Sophomore De’Ivyion Drew was sitting in a lecture on Aug. 20, the first day of classes, when a text alert informed her that four members of a Confederate group were armed at the entrance of UNC’s campus.
Drew, a member of Black Congress and an affiliate of activist group Defend UNC, lost focus on her class. She became concerned for her own safety, glancing out the window and wondering if the group, which included two men openly carrying guns, was getting closer.
Since community demonstrators toppled Silent Sam in August 2018, the Heirs To The Confederacy have become a familiar face among various out-of-town groups traveling to Chapel Hill with the stated purpose of advocating for the Confederate monument’s return to campus. Days after an armed appearance on campus by the Heirs last March, interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced plans for a new Campus Safety Commission meant “to take a broader look at all aspects of community safety.”
But UNC has faced a variety of criticisms over its role in Silent Sam-related conflicts, one being that its Alert Carolina system hasn’t informed the community of such events.
The text that pinged Drew, who is one of two student members on Guskiewicz’s safety commission, about the Heirs’ most recent visit to Chapel Hill didn’t come from the University’s alert system. Rather, it came from a new system set up by activists, which they’ve dubbed “UNC Anti-Racist Alerts,” and Drew believes it’s filling a void in community safety efforts.
“Young students, activist or not, fear for their safety when the University can send you a quick email about a thunderstorm warning, but they can’t send you an email about the number one mass murder group globally, white supremacists, being on campus and threatening student safety,” Drew said.
The University declined to comment on the new alert system or the criticisms of Alert Carolina.
‘The ones they don’t see’
On their most recent visit to Chapel Hill two weeks ago, the Heirs did not appear to enter campus boundaries, according to eyewitness accounts and Facebook live videos, instead pacing on the fringe of campus near McCorkle Place, where Silent Sam once stood. The group’s co-founder, Lance Spivey, openly carried a pink gun. A fellow Heir, who goes by “R David King” on social media, was also openly carrying, and the group donned Confederate flags and memorabilia.
Spivey, a Randolph County resident, told the DTH last week that his group sees Silent Sam as “a focal point for this battle, this war, whatever you want to call this.” He said he carries his gun in Chapel Hill not as a threat, but as self-defense from the “shouting and shoving” of counter-protesters, which he views as assault.
When asked if he understands the community’s concern about him openly carrying a gun, Spivey said, “I do, but I think they should be more concerned about the ones they don’t see.”
Last March, when the Heirs entered campus and stood in front of Memorial Hall, just a short walk from a gathering of community activists, Spivey openly carried a pistol while others were concealed-carrying or pocketing items like knives and handcuffs. Bill Miller, a Virginia resident, wore a participation patch for the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, where a white supremacist murdered activist Heather Heyer with a car.
Previous implications of hostility from the group furthered tensions over its March visit, including a blog post days previous where Spivey had written that he was “ready to kill” for what he views as a connection between Confederate monuments and overall freedom.
UNC Police faced criticism over the event after the group was able to hover in front of Memorial Hall for over 10 minutes until an officer explained to them the boundaries of campus, shook Miller’s hand and escorted the group off campus. Despite state law making it a felony to possess a firearm on educational property and a misdemeanor in the case of other weapons, no charges were issued.
Guskiewicz said in an email to campus days later that the incident should’ve been handled differently, and former UNC Police Chief Jeff McCracken said in an April guest column for The Daily Tar Heel that Spivey had been trespassed from campus.
The alert system
The Heirs’ most recent appearance sparked the first text alert that UNC activists have sent out through their new system. Soon after, a group of students and community members intercepted the armed group on Franklin Street, chanting and holding banners with phrases like, “fight racism, go heels!”
The event raised awareness of the new alert system’s existence, Drew said, and many other UNC students signed on after hearing about it.
Daniel Hosterman, a Durham documentary photographer who photographed the Heirs’ campus visit in March, developed the alert system’s software in collaboration with local groups after graduate student activist Lindsay Ayling raised the idea. On the day of the Heirs’ most recent campus visit, which also fell on the one-year anniversary of Silent Sam’s toppling, the system’s subscribership more than doubled.
As of Tuesday, the UNC activists’ alert system had around 950 subscribers. Ayling said the system works through a variety of administrators in the community, who receive tips on situations like the Heirs’ most recent visit and verify the potential danger of the situation before sending out push alerts.
Soon after it was made public, Hosterman said activists in Hillsborough approached him to ask about getting their own system. A separate Hillsborough alert system using Hosterman’s software became active Aug. 24, when members of the Ku Klux Klan, some openly carrying guns, rallied in front of Orange County Courthouse.
Hosterman said the Hillsborough alert system had accrued around 650 subscribers over the week following the incident, and that two more systems were going online in separate areas.
‘A crisis of trust’
Ayling has become a high-profile activist at UNC. She referenced direct threats that she and the community have faced from fringe online users espousing racism and fascism.
The new alert system, she said, is about “community self-defense” against potential escalation of these situations.
“It is a daunting problem, especially because we’re not seeing any ideas from (University) leadership on how to combat it,” Ayling said.
She pointed to a screenshot of Facebook comments made by Howard Snow on a livestreamed video in mid-June. Snow, one of the Heirs members who came to Chapel Hill two weeks ago, commented, “When we stand and hate to say it put a bullet in there heads that’s when this s--- will stop (sic).”
The Facebook post that Snow made those comments on is no longer available on the site.
Spivey said his group will stop coming to Chapel Hill when Silent Sam is returned to its original place on campus. He said he used to take out demonstration permits with the Town of Chapel Hill and coordinate police escort arrangements with UNC Police officer Daniel Brown.
“When he hears that we might be coming, he calls me, and he and I will have the discussion,” Spivey said. “If he doesn’t hear about it, I usually call him.”
When asked about Spivey's connection with Officer Brown, the University referred to a December 2018 statement where Derek Kemp, associate vice chancellor for campus safety and risk management, said UNC Police contacts "any group that is willing to work with them to learn their plans, develop a safety plan, including entrance and exit, and ensure that opposing groups have separate spaces. As we learned from the events in Charlottesville, one of the most effective ways of ensuring safety is to keep counter-protest groups separate.”
But Spivey said that the campus “police escorts haven’t been much help against us getting assaulted,” and that his group has stopped getting permits for visits to Chapel Hill.
“As it turns out, the open-carrying of a firearm puts a bigger damper on that than the presence of the police department,” Spivey said.
Drew said graduate students like Ayling and Maya Little have inspired her own activism. She expressed hopes that younger students will take notice of the alert system and the situation surrounding its creation.
“It’s a climate of safety concerns and it’s a crisis of trust, particularly between the students and the administration who claim to keep them safe,” Drew said.