As lectures drew to a close on the first day of classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, helicopters hovered above the main quad on campus. Students received emails warning them of potential protests at “Silent Sam,” a statue of a Confederate soldier dedicated to Carolina students who fought for the Confederacy. Chancellor Carol Folt urged students to stay away from the protests, saying in an email, “…considering the potential for a highly charged atmosphere and the very real possibility for confrontation with outside groups, we would encourage you not to attend the rally on Tuesday.” Chapel Hill police barricaded the statue while blocking off major roads.
Students and professors mentioned the rally throughout the day, but no one was sure what was going to take place. Who would be protesting? Would counter-protesters show up who were affiliated with neo-nazi and white-supremacist groups? Would the statue come down? Would this be another Charlottesville?
In the wake of the violent protests at the University of Virginia, administrations around the country have taken action to remove Confederate statues. The University of Texas at Austin removed four confederate statues days before classes are set to begin. Last week, just down the road from Chapel Hill, Duke University removed a statue of Robert E. Lee at the Duke University Chapel in the middle of the night.
The students at Carolina decided to act. Because of the 2015 Heritage Protection Act, the University of North Carolina is not allowed to remove a statue on public property without permission from the N.C. Historical Commission. Governor Roy Cooper gave UNC-CH permission on Monday night to remove the statue based on a loophole that would not require the permission of the N.C. Historical Commision, but the University disagreed, saying that the removal of the statue would still be breaking state law. As hundreds of students and community members flooded the grassy area surrounding Silent Sam, it became clear that university members wanted the statue taken down immediately.
There is no denying that Silent Sam comes from a racist and muddled past. At the dedication of the statue in 1913, Julian Carr said, “One hundred yards from where we stand, less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horsewhipped a negro wench, until her skirts hung in shreds…” The University has dealt with protests surrounding the statue for years, but the calls for removal usually come in waves that die down. This protest, however, felt different to me.
As a first-year student on campus, the rally made for a bizarre end to my first day of school. Chants like “Tear it down!” and “No Trump, No KKK, No Racist U.S.A!” echoed through the crowd in between speeches by students and activists. Students were pressed up against the barricades, respecting the law while also demanding the university to break it.
Speakers urged protesters to do their homework on the systematic problems surrounding confederate statues and for what they stand. “You can also do the work and join an… anti-racist organization…” encouraged one woman. During a moment of confusion in which many, myself included, thought there was a counter protester, people stayed in place, some grabbing hands, shouting “Whose campus? Our campus!” There was an undeniable sense of unity. It felt like we, as a university, were going to bring the statue down once and for all.
The group eventually moved from the Silent Sam statue onto Franklin Street, stopping in front of the University of North Carolina president’s home where Margaret Spellings resides. While police stood protecting the entrance to the front yard, protesters gathered at her stoop.
Protesters chanted in front of the house, blocking the street, before someone announced that people had been arrested at the statue. WRAL reported three arrests were made by University police, but, according to UNC spokesperson Joanne Peters Denny, two of them “…were not affiliated with the University.”
My fellow students stayed camped out overnight at the statue, refusing to move until the statue was taken down. I am not sure if the statue will be removed tonight, tomorrow, or even in the next few weeks. I am sure, however, that the students at Chapel Hill will continue to fight for all students to feel safe on campus. I am more confident than ever in my decision to come to the University of North Carolina, and I am ready for many more protests to come. As many students have said, today is the first day of Silent Sam’s last semester.