Orange County

Countdown to kickoff? UNC cleans up Silent Sam protest

Confederate flags, foreground, flutter in the breeze about 50 yards from a group of protesters at the base of the Confederate statue know as Silent Sam on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. Five men carrying Confederate flags showed up Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, in opposition of the larger group calling for the statue’s removal.
Confederate flags, foreground, flutter in the breeze about 50 yards from a group of protesters at the base of the Confederate statue know as Silent Sam on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. Five men carrying Confederate flags showed up Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, in opposition of the larger group calling for the statue’s removal. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

UNC-Chapel Hill authorities on Thursday removed signs, benches, tables and other materials left around Silent Sam by the protesters who want the Confederate statue taken down.

Campus spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny said the university told protesters the previous day to remove the items or they would be removed for them.

“The university supports the free expression of ideas, and we appreciate the commitment of our students to an issue they are passionate about,” Peters Denny said. “At the same time, we have a responsibility to maintain the cleanliness and order of all campus open spaces and grounds.”

UNC-CH policy “does not allow for any sign to be posted or hung on the outside of buildings or other campus-facing surfaces, and it does not allow for temporary structures to be erected below the drip line of the [tree] canopy” on McCorkle Place and other parts of the campus, she said.

Peters Denny added that officials try “to enforce this policy as consistently as possible across campus, and do not consider the content of the signs in doing so in order to ensure all groups are treated equally.”

A student, Brennan Lewis, documented the removal on video and posted it to Twitter.

Silent Sam has been the focus of a continuing protest since Aug. 22. Those calling for its removal consider it a symbol of white supremacy. The protests follow violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, involving neo-Nazis that resulted in the death of one counterprotester after she was run down by a car.

Protest organizers were quick to question the timing of the move, which came two days before the university’s football team’s home opener in Kenan Stadium against the University of California-Berkeley.

“It’s another testament to the fact they’re trying to protect their money” and hide the ongoing protest from the alumni who will attend the game, said Michelle Brown, a senior majoring in women’s and gender studies and Hispanic literature.

Brown added that she and other protesters “are not going to leave the statue, and we are not going to stop speaking about it.” She said eight to 15 people have slept at the site every night, and “our presence is not against the grounds policy.”

Asked about the football angle, Peters Denny said there’s “no relation there” and added that the terrain around Silent Sam is “beginning to show visible wear and tear.”

But Chapel Hill officials had fielded at least one complaint about the situation.

“The current mess around the statue looks terrible,” Vance Street resident Virginia Platto said in a Thursday message to Mayor Pam Hemminger and the Town Council. “The first view residents and visitors get of our beautiful campus looks like a trash dump.”

She noted that town residents “are not allowed” to leave trash cans and recycling cans on public display, and that the start of football season is “a boom for our economy.” She asked town officials to “do something before Tar Heel Downtown on Friday, so our town isn’t a joke.”

Platto was alluding to a 6 p.m. event on Friday that’s scheduled to occur in the plaza at 140 W. Franklin St., two blocks west of campus.

Town officials, however, say they didn’t act on the request.

“We have not made any requests of that nature, only that we worry when people spill out into the street and we are monitoring that situation to make sure people are safe,” Hemminger said when asked if her government had prodded UNC-CH officials to act.

“As this is not our jurisdiction, we played no role in the removal of the banners,” added Catherine Lazorko, spokeswoman for town government.

North Carolina law, passed in 2015, forbids the removal of the statue and “objects of remembrance” like it from public property. The N.C. Historical Commission has to weigh in on changes to any the state actually owns, like Silent Sam.

Authorities called in dozens of local and state police to guard Silent Sam during the Aug. 22 protest, which drew about 1,000 people to McCorkle Place. Since then, UNC-CH’s facilities-use policy has acted to keep protesters from mounting a full-blown, Krzyzewskiville-style 24/7 tent campout at the site. But the statue’s critics had draped it with banners, and had brought with them benches, lawn chairs, coolers and other goods.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

Camila Molina: 919-829-4538, @Cmolina__

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