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Saturday May 28th

A decade of activism: How social justice movements have continued at UNC in the 2010s

<p>Maya Little speaks at the Peace and Justice Plaza on Monday, Aug. 21, 2018 against confederate monument Silent Sam. Maya had been previously arrested for her demonstrations against Silent Sam.&nbsp;</p>
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Maya Little speaks at the Peace and Justice Plaza on Monday, Aug. 21, 2018 against confederate monument Silent Sam. Maya had been previously arrested for her demonstrations against Silent Sam. 

When students and community members remember this past decade at UNC, activism will likely come to the forefront of their memory.

Activism at UNC has long been a part of campus life, but the decade of 2010 was full of victories and change for several movements.

Movements of the decade

After all, student protestors toppled Silent Sam, which then prompted a deeper discussion about what the University should do with the monument. 

In a similar vein, the Board of Trustees renamed Saunders Hall, originally named after KKK leader William Saunders, in 2015 after years of activism to this end. Following this, the BOT voted unanimously to impose a 16-year renaming freeze on other campus buildings.

But there’s so much more. Budget cuts and tuition hikes were also a source of protests in the early 2010s. The campus Wendy’s received backlash in the form of boycott and demonstration activism for not joining the pro-workers’ rights Fair Food Program. Further back, Occupy Chapel Hill started as a local version of Occupy Wall Street, fighting against economic inequality.

In a less public display of activism, UNC graduates Annie Clark and Andrea Pino and other sexual assault survivors filed a federal Title IX complaint against UNC to the U.S. Department of Education and starred in the documentary “The Hunting Ground,” showcasing their work to make college campuses safer nationally. Just a few weeks ago, UNC was found in violation of the Clery Act, partly for its response in providing inadequate systems for sexual violence victims.

Silent Sam

But the one movement that holds ties to previous UNC student activism so notably, dominating conversation on activism on campus, was the movement to take down Silent Sam.  

“In my view, the most significant movement that occurred in the last 10 years was the elevated protest against Silent Sam,” said history professor William Sturkey, an expert on social movements in the American South. “Students have been protesting Silent Sam since at least the 1960s because the Confederate monument was in many ways untenable at a desegregated university, but the protest that emerged in the wake of Dylann Roof in Charleston and the Charlottesville murder of Heather Heyer was just on an entirely different level than any activists I've ever seen on a college campus.”

Sturkey said the culture around activism specifically over this past decade has become more aggressive and strategic, especially in terms of social media usage. As a response, the University has also become more repressive toward student activists, he said, mentioning the infiltration of a protest by a campus police officer in 2017.

Campus Y Co-President Raymond Tu agreed that the Charlottesville Unite the Right white supremacist rally partly sparked the first 2017 FDOC anti-Silent Sam protest.

"In the aftermath of that, I think that a lot of what we're working on today is sort of just looking at how can we, now that Silent Sam is down, there's still so many problems that we need to work on," Tu said. "It's not like people of color all of the sudden are super safe.”

Tu said the Campus Y has shifted its focus toward student safety on campus in response to police methods to control crowds like pepper spraying. 

Activists coming into conflict with police is not new, but graduate student activist Lindsay Ayling said the University refused to fire Sgt. Svetlana Bostelman, an officer accused of lying under oath in the testimony toward the conviction of student protestor Julia Pulawksi. 

“While the review concludes that ‘the motivations of officers involved were not improper,’ it also notes several areas in which there were ‘breakdowns in police  procedures and practices,’” interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a statement along with the independent, external review commissioned in March 2019 examining the fall 2018 public safety events.

Ayling herself was arrested Nov. 16 and charged with simple assault during a Confederate statue protest in Pittsboro.

“The police department is, I think, the toughest obstacle to overcome because they're allowed to use brutal force against us, and they won't face any repercussions for it," Ayling said.

Teaching assistants went on strike in 2018 to push for the UNC-System Board of Governers to reject the UNC Board of Trustees’ proposal to house Silent Sam on campus where Odum Village was. The University's response, Ayling said, created a lot of pressure from authority figures to students to not participate. 

“I  trust that our faculty and graduate students will not act in a way that  harms the interests of students and their families, and that these instructors meet the legal, ethical and moral responsibilities for which they have been contracted,” Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin said in a December 2018 email to the University community. “Failure to meet their responsibilities to their students, including timely submission of final grades, will result in serious consequences.”

A University spokesperson said this language was not “threatening” in nature and no grades were actually withheld.

Student involvement

Ayling remembers when she first came to campus, graduate students were not as involved, but now she said there is more community between graduate students in various departments and a much stronger presence in campus activism.

But not all students identify strongly with the activism across campus. This creates frustration for Tu, who leads the Campus Y, which is comprised of many of the social justice movements at UNC.

"A frustration I've always had is just, taking out of the equation students who feel unsafe and students of color who rightfully so don't really feel safe at a protest and that sort of thing, I really am frustrated by the lack of initiative that some of these students on campus should be taking, should be taken to learn about some of these issues," Tu said.

The movement Ayling is a part of counts the toppling of Silent Sam as a victory. They also worked to keep Confederate groups off campus with counter-protests and organized an alert system texting students if they are on campus.

But as another decade comes and goes, when remembering prior activism, some believe memory may be fickle and leave out some parts in the narrative.

Ayling included the police treatment of students of the Black Student Movement when they held a march protesting the murder of James Cates, a Black activist killed by a white motorcycle gang in the Pit. The police of that time, Ayling said, stood by as Cates bled out. Witnesses said somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes passed before Cates received help.

“So I think that what happens when people remember activist movements is that they want to portray people fighting for justice against enemies that they can't relate to rather than against institutions that still exist today and that often harbor the same racist sentiment,” Ayling said.

Looking ahead to the next decade, Tu thinks environmental activism will take center stage. Sturkey can see the issues of gun control, reproductive rights and voting rights becoming more salient in activism in the years ahead.

Sturkey also noted a common theme in how people often remember activism in history, one that could define the way activism of the 2010s against Silent Sam is remembered.

“I think that the antiracist activism from the last few years will ultimately be commemorated on our campus,” Sturkey said. “I say that because history has generally shown us over the last 50 years or so that those who were on the forefront of antiracist activism have been the people that we've celebrated and not the people who were promoting white supremacy or celebrating some sort of antiquated sense of a racial hierarchy.”

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