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Silent Sam toppled in protest the night before classes begin

silent sam

Silent Sam was toppled by demonstrators on Aug. 20. DTH Media Corp, the parent company of The Daily Tar Heel filed suit against the Board of Governors Tuesday for allegedly violating the North Carolina open meetings law.

Update, 6:31 p.m.: Chancellor Carol Folt, UNC Board of Governors Chairperson Harry Smith, UNC-system President Margaret Spellings and Board of Trustees Chairperson Haywood Cochrane have released an updated statement from the University and UNC-system that says the State Bureau of Investigation will be assisting local police to investigate last night's protest. 

"Last night’s rally was unlike any previous event on our campus," the statement reads. "This protest was carried out in a highly organized manner and included a number of people unaffiliated with the University. While we respect that protesters have the right to demonstrate, they do not have the right to damage state property."

Update, 2:15 p.m.: The UNC Undergraduate Executive Branch issued a statement on their website at 1:55  p.m. on Monday. 

"Last night, a group of students and community organizers did what few were prepared to do: they corrected a moral and historical wrong that needed to be righted if we were ever to move forward as a University. Last night, they tore down Silent Sam. They were right to do so," the statement said. 

Update, 11:45 a.m.: Gov. Roy Cooper also issued a statement regarding the forced removal last night. 

"The Governor understands that many people are frustrated by the pace of change and he shares their frustration, but violent destruction of public property has no place in our communities," the statement said.

Update, 11:10 a.m.: The UNC Board of Governors Chairperson Harry Smith and the UNC System President Margaret Spellings issued a statement Tuesday morning after the protest. The statement says they are in collaboration with campus police who are reviewing video evidence and conducting interviews to perform a full criminal investigation. 

"We are a nation of laws — and mob rule and the intentional destruction of public property will not be tolerated," Smith and Spellings said in the statement. 

Update, 10:24 a.m.: N.C. Senator Valerie Foushee and House Representatives Verla Insko and Graige Meyer have released a joint statement on Silent Sam. 

After decades of racial tension, the Silent Sam monument was forcibly pulled down Monday night by demonstrators.

A protest that began at 7 p.m. and included University students, faculty and nearby residents led to a swarm of protestors surrounding the Confederate monument with banners condemning white supremacy. 

Tensions rose as Confederate sympathizers lingering in the crowd confronted the demonstrators. Heavy police presence monitored the protest at the start, but the scene began to settle after about two hours.

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Around 9:30 p.m., demonstrators wrapped ropes around the monument, which were concealed by the banners, and pulled in one direction, said first-year Mya Graham. The monument fell within ten seconds, another witness said.

“I feel liberated — like I’m a part of something big. It’s literally my fourth day here,” said first-year Natalia Walker. “This is the biggest thing I’ve ever been apart of in my life just activist wise. All of these people coming together for this one sole purpose and actually getting it done was the best part.”

Police officers stood over the monument that students began to cover in dirt, calling for the crowd to back away. 

“I watched it groan and shiver and come asunder,” said Dwayne Dixon, an Asian studies professor at UNC who has been active in anti-racist movements. “I mean, it feels biblical. It’s thundering and starting to rain. It’s almost like heaven is trying to wash away the soiled contaminated remains.”

According to UNC Media Relations, an estimated crowd of 250 protestors brought down Silent Sam. 

“Tonight’s actions were dangerous, and we are very fortunate that no one was injured,” UNC Media Relations said in a statement. “We are investigating the vandalism and assessing the full extent of the damage.”

Other demonstrators saw it as a historical triumph.

“This is history,” Orange County activist Heather Redding said. “This is going to change a lot. I know a lot of people wanted the University to take it down. And there’s something to be said about the University having to move it now, because that forces them to acknowledge that it is inherently racist.”

When Sam was still standing 

Early in the night, Silent Sam remained standing but couldn’t be seen — draped in banners that covered the full length of the monument. One banner read, “Dedicated to those who fight against the white supremacy that UNC upholds.”

Nearly one year after the 2017 protest condemning Silent Sam, student protesters began Monday night with a message of solidarity against white supremacy at the Peace and Justice Plaza.

At the center of the protest was Maya Little, a UNC grad student who was arrested for covering Silent Sam with her own blood and red paint as a demonstration against the monument last spring. 

Little said her court hearing is scheduled for Oct. 15 in addition to a pending honor court case. 

She told the crowd she didn’t want to focus on her criminal charges, but on the subject of memorialization.

“Right now, we do have a memorial on campus,” Little said. “A memorial to white supremacy, and to slave owners. And to people who murdered my ancestors.”

She called for a memorial to honor James Cates, a 22-year-old Black man who was a lifelong resident of Chapel Hill and a racial justice activist. Little said Cates was murdered in the Pit by a white-supremacist motorcycle gang known as the Storm Troopers. 

UNC Grad student Jerry Wilson spoke next to read his open letter to Chancellor Folt. Mid-speech, he hung a noose around his neck and said he would wear it around campus until the statue was taken down. 

While speakers called for action against the monument, there was no mention of forced removal early in the evening.

“If the act of wearing a noose around my neck seems extreme, then I encourage you to reflect upon the violent ideology of white supremacy to which Silent Sam is a monument,” Wilson said. “I also encourage you to consider the psychological violence enacted upon Black students and it’s physical manifestations.”

On the verge of violence 

As demonstrators marched from the Peace and Justice Plaza toward the monument, tensions arose near the point of violence. Shouting and shoving intensified as Chapel Hill Police guarding Silent Sam met the crowd. An unidentified demonstrator threw smoke bombs in the center of McCorkle Place.

With the crowd organizing around the monument, police stepped back — standing in a line away from the demonstration as protestors chanted things like “cops, go home.” 

At one point, a shouting match erupted at the base of the monument between  two men, one claiming to be a UNC senior named Ricky Flowers and the other claiming to be named Rusty Edwards. 

In an earlier conversation with the DTH, Edwards said he believes Silent Sam and the Confederacy “represents tyranny against an overbearing, centralized government,” not slavery. He wore a necklace bearing a Confederate flag badge at the center of his chest. He called the protesters “idiots” who needed to “research a little history.”

He also blamed Africans for the root of slavery in America, saying their own countrymen were the ones who sold them in the first place.

“I don’t agree with slavery,” Edwards told Flowers.

“Okay, good, then take that f****** badge off, you moron,” Flowers responded.

“Why don’t you take it off?”

“I’d love to, but we’re surrounded by cops, motherf*****.”

“I already told you, I wouldn’t press charges.”

“It didn’t seem to matter when I walked up and asked if I hit you in the face, would they arrest me?”

“If you did, it would be the last thing you would ever remember,” Edwards said.

Another Confederate sympathizer who claimed to be named “Lord Byron” said the statue belonged to his generation, calling the demonstrators “misguided people.”

Later on, DTH reporters saw police separating that man from a group of demonstrators. The demonstrators claimed he was shoving and provoking them.

UNC’s Media Relations team confirmed one arrest at the end of the night, charging an unnamed individual for concealing their face during a rally and resisting arrest.

What comes next

“It’s an amazing feeling right now,” said Graham. “It’s down on the ground, it’s in the dirt.” 

At nearly midnight, UNC police officers carried the monument to a UNC Facilities and Maintenance truck. 

Dixon said he thinks both Chancellor Folt and UNC police will be happy to move away from the topic of Silent Sam. 

“Just like some of the people who made speeches, now, they can see some of the money that the University has being actually used for real, living students, and not a monument to students who were once here and unfortunately took up a cause that was violent and hateful and within the service of slavery,” Dixon said. “Point blank.”

View the Facebook Live video here: 

Taylor Buck, Kate Karstens and Maddy Arrowood contributed reporting.