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Maya Little has headed the charge against Silent Sam, but not without consequences

silent sam proposal protest maya little

Maya Little speaks before a shouting crowd during a protest against Chancellor Carol Folt and the Board of Trustees' proposal for Silent Sam's relocation in the Peace and Justice Plaza on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. 

Maya Little, the embattled UNC Ph.D. student at the forefront of Silent Sam’s opposition, turned herself in at the Orange County Courthouse on Tuesday, on charges of inciting a riot and assault on an officer stemming from a protest Monday night. 

During the protest, a mass of people marched from the Peace and Justice Plaza toward South Building. The demonstration was organized in response to the Board of Trustees' recommendation that a freestanding building be built to house the displaced Confederate monument. 

Monday night’s incident was the latest development in a series of legal struggles that have consumed the past year of her life, made her a leader in the anti-Silent Sam community and have forced a public discussion on the meaning of contextualization.

Little became involved in organizing protests in September 2017, when she joined the ranks of the 24-hour occupiers who were ubiquitous in McCorkle Place last fall. She felt compelled to join the movement after the around-the-clock protesters “had their belongings confiscated and were told to leave by campus police,” she said.

“That includes being at the statue last semester every day,” she said, “to host the sit-in with our signs that provided context about the statue and its history and it being a white supremacist, racist monument.”

In November 2017, she received publicity for identifying a fellow protester as an undercover UNC police officer. He had been posing as an auto mechanic from Durham, vocal in his distaste for Silent Sam. She saw the officer, Hector Borges, working in uniform after the McCorkle Place explosion last year.

Tension surrounding the statue amplified throughout last fall, following the removal of a Robert E. Lee monument on Duke’s campus and the death of a protester at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. 

In April, Little took buckets of paint, and her own blood, and threw them on the statue. She was arrested following the incident, which started her ongoing legal battle with the University and Orange County.

I smeared my blood and red ink on the statue because the statue was lacking proper historical context,” she told the DTH. “So these statues were built on Black blood. These statues symbolize the violence toward Black people. Without that blood on the statue, it’s incomplete, in my opinion. It’s not properly contextualized.”

In October, Little was found guilty of defacing a public monument for her actions in April. Her legal defense hinged on an argument of necessity — her lawyer stated her actions were appropriate because they were intended to contextualize a monument that many people think is now out of place. 

Scott Holmes, her lawyer, linked Little’s case to that of the Friendship Nine, a group of Black men who were arrested for staging a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in South Carolina in 1961. 

“It sometimes becomes necessary to break some sort of technical minor law in order to vindicate the broader values of the Constitution,” Holmes said.

In 2015, the Friendship Nine's convictions were ceremoniously overturned. 

At court, the judge — the nephew of the judge who originally sentenced the group — said, "We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.”

Judge Samantha Cabe issued a guilty verdict but no sentence. Little faced no legal consequences from the courts. 

She faced similar charges in the UNC Honor Court, which carried out her trial after it was discovered that one of the student adjudicators, Frank Pray, was on record promoting Silent Sam, and had directed Twitter insults toward a professor on Little’s witness list. 

After Amelia Ahern, the presiding officer of the hearing, affirmed Pray’s impartiality and announced the trial would continue, Little read a statement in which she expressed her grievances with the system, then staged a walkout. In her absence, the Honor Court sentenced her with 18 community service hours and a written letter of warning. 

Following the statue’s teardown in August, for which Little claimed no involvement, the BOT mulled for months over relocation options. After they announced their proposal Monday, protesters took to the streets, and Little once again faces legal troubles. 

“Maya is the bravest person in Chapel Hill,” said Lindsay Ayling, a UNC Ph.D. student and organizer of last night’s protest. “She put herself on the line, knowing that she faces violence not only from white supremacists, but also the police.”

Ayling said Little has been pepper sprayed by police officers, but continues to engage in civil unrest. At one protest this fall, Ayling said an officer sprayed Little’s clothes and skin.

“Her skin was burning all night,” Ayling said. “She was in agony, and still hasn't been able to get the pepper spray out of her clothes.”

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Little is in the process of appealing her Honor Court decision, sparking more discourse about the appropriate place of the statue on UNC's campus. Throughout the past year, she has shaped the narrative surrounding Silent Sam, and has galvanized a campaign among some UNC students for the reevaluation of historical relics.