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Encampment and protests echo anti-war, anti-apartheid demands of UNC's past


Photo Courtesy of the 1987 Yackety Yack.

In 1986, members of the UNC Anti-Apartheid Support Group built several shantytowns — handmade structures and huts — on Polk Place in support of and solidarity with Black South Africans who were forced to live in structures like them during the nation's apartheid regime.

Students were initially told by campus police to take down the shanties that were defacing public property, The Daily Tar Heel reported on March 19, 1986. Hours later, they gained a permit from then-Chancellor Chris Fordham before holding a rally.

Now, in the same place, pro-Palestinian students and community members from across North Carolina formed an encampment organized by UNC Students for Justice in Palestine protesting the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

They set up tents and slept on the grass from Friday morning until Tuesday morning,when police swept and deconstructed the encampment, calling it the "Triangle Gaza Solidarity Encampment." Many participants said they would not leave until UNC divests from funds and products connected to Israel.

On Friday, UNC administrators told students that their tents were in violation with the University's facilities policy and tents were later deconstructed. Students at the encampment re-erected these tents on Sunday evening after a rally brought hundreds to main campus. Police detained more than two dozen individuals and arresting six demonstrators on Tuesday.  Following a planned vigil on Tuesday afternoon, students protesting at the flagpole were met with law enforcement officers and interim chancellor Lee Roberts. Police pepper sprayed some protestors.

Students across the country have also formed encampments, organized protests and held sit-ins on their respective campuses — mirroring some of anti-war movements of years before.

UNC SJP published a list of demands on Oct. 27 calling for divestment and terminated contracts with multiple companies — including Sabra, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar, Inc. All of these groups have been listed on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. The demands also call for transparency in the UNC Management Company's investments.

The UNC Management Company is a group that provides investment management services to the endowments to UNC System schools. Each of the 17 schools in the System, including UNC, has a specific investment portfolio with different funds. UNC Investment Fund — the school's endowment — allocates its assets in different types of equity, private entities, real estate and energy and other funds. 

Each year, the company releases its annual report, disclosing what types of funds they are invested in — but not the specific companies.

During the period of anti-apartheid demonstrations, the Management Company was known as the UNC Endowment Board.  Students called for an end to the University’s contract with Nike and IBM — two companies who had a prevalent business presence in South Africa at the time — among others.

The Daily Tar Heel's front page on Oct. 22, 1982 showed students and faculty protesting against IBM specifically, with signs saying, "UNC, South Africa, Partners in Racism."

In 1983, two years before the AASG built its shantytowns, students passed a resolution spearheaded by the UNC Public Interest Research Group which encouraged the Endowment Board to divest from funds supporting South Africa. The board eventually met to discuss these demands.

Student activists attended this meeting, holding signs that said "Divest Now" and "UNC Will Not Acknowledge The Unjust Reality of South Africa."

According to reporting from The DTH, the Endowment Board later voted against divestment but promised to invest only in companies that follow the Sullivan Principles — a set of guidelines for South African businesses to promote racial equity. 

In 1987, the UNC Endowment Board approved a divestment of all of its holdings in companies that operate in South Africa. The AASG dissolved shortly thereafter.

Now, students, faculty and community members' protests echo these demands about Israel, chanting “Disclose! Divest!“ at protests.

UNC students have protested against war across earlier decades, too.

In 1964, UNC students joined a network of student and community groups across the nation protesting the Vietnam War. Students began a chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society, an anti-war group with chapters across the country.

UNC's chapter of SDS was housed at the Campus Y. The Y also helped organize teach-ins, demonstrations and discussions about the Vietnam War— and years was later involved with anti-apartheid protests.

The Southern Student Organizing Committee, an activist group in the South during the 1960s began at UNC. The group organized “Southern Days of Secession” where they urged their community to colloquially "secede" from the war.

Students nationwide held teach-ins, mirroring Civil Rights-era seminars, about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, protested military recruiters on campus and experienced scrutiny from University administration and state and federal agencies for "communist" activities. 

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In 1965, the Dean of Student Affairs, C.O. Cathey, wrote to the Chair of the House Un-American Activities Committee and then Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover to ask about the "communist" nature of the SDS so that UNC could comply with North Carolina's speaker ban law. The law prohibited members of the Communist Party, or individuals who had pleaded the Fifth Amendment when asked under oath if they were Communists, from speaking at any public institution in North Carolina.

The law was passed by the N.C. General Assembly in 1963 and overturned by a state court in 1968.

In April 1970, the Undergraduate Senate passed a resolution "condemning the extension of United States military involvement in Southeast Asia into Cambodia."

Later that year, after the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students protesting against the Vietnam War at Kent State University, students carried coffins across Franklin Street in remembering those who died. On May 5, 1970, students issued an anonymous statement calling for an indefinite strike. The strike continued into the end of that spring semester.


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Walker Livingston

Walker Livingston is the 2024 enterprise managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer city & state editor and assistant city & state editor. Walker is a sophomore pursuing a double major in journalism and media and American studies, with a minor in data science.