Photo by Will Huntsberry
Rev. William Barber, speaking in front of Silent Sam in 2013
No one—including UNC’s chancellor and the evening’s moderator—was terribly surprised by the early interruption of Thursday night’s “Town Hall on Race and Inclusion” at UNC by a group of protesters. They had invited the media the night before.
But what may have surprised and even dismayed many was the protesters’ persistence.
It began with around 65 marching UNC students, almost all of them black, announcing their arrival to Memorial Hall from about a block away on Cameron Avenue.
“We ready! We coming!” they chanted until they got to the entrance, as a drummer pounded away. Once inside, they gathered near stage right, and waited. Chancellor Carol Folt had just introduced Chicago Tribune columnist and TV pundit Clarence Page
, the evening’s moderator. As he was about to begin his opening remarks, he was cut off by a call-and-response chant.
June Beshea, president of the Real Silent Sam Coalition,
grabbed a microphone and announced the release of a list of demands to combat anti-blackness on UNC’s campus.
“So right now, we’re going to read those demands out,” she told the audience, “and you’re gonna stay here and you’re gonna listen, because we have things we have to say.”
That list included items that elicited big applause from the audience, including a demand to remove the Silent Sam confederate memorial from campus
and for the immediate firing of new system president Margaret Spellings. (You can read the full list here.
Student coalition leaders then read lists of similar demands from students at the University of Missouri, the University of Cape Town and from black UNC students in 1968. “It happens there, it happens here,” protesters repeated in unison. That brought groans from the audience as it continued, and it made Page a little testy, too. But the demonstrators continued until they were done. WTVD ABC11 later reported that the interruption took "more than an hour," but it only lasted 25 minutes and 36 seconds.
With another chant of “Whose university? OUR university!” the protesters marched outside to meet the press.
Beshea, along with fellow coalition leaders Charity Lackey, Christina Perkins and Zakyree Wallace, took questions from the small group near the front steps. She said that recent student protests at Mizzou and the University of Cape Town were inspirational.
“We decided that today was the day,” she said. “We don’t think that town halls, placating motions like that are going to be enough for us.”
“Why not stay for the event?” a reporter asked.
“We’ve had this conversation a thousand times,” said Beshea. “We reached out to the administration more times than I’d like to admit.”
“They want to have this because they’re afraid about Missouri,” she continued. “They’re afraid about their own jobs. They’re afraid about their salaries. This is about them reacting to something that happened somewhere else in the country—not reacting to us.”
Another catalyst for the night’s demonstration was the recent campus presence of pro-confederate protesters, organized on Facebook to rally around the Silent Sam monument.
Beshea said that her coalition had originally planned to stay away, but other students approached movement leaders and made it clear they wanted to do something. So they went.
“I was instantly just amazed,” said Beshea. “The support was great from the people around us. They were very excited to stand in solidarity with us.”
But then “the Confederate people” came up from the Morehead Planetarium parking lot.
“The police made a path for them to walk through us,” says Beshea, “and go around the monument, when they just as easily could have taken the route directly to that.”
That’s the thing she said she’ll never forget: “[The police] pushed us out of the way, to make space for these people.”
asked Folt about that encounter at a small press conference after the event. Was she too accommodating to confederate ralliers?
“We’re a public university. These are public spaces,” she answered. “And I don’t have any control to keep people out of public spaces. But what I do have is the responsibility to make sure that it’s safe when people do come in.”
But what about Beshea’s account of being pushed aside by police to let pro-confederate marchers through?
“I know that the intent of the police—I wasn’t watching that particular part of it—was to basically make it possible for people to walk through,” said Folt, “but to protect the students that were on the outside.”
She added that police were successful in keeping the situation “contained” in one area, so that it didn’t spread elsewhere into campus. Folt then responded to another question about whether recent events at Mizzou had anything to do with this forum.
“You know, it really didn’t,” she said.
Afterward, a group of young women chanting “No more silence, no more violence!” marched past Memorial Hall, holding “Take Back the Night @ Chapel Hill”
There were a lot of drumbeats on Cameron Avenue Thursday night.