With a heavy police presence watching, opponents and supporters of Confederate monuments squared off Thursday night on the UNC campus spot where the Silent Sam statue was toppled last week.
Three people had been arrested by 10 p.m., according to UNC spokeswoman Carly Miller. Two people were charged with affray and one was charged with resisting an officer.
Police deployed pepper spray several times, and lots of people could be seen coughing.
Anti-Silent Sam protesters started a dance party to celebrate the fallen Confederate statue about 7:45 p.m. A few minutes later, about 40 to 50 members of the Southern heritage group ACTBAC, or Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, were led into a fenced-off area near the empty pedestal where the bronze statue had stood.
The ACTBAC members unfurled an oversize Confederate flag within the perimeter. They carried signs that said, “Save our monuments, preserve our history.”
Many more people gathered in opposition to the statue. They yelled “(Expletive) your flag!” “Go home!” and “Pigs in a pen!”
The town of Chapel Hill said in a statement Thursday night that about 300 people gathered at McCorkle Place.
Montgomery Morris, a 2005 UNC graduate from Carrboro, was standing at the outer ring, watching the ACTBAC participants wave the Confederate flag.
“Hearing the news about how much money was spent last year to pay for this was very upsetting. I think a lot of people agree with me,” Morris said. “It’s like, how many more times is this going to happen? I don’t think history is in danger of being erased. I think they’re going to continue to teach history here at UNC. People are not going to forget about the Civil War, but having this, and having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for this every year to enshrine white supremacy on OUR campus is unconscionable to me.”
He added: “I am a son of the Confederacy. My great, great, great grandfather was a Confederate veteran, and I say take it down. No. Keep it down. Take it down, keep it down. This flag represents hate. In 2018, this flag represents hate.”
At about 9 p.m., police officers on ATVs began leading the ACTBAC participants back to the parking lot of the nearby Morehead Planetarium. The crowd in opposition followed, and the scene became tense. That’s when the pepper spray was used.
“A single deployment pepper fogger was used by law enforcement near the Morehead Planetarium parking lot to maintain order,” Miller, the UNC spokeswoman, said in a statement.
The use of pepper spray seemed to amplify the anti-police sentiment among protesters. As police stood guard around the fenced vigil, the crowd yelled, “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?”
After the ACTBAC participants got in their vehicles and drove away, many of the anti-Silent Sam protesters remained, encircling a lone man thought to be with a conservative-leaning website. They shouted “Nazi go home!” and the man was escorted by law enforcement into the nearby Graham Memorial building.
As police led one woman away, the crowd shouted, “Let her go!”
The Chapel Hill campus had a fortress look all afternoon as the university prepared for a possible confrontation between the two groups with opposite opinions.
University officials had suggested to students that they stay away from the Thursday evening activities — a twilight service to honor the fallen monument by ACTBAC and the dance party and speakout by those opposed to the statue.
Inside Graham Memorial during the protest, additional police in riot gear could be seen.
“We know from past experience that when groups with opposing views come together in a highly charged environment, there is a real possibility for demonstrations to escalate to violence,” said a letter from Chancellor Carol Folt and Provost Robert Blouin that was sent to the university community.
The Alamance County group discouraged trouble among its members, according to a post on its Facebook page. “We hope and pray for a peaceful and honorable service tomorrow,” the post said. “That being said, there will be a large amount of devilish and ungodly opposition.”
The counter-protesters, in promoting their event, used the slogan “dance on his grave!” adding, “White supremacists are coming to UNC on Thursday night for a ‘Twilight Vigil’ for Silent Sam. Come dance, speak out, shut them down and show them that hate is not welcome on our campus.”
Maya Little, a UNC graduate student who faces criminal and honor court charges for throwing red ink and blood on Silent Sam in April, was at McCorkle Place on Thursday night. She declined to to be interviewed, saying, “I’m just here to have fun.”
Valerie Calvo, 18, also went to the protest.
“My main reason for coming out here is curiosity,” she said. “I didn’t know it was happening until I got the email from the chancellor.”
The statue’s future is unknown.
Earlier this week, the UNC Board of Trustees and the UNC system’s Board of Governors met separately, mostly behind closed doors, to discuss the situation. The Board of Governors directed Folt and the campus trustees to come up with a “lawful and lasting” plan by Nov. 15 for the Confederate monument, which is now being kept in an undisclosed location.
Folt said all options would be considered, including the possibility that the statue could be reinstalled in its former location.
At least one member of the UNC Board of Governors, Thom Goolsby, has been adamant that the statue has to be put back up on its pedestal in 90 days in accordance with a 2015 state law on historic “objects of remembrance.” But legal scholars have disagreed with that interpretation.