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 at one point marched along Franklin Street and to UNC President Margaret Spellings’ residence, but the rally remained mostly peaceful. By 10 p.m. the crowd had thinned and some protesters were sitting near the statue.
The event did become more tense at times, with police wearing helmets and moving the crowds off the sidewalks. Officers surrounded Silent Sam, keeping protesters away from the monument. Some people chanted, “Why are you in riot gear? I don’t see no riot here.”
A police official said there had been one arrest.
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.
Debate about the future of Confederate monuments has increased across the country since white nationalists and counter-protesters clashed in Charlottesville this month. One woman was killed during that event and several others were injured when someone drove a vehicle into the crowd.
At UNC-Chapel Hill on Tuesday, some protesters had tense exchanges with people who disagreed with them.
Glenn Lassiter, 56, a UNC alumnus and Chapel Hill resident, said he’s not sure whether the statue needs to come down but he thinks it’s worth a debate. Protesters shouted at him, called him a white supremacist and said he wasn’t welcome at the rally.
He said the situation resembled mob rule.
“There are plenty of people here that don’t think I have the right to express my opinion on anything,” Lassiter said. “They’re nothing but big bullies and they’re trying to bully my right to free speech and express my opinion on what I believe.
“I just don’t think that tearing down a bunch of statues is changing the world,” he added. “I think what changes the world is what’s in men’s hearts.”
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 Spellings, 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.”
Staff writer Jonathan Alexander contributed.