For UNC’s Teaching Assistants, the Silent Sam Protests Are Far From Over

For UNC’s Teaching Assistants, the Silent Sam Protests Are Far From Over

For UNC’s Teaching Assistants, the Silent Sam Protests Are Far From Over

TAs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill may have released the withheld grades, but they say they won’t be placated by any action short of racial justice.


It’s tempting to think that because the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors rejected a proposal that, if passed, would have made the university the first in the 21st century to erect a monument to the Confederacy, this marks an ending of sorts, and that classes will resume with familiar ease in January.

But a second provision, passed during the same session, tells another story. In response to a semester packed with anti-racist activism that was frequently met with police violence, the Board of Governors passed a proposal to “prescribe minimum sanctions including suspension, termination, and expulsion for individuals who engage in unlawful activity that impacts public safety.”

UNC’s administration now has until March to present an alternative plan to the board, which is appointed by a conservative state legislature that would, in all likelihood, like to see Silent Sam—as the monument is known—back on its pedestal at the front of the campus. This is the same place it stood from the height of Jim Crow in 1913 until August of this year, when students tore it down. In passing this proposal, they are, in short, expecting trouble.

And they should be. Because this movement did not start two weeks ago, as it may seem to bystanders. This proposal marks just one chapter of a 50-year tradition on campus of opposing Silent Sam.

Why isn’t this vibrant history better known? Because altering the timeline to make today’s advocates feel small and alone is a time-honed tactic to mitigate activism, especially those of black and indigenous lineages.

The UNC administration may frame this as a singular fall semester in 2018, where there was an incident that spurred upset, and which was shortly after put to rest—a blip, disconnected from the campus’s long histories of activism and social justice work.

They could not be more wrong. We knew from the lack of response to previous rallies on campus and the excessive police force used that the university administration wouldn’t take the risks necessary to advance racial justice on campus. Within 24 hours, the graduate teaching assistants and instructors from over 15 departments organized.

We were able to organize because when Chancellor Folt and the Board of Governors announced on December 4 their proposal to return Silent Sam to campus, we weren’t surprised. We weren’t overwhelmed by the sticker shock of their proposed $5.3 million “new free-standing, single-use building with appropriate buffers and state-of-the-art security measures.” Instead, we demanded (and continue to demand) that the administration keep Silent Sam off campus and take measures to reject white supremacy at UNC using the very real leverage that all teaching assistants have: withholding final grades, the lack of which could jeopardize the university’s standing.

Dean Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin called us to a meeting days later—and probably regretted it. Graduate students showed up in force, taking control of the conversation, which we honed to a single message: We will not be bullied into abandoning our students amid racist threats and violence.

With the Board of Governors set to vote a week later, we maintained the conversations we wished had been offered to us in the first place. Enthusiastic support has poured in from alumni athletes, from current students, from internal UNC departments like the Odum Institute, as well as from other academic institutions.

So if UNC tries to insist that this is over, then it is with the misguided belief that the TAs will be placated by any action short of racial justice. But as they continue to invite white supremacy on campus with permits and police escorts on commencement day, our story is not over. As graduate instructors and TAs, we are committed to protecting our students of color—those who are actively harmed by the university’s choices.

The TAs of UNC are not only participating in a campus-wide history of resistance. We join a national legacy, taking our cues from the indigenous activists and activists of color who have paved the way for our actions. Take, for a contemporary example, the Standing Rock Pipeline movement, known for its nationwide #NODAPL support in 2016. Most national coverage spoke of the participants as protesters, yet this collective identified as water protectors: “That label of protester…could never describe the protectors that are here.” The word protester, up for use here at UNC, speaks to a short-lived disruption. A protector acts from a place of deep commitment: a series of choices that defines a life philosophy. A UNC protector, like our indigenous role models, recognizes racial injustices on campus over the span of months, years, and decades, and won’t be turned away or dismissed just because the proposal has been moved back three months.

This life philosophy is what we are teaching our students through action: Tar Heels are no stranger to protest. From the Food Workers Strike of 1969 to the recent actions of Maya Little, a graduate student, who contextualized Silent Sam using paint mixed with her own blood, UNC has long been at the forefront of nationwide debates on issues of civil and workers’ rights. And it’s in this tradition that we—graduate students at UNC—have chosen to resist Folt’s grotesque proposal through the powers we have at our disposal.

The university has already attempted to spin this fracas as a misguided effort by disgruntled radicals to disrupt undergraduates’ “Carolina experience”—that is, preventing our students from getting their education by withholding their exam grades. On the contrary: As teaching assistants and instructors, we spend hours every day in the rooms with the students—we teach the material. We assign and grade the work. We field questions and talk to students during office hours. And by and large, the undergraduates have expressed their enthusiastic support. Far from an abdication of our duty to teach, our disruption this fall represented a long-standing commitment to our students’ right to learn at a place free of hatred. Only an administrator could mistake an exam for an education.

UNC has awakened a collective of graduate students, instructors, and faculty—groups that, previously, were not united, divided as we were across the departments and schools that split us into silos. But we need your help, too. We can be “divided and conquered” as much as any collective, a strategy UNC will be sure to deploy with further threats aimed at our school’s national standing. If you are a UNC student, now done with finals, keep making noise. Contact Chancellor Folt and Dean Kevin Guskiewicz directly with your demands: that Silent Sam never be allowed back on campus and that there be no negative repercussions for campus members who seek to make it a place safe from white supremacy. Ask your parents to do the same. Send letters of support to your instructors, and make it clear that you stand by their choices, now and in the future.

If you live in Chapel Hill or the Triangle, this is your community. Contact the administration directly with your disdain over the return of a monument that is an obvious threat to public safety. Let them know that you are still watching.

If you are an alumnus, e-mail the development office and make it clear that, should Silent Sam return to campus, you will not donate to the University.

If you are a person of means, a fund has already been established to defray any costs we may incur as a result of our actions, whether that be legal fees or supporting our own who, now unemployed, need support paying for food, rent, or childcare as we carry into the next year.

If you are paying attention and are upset: mobilize your networks. Organize among your friends, coworkers, and contacts, and let the UNC administration know you’re supporting the campus anti-racism movement into 2019.

And if you are a student of color at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: We, your instructors, value you here, even when the administrators act in ways that show they don’t. We will not back down. No matter who you are, we hope that you can join us in making the campus we hope future Tar Heels will inherit, not the one we fear they will. It can—and it must—be otherwise.

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