A judge found a man guilty of punching a student protester at a Silent Sam rally in August but saved her strongest rebuke for UNC-Chapel Hill.
Orange County District Court Judge Beverly Scarlett said she would not punish Barry Brown for simple assault because the “university is the proximate cause of this conflict.”
The Confederate statue “inflames emotions and leads to agitation,” the judge added. There is no way that university officials don’t know it causes pain and impairs student safety, she said.
“I ask the leadership of the university if your goal is to teach a diverse community of students, what are you doing to assure that all students feel emotionally and physically safe,” Scarlett said.
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“Another interesting question: What is the difference in the Silent Sam statue and a statue of Adolf Hitler?” she asked. “Is human suffering not a common denominator?”
“Moreover, where are the statues of the numerous people of color who worked to construct the buildings at the university? Where is the statue of Thomas Day who built the cabinetry for the university’s first library? To the university, isn’t there a more enlightened way to celebrate the contributions of all?”
Seven people, including Brown, were charged at the Aug. 25 protest, less than a week after protesters pulled Silent Sam down from its pedestal on the university’s McCorkle Place.
Brown, 40, of Liberty, is a member of the pro-Confederate group Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County.
In her ruling, Scarlett said Brown used unnecessary and excessive force after protester Michael Mole blocked Brown and tried to grab a bouquet of flowers intended for the statue from his hands.
‘I don’t like racism on my campus’
The protest was sparked by rumors of a pro-Silent Sam rally. Barricades ringed the empty pedestal as nearly two dozen Confederate supporters stood side by side with roughly 200 Silent Sam protesters.
Mole, a UNC student, testified Monday that he and others were trying to keep more Confederate supporters from joining those along the barricade. He had never been in a fight or been punched before, he said.
“I don’t like racism on my campus,” Mole, 20, told Brown’s attorney, Kenneth Rothrock.
Although Mole was charged later with simple assault, the District Attorney’s Office has agreed to dismiss the charge if he completes 24 hours of community service and stays out of trouble for a specified time.
Mole and Brown are among 26 people who have been charged since the statue fell.
Rothrock argued that Brown, 40, acted in self-defense and “was quite reserved in his response” when he punched Mole in the face after Mole had reached for his right hand.
“He has no right to grab his right hand or the property in his right hand,” Rothrock said.
Assistant District Attorney Billy Massengale countered that Brown had no need to defend himself with more than a dozen officers nearby.
Massengale reminded the court that a simple assault judgment should consider the men’s size — Brown is much bigger than Mole — the fierceness of the assault and whether the punch was necessary to prevent some form of harm.
“We don’t have to prove premeditation or deliberation, but I will submit to you that is a deliberate action,” he said. “It’s not in self-defense.”
Scarlett agreed, saying Brown’s punch was excessive in light of the limited force used against him. Brown did not have to punch Mole and was able to get his flowers back before doing so, she said.
What the videos show
In two videos played in court, Brown is seen approaching the Silent Sam protesters while carrying a Confederate flag in his right hand and the memorial bouquet in his left.
Mole denied trying to grab Brown, his flag or his flowers, saying he raised his hand because Brown was in his face and he didn’t know what Brown might do.
Why grab the flowers, Rothrock asked.
“I needed to grab something, because he was coming at me. He was in my space. [I grabbed the flowers] to protect myself,” Mole said.
Brown did not testify.
Police officer testifies
UNC Police Officer Daniel Brown testified he saw Brown approaching and turned to put down his water bottle because he thought there might be trouble. Officers already had made arrests in two other fights, he testified.
Officer Brown turned back toward the crowd in time to see Brown punch Mole, he said. He did not see what led up to the punch, he said.
Brown cooperated with him and other officers who arrested him, Officer Brown said.
Officer Brown met Mole and his parents later at UNC’s Police Department. It wasn’t until he saw a video of what led to the incident that he decided to also charge Mole with simple assault, he said.
Would he have made a different decision if he had seen everything that happened, Rothrock asked. His question was rebuffed by the prosecutor’s objection that the question required Officer Brown to speculate about his actions.
However, Officer Brown agreed with Rothrock that a law enforcement officer should intervene if a person grabs personal belongings out of another person’s hands.
Massengale also questioned a District Attorney’s Office worker who had copied Facebook posts and comments on Brown’s page after the incident. In the posts, Brown responds to praise for the punch by saying he had also thought about hitting Mole with his left fist.
Brown then brags in another post: “Guess what little fella who got the taste smacked out your mouth? The flowers got put out.”
Outside the courthouse, Brown said he doesn’t care what the judge said. He already has appealed the case to a higher court, he said.
“All you hear is racism, racism, racism. It’s not about racism,” Brown said. “It’s about culture and heritage. It’s loyalty, honor, respect and duty. That’s what I stand for; I don’t stand for racism.”
When asked if he had spoken with Mole since the incident, Brown responded, “What would I say to him? Would you like another one?”
Mole declined to comment about the judge’s ruling.