. However: “The Governor understands that many people are frustrated by the pace of change and he shares their frustration, but violent destruction of public property has no place in our communities.”
In a statement posted on Facebook Tuesday, Forest complained that the demonstrators had effectively short-circuited the state’s legal process: “Today, a Committee was scheduled to discuss next steps on Silent Sam and other historical monuments. Instead, a mob took matters into their own hands, throwing to the wind the rule of law.”
Actually, that meeting of the N.C. Historical Commission Confederate Monuments Study Committee was scheduled for Wednesday, not Tuesday. And its existence is a reminder of the law the GOP legislature enacted in 2015, following the massacre in a Charleston church that prompted South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from its Capitol, to effectively ensure that Confederate monuments would remain on public grounds in North Carolina in perpetuity.
That law says that monuments can only be relocated from public property with the permission of the N.C. Historical Commission, and only then temporarily or to a place of “similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access” that is not “a museum, cemetery, or mausoleum.”
There are other restrictions, too: So-called objects of remembrance can be relocated by the state or a local government to “preserve the object” or “when necessary for construction, renovation, or reconfiguration of buildings, open spaces, parking, or transportation projects”; or when a building inspector or “similar official” determines that the object “poses a threat to public safety because of an unsafe or dangerous condition.”
It was that thin reed that Cooper wanted UNC officials to exploit last year. Likely fearing legislators’ wrath, UNC officials declined. Silent Sam wasn’t going anywhere. The law ensured that—until, that is, the students took the law into their own hands.
Cooper has also asked the commission to relocate three Confederate monuments on the state Capitol grounds to the Bentonville battlefield, which he says is both necessary to preserve them and is a site of equal prominence. Lawmakers, unsurprisingly, argue that the commission has no authority to relocate the monuments, even to shield them from vandals.
On Tuesday afternoon, Eugene Scott, a reporter with The Washington Post and UNC alum, poignantly observed that those who most vociferously objected to Sam’s removal seem to lack the context needed to understand why the monument was so offensive to so many.
“As I tweeted the news about the destruction of Silent Sam, I was greeted with much pushback,” he wrote. “Some people seemed to question the very fact that enslaved black people helped build the university and wanted names of those involved as proof. Others protested the method in which Silent Sam was removed, cautioning against the spread of anarchy and advocating for confidence in the state legislature’s process to remove similar memorials. … Based on the Twitter photos and bios of those objecting to my tweet, I’m guessing none of these individuals knows what it is like to be a descendant of black people who were enslaved in North Carolina and to be studying on a campus that repeatedly honored those who supported that very enslavement. I do.
“And for me, my main hope is that future Tar Heels who look like me—and who look nothing like me—can complete their college education in an environment that does not include a statue that was dedicated with a KKK supporter recounting how he ‘horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds.’ For those most concerned about honoring Southern culture, there has to be a way to do so without continuing to romanticize the dehumanizing abuse of some of the people who have made some of the most significant contributions—and sacrifices—to the South.”
The same argument could be made for the three Confederate monuments on the Capitol grounds—or the roughly 120 other participation trophies in North Carolina honoring a treasonous insurrection fought for the right to perpetuate chattel slavery.