Orange County

Hands off? Police response to two Silent Sam protests were far different

The police response to Monday’s protest on the UNC campus was far different from what happened last summer when hundreds of people showed up to protest the Silent Sam Confederate statue.

Barricades circled Silent Sam for that event, roughly a week after a counterprotester was killed during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. UNC Police and Orange County sheriff’s deputies blocked UNC’s statue from the protesters, while N.C. Highway Patrol and Chapel Hill officers provided support.

Three people were arrested at that protest, which sparked a year of sit-ins, rallies and protests involving students, faculty and community members.

On Monday, however, police presence was far less intense before a crowd of protesters pulled the Confederate statue to the ground.

“I was a little surprised that the police didn’t interfere earlier,” said State Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, on Tuesday. Insko joined other local legislators this year in filing a bill that would have moved Silent Sam indoors. The bill never got a hearing.

“I always just assumed it would never happen when the police were there, because they would be keeping an eye on things,” she said.

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith, UNC President Margaret Spellings, UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt and Trustee Chairman Haywood Cochrane addressed questions about the police response late Tuesday evening.

Monday’s protest was unlike previous events, they said, because it was “carried out in a highly organized manner” by people unaffiliated with the university.

“[M]any have questioned how police officers responded to protesters and how the University managed the event,” UNC officials said. “Safety is always paramount, but at no time did the administration direct the officers to allow protesters to topple the monument. During the event, we rely on the experience and judgment of law enforcement to make decisions on the ground, keeping safety as the top priority.”

Although Chapel Hill Police Department officers were present Monday, Town Manager Roger Stancil said they were not involved in planning the response on campus, which is under UNC’s jurisdiction.

“Basically, we’re there, as we are with most events, to make sure that we stay on the perimeter and to make sure that people are able to do what they want to do safely,” Stancil said.

Chapel Hill police did block off Franklin Street when the protesters briefly took over the Columbia Street intersection at the center of town. That is typically allowed for big events like basketball victories, Stancil said.

“Our view is it’s better than some kind of confrontation to protect an intersection,” he said.

The rally, which started at Peace and Justice Plaza on East Franklin Street, turned into a brief scuffle with UNC police officers after protesters crossed the street to campus.

At least one person — Ian Paul Broadhead, 27, of Vilas, N.C. — was charged with resisting arrest and wearing a mask or hood on public property, UNC Public Safety spokesman Randy Young said in an email.

A protestor is led away by police as demonstrators cover the a Confederate statue known as Silent Sam with banners Monday, August 20, 2018 at UNC-Chapel Hill. Demonstrators surrounded and obscured the statue with large banners before toppling it. Travis Long

Late Tuesday, UNC leaders said they have asked the SBI “to assist the police to fully investigate the incident, and they have agreed,” according to a joint news release.

Orange-Chatham District Attorney Jim Woodall said he talked with UNC Police Chief Jeff McCracken on Tuesday about the next steps. Police are conducting a full investigation and reviewing surveillance and bodycam video footage before they consider additional charges or suspects, he said.

“We’ll look at the evidence. We’ll look at the cases and all the circumstances,” Woodall said. “I understand people will want to compare this with Durham, because they are similar events and that’s natural, but we’ll take a fresh look at [our cases].”

In Durham, charges were dropped last winter against five protesters who toppled a Confederate statue on Main Street in August 2017 after a judge acquitted one defendant and dismissed all charges against another. The judge said the prosecutor had proved the statue was damaged but by whom.

A long controversy

Silent Sam has been a target for protest and vandalism for decades. The push to get UNC to remove the statue, which was erected in 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, took off in earnest in August 2017. Since then, UNC has spent $390,000 protecting it.

Woodall said he remembers the statue being controversial as long as 40 years ago, but the conversation is more intense now. His biggest concern is protecting public safety, Woodall said.

“If a demonstration is truly peaceful, that is one thing that can draw attention to a situation, and it can be done with a degree of respect,” he said. “But when things become violent, that’s very frightening for everybody involved — for law enforcement, for the students, for the average citizen — and that was really my concern with last night.”

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Behind the banners

Stancil said the town knew in advance about Monday’s rally. UNC officials did not respond to a question about when they learned the event was planned.

Police mostly kept their distance from the protesters during speeches at the plaza. A small group of officers was posted by a campus building, and several more clustered near the statue. Silent Sam supporters stayed close to police, chatting with them during the event.

Once the crowd was on campus, a handful of officers stood beside and behind the statue. A reporter overheard one officer tell another after the scuffle with protesters that they had been told to keep “a safe distance.”

Protesters had wrapped the statue in tall gray banners bearing the words, “For a world without white supremacy” before the march. Behind the banners, they used rope to secure the statue and prepare for the take down.

UNC Silent Sam00017.JPG
Demonstrators cover the a Confederate statue known as Silent Sam with banners Monday, August 20, 2018 at UNC-Chapel Hill. Demonstrators surrounded and obscured the statue with large banners before toppling it. Travis Long

Insko said the march seemed like a plan to draw law enforcement’s attention away from campus. Police should have seen protesters taking rope and other supplies up to the statue, she said.

Before the statue fell, some officers put on latex gloves and then took them off. It is not clear why, but officers typically put on gloves when preparing to make an arrest or investigate a crime scene.

Silent Sam fell with a loud clanging sound. The crowd, enveloped in a haze from smoke bombs, erupted in cheers. Video footage shows protesters surrounding the statue, throwing dirt and stomping on it.

In another video a UNC police officer leans in to get a closer look at the fallen statue. Officers move in later, forming a ring around the statue, which was removed by a backhoe later that night.

Response questioned

UNC leaders promised a full investigation into the protest early Tuesday morning. “Mob rule” won’t be tolerated, they said.

Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue responded to questions about his department’s role with an email late Tuesday morning. He said Mayor Pam Hemminger would release a statement soon.

In her statement five hours later, Hemminger said the town is working with UNC on the investigation and encouraged people to “remember that our freedom of expression does not come at the expense of safety and public order.” She called the toppling of the statue an “act of vandalism.”

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The N.C Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans questioned the police response Tuesday.

Commander R. Kevin Stone expressed in a news release the group’s “disgust and outrage regarding the celebration of anarchy that the world witnessed in Chapel Hill.”

Stone said many of the protesters were also involved in toppling the Confederate statue at the Durham County Courthouse last year. Events like those will continue across the state if law enforcement and political leaders don’t step in, Stone said.

“This same group of self-proclaimed communists and anarchists were given free reign by a willfully helpless police force to complete their destruction of the University’s Confederate memorial, known as ‘Silent Sam,’” he said. “As the crowd chanted “we’ve got the guillotine, you better run,” the memorial came crashing down to rest in the mud and under the feet of the angry mob.”

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews has said deputies didn’t interfere with protesters who toppled the Durham statue because they thought it was bolted to the 20-ton stone base and not going anywhere. They also were concerned about maintaining public safety, he said.

The sheriff took criticism after his department later arrested protesters.

But State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said things might have turned out differently in Chapel Hill Monday night had the Durham protesters been convicted.

“I wonder if the people in Durham had been prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law if maybe the lawbreakers tonight would have thought twice,” he posted Monday on Twitter.

‘Clear and present danger’

Hemminger asked UNC Chancellor Carol Folt in a letter last year to petition the state for Silent Sam’s removal from McCorkle Place because it “presents a clear and present danger” to public safety.

University officials have cited a 2015 state law that forbids the removal of the statue and other “objects of remembrance” from public property. Any plans to move monuments must be approved by the N.C. Historical Commission.

Hemminger noted in her letter that the state law does allow for “appropriate measures” to be taken to preserve a monument.

“I believe such a petition is in order, and that it is in the interest of the Town as well as the University for you to ask permission to remove the statue, in order to avert what could become a situation that could easily get out of hand,” Hemminger said.

The Carrboro Board of Aldermen also passed a resolution last year calling for Silent Sam’s removal.

On Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Commissioners said Silent Sam “memorialized racism,” and “its removal was long overdue.”

“Of course, the removal of one monument does not eradicate the legacy of racial discrimination that divides our community and our nation and undermines our collective potential,” the statement said. “We will and must continue to do the necessary work of dismantling racism and bringing the full measure of equity and inclusion to Orange County.”

Though Insko wants the statue moved, she said it’s still important to preserve it so that people remember its history.

“It is this towering figure standing over the university of the people,” Insko said. “I just have to think that our black students, when they walk by it, have a really strong negative reaction.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb