Say you’re a university official or municipal leader grappling with a Confederate memorial in your town. What’s the best plan of action, given the strong emotions the statue probably raises?
For what not to do, look no further than the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There, for over a year, university officials and state leaders failed to take any action on Silent Sam, the bronze Confederate soldier that stood in a prominent spot on the university system’s flagship campus. Finally, on Aug. 20, students toppled the statue themselves, but heated protests have continued at the site, with neo-Confederate groups making repeated visits. At least 26 people have been arrested in the past six weeks, the Daily Tar Heel reported, and demonstrations have repeatedly bordered on outright violence. Nonetheless, officials still haven’t announced what they plan to do with the fallen memorial.
None of this has been accidental. North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature, the university system’s board of governors and the campus’ chancellor and board of trustees have deliberately elected to do nothing, largely in an effort, many said, to appeal to the Republican Party’s base, which supports the statue’s continued presence. In the process, state and university leaders have, intentionally or not, empowered alt-right groups looking to use the memorial to recruit supporters.
The Silent Sam statue has been the focus of protests since the 1960s, but it gained particular prominence in 2015 after then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley removed the Confederate flag from the state capitol following the Charleston murders of nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church. That summer, in response, Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County — a neo-Confederate organization listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and based in the county next door to where UNC is located — was formed, and members held at least two demonstrations at Silent Sam.
In 2017, students and activists began trying in earnest to have the statue — the only Confederate memorial on any of the university system’s 17 campuses — removed. They held rallies, a sit-in and a boycott, and spoke against it at university meetings. In April, a graduate student splashed paint and her own blood on the statue as a protest. Faculty members submitted their views and analyses of the statue’s significance, uniformly agreeing it should be removed to maintain a sense of welcome on the campus. But UNC leaders didn’t reply. In particular, chancellor Carol Folt, the head of UNC-Chapel Hill, failed to say a word about the statue’s origins or its meaning as an monument to white supremacy.
“She hasn’t responded,” Altha Cravey, a professor of geography at UNC who has actively opposed Silent Sam for years, said in an interview with Mic. “All along, she’s refused to meet with activists, refused to engage with the expert statements from the departments of geography, history, art and art history.”
That’s despite the fact that according to its Southern studies webpage, UNC is “the world’s best-equipped institution to study the American South,” and that its scholars are able to put the statue in historical context. Instead, university leaders dispersed the sit-in, shut down the boycott, ignored dissenters and spent almost $400,000 on security for the statue. Students say a UNC police officer even tried to infiltrate their group in an effort to surveil them.
University leaders claimed they were simply following the law. In 2015, in response to South Carolina taking down the Confederate flag, the North Carolina legislature passed a bill prohibiting the removal of any memorial on public land unless it was relocated to “a site of similar prominence.” The bill contains a caveat in cases where public safety is threatened, and Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, thought the exception could be invoked in this situation; UNC police did in fact believe the statue had become a potential danger. But Folt said she didn’t think it applied in this case.
Which might have been true. Or it might’ve been a useful pretext. After all, Folt answers to the UNC Board of Governors, which had become notoriously politicized following Republicans’ 2010 takeover of the state House and Senate. In 2017, a new wave of members — nominated and elected by the conservative legislature — moved the board even further rightward. Rather than simply overseeing chancellors’ activity on its campuses, the group was micromanaging the system in an unprecedented way. And UNC-Chapel Hill, with its liberal faculty and student body, has been a particular target.
“The far right side is intent on gaining power; they don’t care about the cost,” Verla Insko, who represents Chapel Hill in the NC House of Representatives and cosponsored a bill this year to relocate Silent Sam, said in an interview with Mic. “Everything is subordinate to that goal.”
The bill went nowhere. Indeed, Republicans in the state have used whatever tools they can access — gerrymandered electoral maps, special legislative sessions, proposed amendments to the state constitution — to further their agenda. And as agents of the Republicans, the Board of Governors was doing the same thing. Morality aside, there was little to be gained by the party in power in taking down Silent Sam. A recent poll by the conservative Civitas Institute found nearly 75% of North Carolina Republicans were against the statue’s removal. And so the state legislature, Board of Governors and university chancellor did nothing.
For some, that may have derived from respect for the past; for others, that stance has more racist roots.
“They hate to admit it, but there’s a significant portion of the Republican base that’s alt-right,” Thomas Mills, a political analyst who runs the Politics North Carolina blog, said in an interview with Mic.
It’s unsurprising, then, that students and activists wound up being the ones to finally take Silent Sam down. In the process, however, the statue has turned into a symbol of martyrdom for far-right heritage groups like ACTBAC. A few days after it was torn down, a protest featuring pro- and anti-Confederate memorial groups occurred at the marble pedestal that still stands, and on Aug. 30, ACTBAC held a “twilight service.”
A week later, the New Confederate States of America, another heritage group, held an evening prayer service there. These organizations have been noted on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website as hate groups, and emboldening them is bad enough. But white nationalist groups, which are always seeking new members and new ways to spin their message, are also using the Silent Sam issue to gain a toehold with less-radical neo-Confederate groups. Megan Squire, a computer science professor at nearby Elon University who meticulously collects and analyzes data on white nationalists, has been closely watching the Silent Sam protests.
“The ‘alt-right’ or ‘hard right’ are using this Silent Sam toppling, like they did with Charlottesville monument relocation, as a rallying point,” she said. “They’re constantly talking about how to do outreach to the ‘alt lite’ — heritage groups, militias, conservatives — who might be flipped to their cause.”
The Silent Sam issue fits right in: it’s a very divisive topic that’s easily spun into a message about how white culture is being destroyed, thanks in part to radical professors and “snowflake” students.
And it’s worked. Members of white supremacy groups like the League of the South, Identity Dixie, the Three Percenters and the Carolina Defenders National Nomads have been spotted at demonstrations, as have protesters who were present at Charlottesville’s deadly Unite the Right rally, and others bearing tattoos representing Nazism and the Aryan Brotherhood. Student activists and professors have complained of being threatened by white nationalists and others from the far right.
But until Aug. 31, Folt had never acknowledged the racist groups that had been unleashed by the statue’s lingering presence and unlawful fall. That day, following a protest in which neo-Confederates and anti-racism activists clashed and the police used pepper spray, Folt gave a public statement acknowledging that the statue, which is currently in an undisclosed location, needs to be moved.
Faculty members greeted the message with relief; Board of Governors members criticized it. But it wasn’t particularly controversial.
“We need to respect that, apart from the anger and hatred that has been expressed, there are different meanings attached to this monument by different people in our communities,” Folt said in the statement.
Her point is undoubtedly true. But as the only comment she’s made about Silent Sam’s divisiveness, it’s remarkably equivocating, with echoes of Trump’s comment that there were “very fine people on both sides“ present at the Charlottesville rally.
What happens now is anyone’s guess; UNC officials and the Board of Trustees are keeping discussions determinedly private, conversing in small groups to skirt disclosure rules that cover public meetings. The UNC Board of Governors has given Folt and her Board of Trustees until Nov. 15 to decide what to do about the fallen statue. That’s conveniently after the election, which could result in Democrats regaining the majority. In that case, they might repeal the restrictive 2015 monuments law. At the very least, it means Republicans won’t pay at the polls for moving the statue — which observers think they’ll eventually have to do.
“There’s a good chance they’ll figure out a way not to put Sam back on his pedestal,” Mills, the political analyst, said. “At some point, it’s probably going make them uncomfortable, because it’s not going to stop; people aren’t going to stop protesting.”
But that’s still six weeks away. Now that the devastation left by Hurricane Florence is finally being addressed, it’s likely there will soon be more protests, and eventually, someone may get hurt. If that occurs, the blame will lie squarely on the state legislature, the Board of Governors and chancellor Folt and her Board of Trustees. Like Trump, they’ve cynically raised the forces of racism and ugliness for their own political purposes, and they are now accountable for whatever happens next.