‘Tear it down’: Protesters gather at Silent Sam statue on UNC campus

Hundreds of people gathered at the Silent Sam statue at UNC-Chapel Hill on Tuesday evening to demand removal of the Confederate monument.

The crowd chanted “tear it down” and criticized police and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt.

Hundreds of people began marching from campus just after 7 p.m. An hour later, the protest remained mostly peaceful but had become more tense. Students said they demanded justice and that the Silent Sam statue has no place on campus.

Police led one protester away, and the crowd followed and chanted, “Let him go!” By 8 p.m., police were guarding Hyde Hall.

The crowd then began chanting to police, “Why are you in riot gear? I don’t see no riot gear.”

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Protesters chant "Tear it down! Tear it down! at rally calling for the removal of the Confederate "Silent Sam" statue from the campus of UNC. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Tuesday’s rally put UNC in the position of protecting a statue that many have suggested now poses a campus safety threat. It followed two days of back-and-forth between UNC officials and Gov. Roy Cooper about who has the authority to move the statue.

Silent Sam was erected in 1913 to honor the 321 UNC alumni who served in the Confederate army during the Civil War. The soldier holds a rifle but is silent “because he wears no cartridge box for ammunition,” according to the university.

Tim Carey, a professor at UNC’s medical school, attended the rally Tuesday. He said he believed a decade ago that the statue was worth saving so this generation could understand the university’s past. Now he says the time for removal has come.

“Our country is not in a good spot right now,” Carey said. “The last thing we need is for statues to become lightning rods.”

McLain Saba, 20, a junior from Charlotte, went to the rally against her father’s wishes. She said she has heard her African-American friends say they’re hurt when they walk past the statue on their way to class.

“It’s unbelievably disgusting that it still stands,” Saba said. She said two of her African-American friends wanted to go to the rally but were afraid after the violence earlier this month in Charlottesville, Va.

“Both their parents said, ‘Do not go,’ ” Saba said, adding that they stayed locked in their dorms instead.

UNC officials sent a letter to Cooper this week asking him to convene the N.C. Historical Commission to decide the ultimate fate on Silent Sam, writing, “our assessment is that there are real safety and security risks associated with either taking the statue down or leaving it up.”

The letter, signed by UNC President Margaret Spellings, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and others, pointed out that the statue’s presence creates “significant safety and security threats.” Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger also said the monument represents a clear and present danger; she wrote to Folt asking that the university petition the state to remove it.

A 2015 state law prevents removing, relocating or altering monuments, memorials, plaques and other markers that are on public property without permission from the N.C. Historical Commission. But Cooper said an exception in the law would allow the university to remove it if they have imminent safety concerns. The exception refers to a safety risk as determined by a “building inspector” or “similar officials.”

“Other university leaders have taken decisive actions in recent days,” Cooper wrote to UNC. Duke University and the University of Texas removed Confederate statues in middle-of-the-night operations.

But UNC released a statement late Tuesday saying it did not have “clear legal authority” to take down Silent Sam unilaterally, suggesting that the building inspector exception refers to a situation where a monument poses a threat because of its physical disrepair. That is not the case with Silent Sam.

“The University is now caught between conflicting legal interpretations of the statute from the Governor and other legal experts,” the UNC statement said, adding 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.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill