In response to the toppling of Silent Sam, UNC system President Margaret Spellings and Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith called the actions “unacceptable, dangerous and incomprehensible.” Such “mob rule and the intentional destruction of public property,” they declared, “will not be tolerated.”
The statement was circulated to the UNC, Chapel Hill community with the additional signatures of Chancellor Carol Folt and Board of Trustee Chairman Haywood Cochrane.
Start with the laughable pretense that the Aug. 20 actions were “incomprehensible,” as if students and others have not explained repeatedly over the past year and more why the statue is offensive and how its presence on campus is inimical to the values that the university, at its best, stands for.
Even more misleading — and pernicious — is the assertion that we have here an instance of “mob rule.”
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The Aug. 20 action was the antithesis of mob rule. It was obviously well-planned and carried out with care, resulting in no harm to anyone or anything except the statue itself.
This was a principled and disciplined collective act of civil disobedience. A mob would have broken windows, turned over cars, rampaged across campus and Franklin Street. A mob would have, in other words, acted indiscriminately, not with targeted precision.
Civil disobedience entails breaking the law. It does so when the established modes of redress for a wrong have proved unavailing, and it does so in the name of a good that it claims the law is flouting.
Law enforcement, the powers that be, can respond with outrage, insist that the majesty of the law requires these offenders be punished, and resolutely ignore the moral point the protesters are making. That becomes the stage on which the dispute is played out. Who has justice and right on their side is what is at issue, since a law, itself, is never inevitably just.
Civil disobedience always carries with it the recognition that a law is being broken and there may be consequences for that fact. Some writers even claim that a willingness to submit to punishment is part and parcel of this particular type of action.
It is certainly true that, in the past, the spectacle of the law coming down on the protestors has sometimes served the cause those protestors are trying to promote, creating martyrs for a cause, and publicly displaying the law’s imperfections. In our polarized moment (much the same was true in the 1960s), I think it highly likely that sympathy for the protestors and the desire to throw the book at them will both be in ample evidence as this story unfolds.
However, in one way, Aug. 20 did not replay the 1960s. The police (like the crowd itself) showed admirable restraint. Obviously, a decision was made that the welfare of a statue was not worth harming a single, real living human being. An admirable decision — and I took the occasion of thanking the first campus police officer I saw on campus the next day for the way the campus force handled the evening. He responded that the safety and well-being of the people there was their chief concern, to which I responded: “Exactly. As it should be. Well done.”
Unlike so many 1960s demonstrations, Aug. 20 did not turn into a riot. The law is within its rights to conduct its full criminal investigation and to show that it places the destruction of public property above the welfare of the public who find that property an insult (and worse). If it comes to actual prosecutions, the question of deciding what side you are on, and what are the ultimate values that you want the law to embody, will be even more dramatically posed for all of us in this community.
John McGowan is the Hanes Distinguished Professor of English at UNC-Chapel Hill.