By 9:30 am on August 31, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus police were the proud owners of five new picnic tables, a few folding tables, and several containers of food and water: all that remained of our nine-day sit-in at our university’s Confederate monument, Silent Sam, which we had refused to leave until it was taken down.
Earlier that morning, we had been told by UNC Police Chief Jeff McCracken that the university was ordering us to dismantle the camp; if not, the police would do it for us. We rushed what we could into storage, but the police took what remained. There was no olive branch, no offering of peace, no place for discussion. We could only watch as campus police dismantled what had been donated by the community to keep the sit-in alive. “The university supports the free expression of ideas, and we appreciate the commitment of our students to an issue they are passionate about,” campus spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny told the Durham Herald-Sun. “At the same time, we have a responsibility to maintain the cleanliness and order of all campus open spaces and grounds.”
To watch campus police, and by extension our university’s administration and chancellor, actively suppress a peaceful protest against white supremacy and racism was sobering. It became ever more clear that the obstacles we face in our fight against oppression are also well-cemented on our campus, despite it being considered, as is the case with so many campuses, a progressive bastion of free speech.
But with comprehension comes clarity, through which we can better see the path forward. The Silent Sam Sit-In was just one step on the path toward the end of oppression on our campus, in our community, and in our country. The actions of our university have only solidified our resolve: No matter the setbacks, we will continue on that path.
Like many campuses and cities across the country, we have had to face a moral and ethical battle at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Do we stand up for equality of all people, or do we defend white supremacy by endorsing its symbolic manifestations? As the students of the UNC Silent Sam Sit-In, we continue to call upon the university to denounce oppression and white supremacy in all its forms: Take down the Silent Sam statue. Dispossess our campus of an enduring symbol of white nationalism glorifying the fight to preserve slavery. Until the statue is removed, we will make our voices heard through future sit-ins, marches, and protests of all kinds. On September 6, 40 students gathered outside the building that houses Chancellor Folt’s office, chanting and banging pots and pans to protest the Silent Sam statue and reinvigorate the sit-in. And we will continue to occupy the space by the statue during the day, every day, until it is removed.
The accepted narrative on campus and in the Chapel Hill Community is that Silent Sam stands in remembrance of the honorable UNC alumni who served in the Confederate army—as the plaques on the statue state. But primary sources offer more context. At the unveiling of the statue on June 2, 1913, Julian Carr, a Reconstruction-era industrialist and UNC Chapel Hill alumnus, gave a speech explicitly linking the statue to white supremacy. “The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo-Saxon race,” his speech reads. “Their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South—When ‘the bottom of the rail was on top’ all over the Southern states, and today, as a consequence, the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States—Praise God.” Carr went on to recount a memory he had of brutally whipping a black woman “until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”
Reading this speech, kept in the university’s public archives, it is impossible to argue that the statue it commemorates was intended as anything other than a monument to, and celebration of, white supremacy in North Carolina. To say that Silent Sam is simply a monument to honorable fallen soldiers is to be, at best, grossly ignorant of our country’s history of entrenched racism. And to be willfully ignorant is to be complicit in, even supportive of, white supremacy.
This is the spirit that launched our sit-in, which began as a one-off protest on the night of Tuesday, August 22. That night, Hundreds of students and community members gathered at the foot of the Silent Sam statue demanding its removal in the wake of Charlottesville. Despite the peaceful nature of the protest, police officers arrived wearing riot gear. They forced their way through a barrier of protesters, knocking and throwing students to the ground in an unprovoked use of force while they carried out two arrests. The initial demonstration was only meant to last a few hours, but the police’s reaction prompted seven of us, who had not planned the protest, to remain at the statue late into the evening, then through the night and into the next day, drawing the attention of local news stations and newspapers.
For the nine days and nights that followed, we continued to occupy the space at the foot of the Silent Sam statue. Our group grew to about 40 during the day, with about 10 sleeping on bedrolls, cots, and air mattresses, changing shifts in the morning so those who had class could attend. Supporters donated food, water, chairs, flashlights, and rain equipment, which allowed us to stay as long as we did.
Even before our sit-in was dismantled, we had received several threats over the course of the protest and the sit-in that developed from it. Men in Confederate gear shouted insults at us as they walked along the paths near the statue, and some tried to physically intimidate us by getting close and asking if we were prepared if someone brought a gun. “What would you do if someone shot you?” they asked. On Saturday, August 26, the neo-Confederate hate group ACTBAC marched around our protest carrying Confederate flags. Sunday morning, we woke up to a tiki torch stuck into the ground near we slept, a crude, magazine-cutout sign that read “See you soon,” attached to it. We received online threats from the Twitter page “YWNRU Official.” (An acronym standing for “You Will Not Replace Us,” a reference to the chants made by Neo-Nazis and KKK members at the Charlottesville rally earlier this month.)
Despite this, and despite the administration’s forcibly dismantling our sit-in, as students of the University of North Carolina—and as residents of this campus and its surrounding communities—we refuse to sit quietly. In our country’s current political climate, there is no way to remain neutral on the issues of white supremacy and oppression. One either stands in opposition to bigotry and hatred in defense of marginalized groups, or one is compliant in, and therefore supportive of, their oppression. In the face of white supremacy, we demand justice on our campus and in our community. We will not be silenced. We will not be intimidated. We continue to plan, to protest, and to stand up for what is right until the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill stops putting white supremacy on a literal pedestal.
We owe it to those who came before us and those still yet to come to continue this fight until the University of North Carolina stands with its students against oppression and bigotry. Board of Trustees, Board of Governors, Chancellor Folt: We call on you to denounce white supremacy. Denounce the racist and sexist dedication delivered by Julian Carr. Protect your students. Join us on the right side of history. Remove Silent Sam.
This story was produced for Student Nation, a section devoted to highlighting campus activism and student movements from students in their own words. For more Student Nation, check out our archive. Are you a student with a campus activism story? Send questions and pitches to Samantha Schuyler at [email protected].