Editorials

Mob rule at Silent Sam? No, it was something far different

Police lead a protester away near the Silent Sam statue on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill on Monday.
Police lead a protester away near the Silent Sam statue on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill on Monday. News & Observer

The UNC protesters who brought down Silent Sam should have quietly worked with the powers-that-be, those powers argued this week. Anything else was “mob rule” leading to “violent riots.”

“Only a civil society that adheres to the rule of law can heal these (racial) wounds,” Senate leader Phil Berger admonished.

What if historic figures through American history had taken Berger’s advice?

What if Rosa Parks had adhered to the rule of law and given up her seat on the bus that day in Montgomery? How much slower would change have come? What if Martin Luther King hadn’t led the bus boycott? How much longer would it have taken for Alabama to end segregated seating?

What if the Greensboro Four had followed the rule of law and not sat down at that Woolworth’s lunch counter? How much longer would segregation have persisted without that brave act of civil disobedience? What if the crowds had not crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and endured Bloody Sunday? How much slower would civil rights progress be without that insistence on equality?

What if protesters hadn’t boarded ships in the Boston Harbor and thrown chests of tea overboard? What if Susan B. Anthony had respected the rule of law and not voted illegally in the 1872 election?

Mob rule? Mob rule was what happened at Little Rock Central High School in 1957 when black students, even armed with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, were turned back by an angry and violent white mob.

Though their actions carry less significance than those landmark examples, the students who took down Silent Sam on Monday – a statue raised 50 years after the Civil War out of pure and publicly acknowledged racial hatred – are now part of America’s long history of civil disobedience. It’s a tradition that goes back at least to Henry David Thoreau, who famously argued that it is the citizen’s duty not to acquiesce and allow the government to perpetrate injustice. Would former Gov. Pat McCrory compare him to a Nazi, as he did the Silent Sam protesters this week?

To be sure, civil disobedience is still disobedience, and those who engage in it should expect to pay a price. That is a calculation they must make: Is the punishment I face for breaking the law worth the potential that my actions could help erase injustices in the future? The Silent Sam protesters clearly broke the law Monday and must be prepared to endure the consequences. Vandalism should not go unanswered, and mob rule, as we said earlier this week, is not a path to routine meaningful progress. (We would add, though, that if Berger and McCrory are right and Monday saw “violent riots,” they are the first in history in which no one got hurt.)

Any act of civil disobedience will be debatable and not all are admirable. But Silent Sam was a tribute to a time in which one race ruled over another, openly and under the rule of law. It was explicitly designed to subjugate blacks and has no place at the center of the state’s flagship campus of higher education. The state’s leaders were doing nothing about it. Taking the statue down offers a small bit of justice to those who have been denied it for too long.

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