Institutional Cowardice: Why Won’t UNC Remove the Silent Sam Statue to Protect its Students?

Politics Features Confederate Statues
Institutional Cowardice: Why Won’t UNC Remove the Silent Sam Statue to Protect its Students?

At the 1913 dedication ceremony for “Silent Sam,” the statue of a confederate soldier that stands on the campus of the University of North Carolina, facing Chapel Hill’s main street, a southern industrialist and Confederate apologist Julian Carr gave a speech in which he recounted the time he beat the shit out of a black woman while federal soldiers looked on and did nothing:

“I trust I may be pardoned for one allusion, howbeit it is rather personal. One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomatox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern Lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.”

As has been well-documented in the past week, the vast majority of Confederate statues and monuments erected across the south came not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but rather at times of racial strain. Their true purpose was intimidation, not remembrance. And in the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy, they have started to come down—in Baltimore, by an overnight act of government; in Durham, by the will of the people; at Duke University, by the decision of university administrators.

And yet, Silent Sam still stands. The nominal reason, at least until recently, stemmed from the fact that UNC-Chapel Hill is a public university, and the Republican legislature of North Carolina saw this coming from a mile away. Nick Martin at Deadspin chronicled exactly how the state GOP prepared to stymie any attempts to remove Confederate monuments, and Silent Sam in particular, describing the party as “batshit crazy and frustratingly efficient at getting what it wants.” Martin writes:

The most recent bill to become suddenly, magically applicable to the current trending national storyline comes in the form of Senate Bill 22, a state law passed in 2015, with the following becoming law with the stroke of then-governor Pat McCrory’s pen:

“a monument, memorial, or work of art owned by the State may not be removed, relocated, or altered in any way without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission”

The law was drafted in response to the Silent Sam statue that still stands tall on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus, as some folks wanted (and still want to) tear the fucker down. The bill was praised by Republican members of the House, even in the light of simultaneously occurring Charleston tragedy, with the conservative group claiming that it was doing the right thing by not allowing citizens the easy way out and ignoring history.

Somewhat amazingly, they even foresaw the centrist compromise approach: Put them in a museum. The law reads:

“An object of remembrance may not be relocated to a museum, cemetery, or mausoleum unless it was originally placed at such a location.”

So, at least in theory, UNC’s options were limited in a way that Duke’s, as a private institution, were not.

Then, on Monday, as the debate was heating up, Gov. Roy Cooper—a Democrat who narrowly defeated the incumbent Pat McCrory last November, due largely to the latter’s bungling management of the infamous HB2—responded to a letter from UNC officials, citing “significant safety and security threats,” with the following:

“Other university leaders have taken decisive actions in recent days. If our University leaders believe there is real risk to public safety, the law allows them to take immediate measures.”

Cooper was citing an exception to the 2015 state law. So, let’s summarize:

1. In the initial letter, UNC officials wrote that recent activism “threatens to make similar statues a flash point for violence that could spiral out of control and threaten the safety of our students and campus community” and that “campus and law enforcement are concerned that a student or other bystander could be seriously injured in any confrontation at the site.”

2. Cooper essentially said, “if you really believe that, you can take it down.”

So why the hell aren’t they?

Since that exchange, the situation in Chapel Hill has only intensified. Last night, a large rally was held in which police in riot gear formed a protective cordon around the statue, and three demonstrators were arrested. At one point, protesters tried to block a police van with one of the arrested parties inside, there were pushing matches in the crowd, and police had to “physically remove” protesters who sat on the sidewalk. Before the event, UNC told students who didn’t want to be involved to stay away from the area, and as tensions rose throughout the night, it’s remarkable that nobody sustained any injuries. The next time, odds are, they will.

But instead of protecting its students, UNC is taking the path of least resistance, and refusing to act on Cooper’s permission. Here’s a portion of the statement they released on Monday:

“Governor Cooper cites a provision where removal would be permitted if a ‘building inspector’ concludes that physical disrepair of a statue threatens public safety, a situation not present here. The University is now caught between conflicting legal interpretations of the statute from the Governor and other legal experts. Based on law enforcement agencies’ assessments, 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.”

That’s a laughable and cowardly response from UNC and Chancellor Carol Folt—who, by her recent silence on HB2 and Trump’s Muslim ban, is making a name for herself as a bloodless administrator who avoids even a remote engagement with the day’s pressing political issues, students be damned. Bafflingly, the reply came on the same day in which the university expressly told Cooper that there was a serious and imminent risk of harm for students. Is the law a technicality that only loosely applies to this situation? Sure. Is it worth exploiting, with the express approval of the most powerful politician in the state, in order to protect students from bodily injury and death of the kind we just witnessed in Charlottesville? Absolutely. For a school that will make almost $40 million from Nike in the span of a decade, perhaps they should take its corporate motto to heart: Just do it.

Instead, UNC is sitting on its hands in an unforgivable act of omission. In a situation as critical as this, the correct move is to remove the danger first, and sort out the legalities later. But that’s only if an institution truly cares about the safety of its students; clearly, UNC does not.

At the moment, the best summary of events to date came from a senior who spoke at Tuesday’s rally:

“Silent Sam is more protected than any student at this university.”

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