Orange County

Cooper tells UNC leaders they can remove Silent Sam if there’s ‘imminent threat’

Demonstrators drape ‘Silent Sam’ in black hood following Charlottesville violence

A few hundred demonstrators gathered Sunday at the Silent Sam statue, a memorial to Confederate soldiers, on the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus violent clashes between white supremacists and counter protesters in Charlottesville
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A few hundred demonstrators gathered Sunday at the Silent Sam statue, a memorial to Confederate soldiers, on the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus violent clashes between white supremacists and counter protesters in Charlottesville

University officials have alerted Gov. Roy Cooper of “significant safety and security threats” at UNC-Chapel Hill because of the Silent Sam Confederate memorial, and have asked him to convene the state historical commission to consider what to do with the statue.

In a letter to the governor, UNC leaders asked for his help with security on campus on the eve of a planned protest that could get out of control.

Responding to UNC late Monday, Cooper wrote that his administration has stood “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the university and local law enforcement since the Charlottesville, Va., unrest. He said the state Department of Public Safety had been in contact with UNC as recently as Monday morning.

Further, Cooper said university officials had the power to remove the statue on their own if they fear an imminent threat.

“Other university leaders have taken decisive actions in recent days,” Cooper wrote, apparently referring to Duke University’s removal of its Robert E. Lee statue in the wee hours of Saturday morning. “If our University leaders believe there is real risk to public safety, the law allows them to take immediate measures.”

A CCI Environmental Services worker blasts one face of the sandstone base of the Silent Sam monument on the UNC-CH campus removing black acrylic spray paint Tuesday, July 7, 2015 Harry Lynch N&O file photo

He was referring to a 2015 state law signed by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory that prevents removing, relocating or altering monuments, memorials, plaques and other markers that are on public property without permission from the N.C. Historical Commission. Cooper wrote that the law provides an exception, allowing action if “building inspector[s] or similar officials” determine there are “threats to public safety.”

The university’s letter to the governor was signed by UNC President Margaret Spellings, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, Lou Bissette, chair of the system’s Board of Governors, and Haywood Cochrane, chair of the campus Board of Trustees. It said law enforcement at UNC believe “that it is only a matter of time before an attempt is made to pull down Silent Sam in much the same manner we saw in Durham. Based on our interactions with State and local law enforcement, including the State Bureau of Investigation, an attempt may occur at any time.”

UNC officials echoed concerns of Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger, who wrote to Folt last week saying the statue “presents a clear and present danger” to both the campus and the town. Hemminger asked Folt to request the N.C. Historical Commission to remove Silent Sam.

Word has spread on social media about a protest at the statue on Tuesday night, and a flier referred to the demonstration as “the first day of Silent Sam’s last semester.” Folt wrote to students about the rally, urging them not to attend in the interest of safety. She said the event is being promoted by groups not affiliated with the university.

“And we know that the outside groups who may attend such a rally may be more interested in promoting discord and violence to advance their own agendas than engaging in a constructive and peaceful protest,” she wrote to the campus community. “We are always concerned about safety on the campus and if we had the ability to immediately move the statue in the interest of public safety, we would.”

The Confederate monument at the edge of UNC’s campus has long been a site of protests, including one that occurred a day after the violence in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of one woman and two state police officers whose helicopter went down.

Liz Condo

The officials’ letter referred to the toppling of a Confederate statue in downtown Durham and vandalism to a Robert E. Lee statue at Duke University last week.

But the Lee statue at the entrance to Duke Chapel was on private property at Duke. The issue is more complicated at UNC, which is public property governed by the law that protects monuments from removal.

Cooper, a Democrat, last week called for the repeal of the law and the relocation of Confederate monuments on public property.

Silent Sam, which depicts a Confederate soldier, was erected in 1913 to honor alumni who served in the Civil War.

UNC officials say the statue’s proximity to residence halls, academic buildings and Franklin Street raise the risks at the statue. Any protest could draw large numbers of people, they said, and could result in injuries to students or bystanders. There is a strong likelihood, they stressed, that the university will need “substantial law enforcement and emergency services support” from Cooper, including help from state and federal agencies.

“The safety of our students is our highest priority,” the letter said. “Given the substantial security threats that we face at UNC-Chapel Hill in connection with Silent Sam, we believe it is essential that the State of North Carolina take necessary steps to ensure safety. We would not be able to face parents whose students are harmed in a violent confrontation if we did otherwise.”

Even though the statue is under 24-hour video surveillance, the university still must devote limited law enforcement resources to security around the statue, the letter said. “UNC-Chapel Hill expects to incur significant additional ongoing security costs as a result,” UNC officials wrote.

Further, the statue itself faces potential damage from vandalism. “Moreover, our assessment is that there are real safety and security risks associated with either taking the statue down or leaving it up,” the letter said.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill