For decades, members of the UNC community have been involved in protests and social activism efforts, from the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam War movement to the anti-Apartheid movement and Silent Sam’s removal.
In the weeks following the killing of George Floyd, several student groups, including UNC Black Congress and the Black Student Movement, have been involved in organizing protests against police brutality and systemic racism across the Triangle.
However, given UNC’s safety guidelines for the fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, questions remain as to how protesting efforts will be carried out on the University’s campus during the upcoming semester.
In an email statement, UNC Media Relations did not address how protesting may change on campus, but offered guidance on healthy and safety community standards.
The University states on the Carolina Together website that the best strategy to reduce COVID-19 transmission is to practice physical distancing and avoid large gatherings and crowded areas. The website also says that individuals, students and community groups should limit in-person events and social gatherings to the number of people specified by the guidance of local, state and national officials.
“Outdoors, the best strategy is to put at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and others whenever possible,” the website states. “If 6 feet distancing is not possible, it is essential that all individuals within a group of people be appropriately masked.”
In the email statement, a University spokesperson also said that as a public university, “Carolina protects free speech and the right to peacefully protest.”
Irena Como, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of North Carolina, reiterated that students have the right to protest on a public university’s campus.
“In general, (universities) can’t suppress people’s free speech rights, including their right to protest,” said Como. “As long as the protests are peaceful, campus police should not interfere with them at all.”
Rising UNC sophomore Greear Webb, who helped organize the first protest in Raleigh on May 30 in response to Floyd’s killing, said he initially became involved in student activism after the Parkland school shooting in 2018. Since then, he has become involved in North Carolina politics, and has founded two nonprofit organizations: N.C. Town Hall and Young Americans Protest.
Webb discussed what activism could look like on campus in the fall.
“I definitely have imagined and envisioned some more student-led protesting, possibly some kind of sit-in, some kind of social media campaign just to draw attention to the injustices in policing, specifically to the racism that continues to exist and thrive on UNC’s campus,” Webb said.
Webb said he plans to be a part of the process in organizing protests on campus during the fall, and supporting those that are adamant about demanding change.
In order to lessen the risk of spreading the coronavirus while protesting, Webb said that part of the planning process in the fall would need to include stocking up on hand sanitizer and masks for those who do not have them, and encouraging people to wear masks at protests.
“At the end of the day, we’re fighting for justice not only when it comes to health in making sure that those in minority communities get the help they deserve for coronavirus, but we’re also making sure that specifically our Black brothers and sisters continue to be able to live,” Webb said. “And that’s important that we can keep up both those battles.”
UNC Police Chief David Perry said he anticipates a number of free speech events being held on campus.
“I want and I expect students to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Perry said.
Perry said that he would expect protests to both follow guidelines and recommendations to help stop the spread of COVID-19, and to be peaceful and orderly.
Webb said that he hopes UNC Police will take a “hands-off” approach to student-led protests.
“I think the Black Student Movement, historically and present day, plays such a prominent role being one of the largest, if not the largest student-run club at UNC,” said Webb. “Having that impact and being able to include not only Black students, but anyone that wants to partner with Black students in fighting for what’s right, I think it’s going to be super powerful. And I’m encouraged to see how it all works out in the fall.”
Julia Clark, vice president of the Black Student Movement at UNC, spoke about what supporting the Black Lives Matter movement may look like in the fall.
“Our goal is to also keep the momentum that’s occurring nationally and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in whatever ways that we can,” wrote Clark in a text statement. “With that being said, Black Student Movement will continue to fight for Black lives both on and off campus, but especially for our Black students at UNC.”
Clark emphasized that fighting for Black lives doesn’t happen solely through demonstrations.
“Ultimately, we have a lot of tools that we can use to continue to protest the treatment of Black students on our campus,” said Clark. “We intend to host several events, whether that be in person or virtually, that talk about the role of Black students on UNC campus.”
She said BSM will continue to organize, provide resources and advocate directly with UNC’s administration, but at the moment, it’s difficult to predict exactly how other forms of protesting will occur because of the uncertainty surrounding the fall semester itself. BSM’s priority will always be the safety of its members, she said.
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