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Beyond rallies: UNC activists are finding new ways to resist

From a march that protested the decision to privatize the Student Stores to demonstrations organized by the Real Silent Sam Coalition to the walkout when Margaret Spellings was sworn in as UNC-system president, the 2015-2016 academic year was full of demonstrations.

But South Building’s steps haven’t seen as much action lately.

Dominque Brodie, a sophomore psychology major and student activist, said he has seen both more activism and more people involved in activism this year, but in ways other than just rallies.

“In the past, there’s been this idea that if you don’t want to go and march through the street and scream — and possibly be arrested or brutalized by the police — then you can’t contribute,” he said.

Brodie said students have adopted different forms of activism — like petitioning, email blasting Chancellor Carol Folt, having teach-ins that educate people on issues and engaging in “artivism,” which uses means like poetry, visual art, singing and rapping for activism.

“After protesting so much and seeing nothing happen, I think we start to realize that we have to get creative,” he said. “We have to find other ways to get the attention of administrators and other authority figures.”

June Beshea, a 2016 UNC graduate and a former student activist affiliated with the Real Silent Sam Coalition, said protests are necessary for a social movement to be effective.

“I don’t think anything is going to get done unless you take it to the streets, honestly,” they said.

For the first time since 2015, Silent Sam — the controversial monument of a confederate soldier near Franklin Street — was spray-painted Friday.

Beshea said they consider graffiti and spoken-word poetry a form of protest.

“The most effective way to get people behind a movement is through physical acts,” they said. 

“I don’t think petitions have that same impact. Petitions let you know where people stand, but there has to be that kind of trust in that system — even in that University system — to have that work. Someone has to be listening on the other side of that petition to even get anywhere. You have to be valid to have a petition. A lot of the issues we have aren’t even seen as valid but the only way we can resist is through physical acts — like vandalism or blocking streets or whatever it is.”

Beshea said Silent Sam is not the most important thing, but it's a statue that represents something bigger.

“I think the problems of the University are symptoms of the problems of (the) nation,” they said. “Even if you are doing a national issue, you still have to mobilize and you still have to be out there physically doing something in some way.”

Beshea said they are not surprised that the Real Silent Sam Coalition is inactive because it would be hard to make headway since the University has a moratorium on changing building names.

“It makes sense why people would gravitate toward the national issues, but at the same time, those issues on your campus aren’t going away either,” they said. “I think both can be on the same field at the same time.”

Mitch Xia, an activist and junior history and communications major, said national issues have become more prominent in student activism this year.

Besides a protest that sought a designated space for the Latinx community in the fall semester, no other rally has directly targeted the University administration this year.

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There have been a few other big protest gatherings this year — students rallied against the political system the day after President Donald Trump’s election and held a die-in at Lenoir and sat out the national anthem at football games to protest police brutality — but students have tried to reach the administration through other means. 

Brodie said this December, over 100 students sent Chancellor Folt an email detailing experiences of harassment that gay and Muslim students faced shortly after Trump was elected president.

"As the Chancellor, your job is to make sure that the safety of your students is a priority. In order for students, faculty, and staff to actively participate in the Tar Heel community, safety needs to be ensured. It's time to stop looking past issues that face historically marginalized persons on this campus with the same carbon copy email that highlights the "core diversity values of this university" that are not put into praxis," the email said.

Folt responded to their email explaining the University's commitment to its nondiscrimination policy and that there are a number of on-campus organizations for well-being and places for discussion. 

“There’s a lot of student action around these current political issues that is happening nationwide — and that doesn’t always look like a protest with signs,” Xia said. “Sometimes it looks like a faculty co-signed letter critiquing the University’s response — or lack thereof — to the Muslim travel ban.”

Jeanine Tatlock, a first-year studio art major, made plaques that give more information about Silent Sam and honored Zora Neale Hurston. She temporarily placed them at the memorial and outside Carolina Hall respectively.

“It’s cool to think about these past protests and trying to resurface these past protests to public attention or to the attention of the students,” she said.

Tatlock said she would like to see student activism on these issues continue.

“Organizations change, people come and go, but issues remain,” Xia said. 

“Even if there is no longer a weekly protest in front of the Silent Sam memorial, I think it’s very obvious, if we look at the campus climate and what’s happening in the U.S. right now, that these things haven’t become any less relevant — and that includes students at UNC who care about these issues. They’re still organizing around them and having important conversations around them. It just doesn’t look the exact same way as it does the last year or the year before that.”