UNC students and faculty rallied today against the continuing presence of the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam and the university’s use of an undercover officer to monitor a group that has been speaking out about the statue since August.
A crowd gathered at UNC’s South building, where UNC police chief Jeff McCracken and vice chancellor for campus safety and risk management Derek Kemp looked on as speakers called on the school to remove the statue and end surveillance of protesters. From there, they marched to Silent Sam, which has been the site of protests and a sit-in throughout the fall semester.
“The goal of our protest is to bring UNC into compliance with federal law,” said Ph.D. student Lindsay Ayling, referring to a letter from attorney Hampton Dellinger to UNC officials saying the presence of Silent Sam violates federal anti-discrimination laws. “… Why are we being treated like criminals?”
Demonstrators discovered the undercover UNC officer earlier this month. According to students, the officer, who has since been identified as Hector Borges, told them his name was Victor and that he was— alternately—a mechanic, lawn care worker, and a veteran with PTSD. When students spotted him in uniform, they confronted him on camera and shared the video on social media.
Speakers Tuesday called the surveillance a misuse of their tuition and fees, an affront to their free speech rights, and a cause for stress and fear on campus.
Use of an undercover officer shows that university officials are “not interested in a dialogue about this statue,” said student Jennifer Standish. “Victor’s infiltration was not the university protecting students. They had already employed uniformed officers around the sit-in for that. It was the administration protecting its own interests in keeping the statue up.”
Last week, McCracken and Kemp issued a statement saying the undercover officer had been used to protect students’ safety in light of “the very real potential for a violent outbreak at any time” and denied he was there to monitor the protesters.
“Our officers do not monitor the content of any protest beyond the public safety implications, nor do they create reports about students or their law-abiding activities,” the statement reads. “Police officers are there to protect participants’ safety and listen to their concerns. It was never our intention to create a situation that would suggest otherwise. If you have read or made assumptions to the contrary about our campus, they are not true.”
But on Tuesday, history professor William Sturkey questioned how there had been a sufficient public safety threat to warrant the use of an undercover officer but not to trigger a public safety exemption to a 2015 law that prevents the removal of monuments like Silent Sam. The statue allows for the removal of a monument “a building inspector or similar official has determined poses a threat to public safety because of an unsafe or dangerous condition.”
“These folks operate in the dark. They do not represent light and liberty,” he said, referring to the UNC-Chapel Hill motto, “lux libertas.” The history department is among a growing list of UNC faculty calling for the removal of the statue.
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt has said she would like to remove Silent Sam, but the state statute doesn’t give the school unilateral authority to do so. Protesters reiterated their calls for UNC to petition the North Carolina Historical Commission to remove the monument, but as of Tuesday afternoon, no such petition had been submitted.
UNC’s Board of Trustees though will be taking public comments on the monument at its meeting tomorrow morning. Comments are also being accepted by email.
“I do believe that as long as Silent Sam stands in its current location, it runs the risk of continuing to drain energy and goodwill that we’ve worked so hard to maintain on our campus and truly does distract us from reaching the important goals we all share,” Folt said at a trustees meeting in September. “… I’ve stated publicly that if it was my choice, I would relocate Silent Sam based on concerns for public safety, but I don’t have that authority under the law.”
Michelle Brown, one of the organizers of the rally, doesn’t buy that Folt’s hands are tied. She urged those who gathered at the statue to keep coming to protests, speak to people at the statue, and ask professors to discuss Silent Sam in class.
“This conversation can’t stop and we can’t let the movement die,” she said.