RALEIGH — After a historic protest that ended in the illegal takedown of Silent Sam, a Confederate statue at UNC-Chapel Hill, the university faces tough inquiries about campus security and law enforcement.
A striking question — about how a handful of people tore down a weighty statue under watch of city and university police — so far has reaped cryptic answers.
On Monday, Aug. 20, around 9:20 p.m., a group of roughly 250 people cheered as Silent Sam fell from his pedestal. Installed in 1913, Sam has for decades been subject to controversy, drawing both scorn and support.
Protesters who dethroned the statue likely used torches to cut the bolts that secured Silent Sam to his base, sources familiar with the situation told Carolina Journal.
Barricades formerly placed around the monument were ordered by top university officials to be taken down ahead of the protests, sources also revealed.
A video published by Blacklisted News on Aug. 23 shows campus police filing away from Silent Sam just before the crowd toppled it with ropes.
CJ spoke with representatives from UNC-Chapel Hill and the N.C. Historical Commission — which oversees public monuments — asking for more details on the dismantling of the monument.
Jeni Cook, a spokeswoman for UNC-Chapel Hill, did not answer questions but pointed CJ to a general statement condemning the activity of the protesters. A representative of the historical commission said the commission isn’t familiar with details of Silent Sam’s physical condition prior to the protest.
No one in UNC’s administration ordered officers to allow protesters to disassemble the monument, UNC officials said in an Aug. 21 press release.
“We rely on the experience and judgment of law enforcement to make decisions on the ground, keeping safety as the top priority,” the statement reads.
The police and the State Bureau of Investigation are working to sort things out, said Harry Smith, chairman of the UNC System Board of Governors. He didn’t comment on the mechanics of the statue’s overthrow but called the story “fluid.”
Consequences are inevitable for those who committed crimes, Smith said. Security is the top concern for UNC officials, many of whom have supported active shooter drills and safety training across the system’s 17 schools.
“The law is the law,” Smith said. “We can’t allow anarchy on any of our campuses.”
UNC’s governing body will support UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and will work with the school’s Board of Trustees to handle the issues “in full transparency,” Smith said.
Smith said he’s had many discussions with Folt about the situation.
“It’s a difficult landscape she’s in.”
Violence is never excusable, but the United States carries a history of vandalism and disobedience when related to protests and issues of civil rights, said Gerry Cohen, former special counsel to the General Assembly. The Boston Tea Party and civil rights movement offer examples, Cohen said, though not fully comparable to the Silent Sam situation.
“Over time, people have used protest — and occasional illegal actions — as a means for making change,” Cohen said.
Folt is in a tough spot, and administrators “probably want the situation to go away,” said UNC board member Marty Kotis.
If university leaders don’t set boundaries and rules, lawless behavior will only escalate, Kotis said.
“It’s like a toddler. If you don’t set the rules, the toddler will run amok.”
Kari Travis is a staff writer for Carolina Journal.