The August 20 toppling of Silent Sam was a year-defining moment for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Students, faculty, and activists celebrated the fall of a 105-year-old monument to white supremacy, calling it a “shining moment” in UNC’s history. 

Their celebrations were short-lived. 

Hours after the statue came down, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt condemned the action as “unlawful and dangerous.” Neo-Confederate and white supremacist groups descended on UNC’s campus to mourn “our fallen boy soldier,” each time met by far larger crowds of counter-protesters. A series of tense confrontations with police led to the imposition of a November 15 deadline—eventually pushed into December—for Folt and UNC’s Board of Trustees to create a long-term plan for the monument and submit it to the system’s Board of Governors for approval. 

On December 3, they released their proposal for a $5.3 million “history and education center” to house Silent Sam on campus. Buried in the plan’s appendices was a call for a $2-million-a-year “mobile force” of system-wide police, apparently to crack down on protests.

Antiracists denounced the proposed building as a thinly veiled shrine to Silent Sam. Hours after the plan’s unveiling, hundreds assembled for a march through Chapel Hill calling for its rejection. The following week saw pledges from students and alumni to withhold donations, a petition from nearly two hundred current and former student-athletes expressing outrage, and a strike that saw thousands of teachers’ assistants promise to withhold grades until the Board of Governors rejected the plan.

On Friday, the BOG did just that—sort of. More precisely, it punted, tasking the Committee on University Governance with developing new recommendations by March 15. If that committee recommends anything other than permanently removing Silent Sam, its report will almost certainly be greeted by a new round of demonstrations—and Maya Little will almost certainly be in the middle of them. 

Little was a regular face during the spring semester’s round-the-clock sit-in at the statue’s base. But she first burst into the public consciousness in April, when she covered the statue in a mixture of red paint and her own blood, an act for which law enforcement and UNC officials slapped her with vandalism charges and university Honor Court violations. (In October, the Honor Court found Little guilty on a 3–2 vote and sentenced her to eighteen hours of community service; she is appealing, in part because one of the guilty votes came from a campus conservative leader who had called anti-Silent Sam protesters “petulant children.”) Earlier this month, after the protests that followed the Board of Trustees’ proposal, she was charged again with inciting a riot and assaulting an officer.  

Yet Little remains undaunted, determined to continue fighting against what she views as the university’s tolerance of white supremacy. Last Wednesday—two days before the Board of Governors rejected the Board of Trustees’ proposal—Little spoke with the INDY about what Sam’s toppling means to the UNC community, what made BOT’s plan so dangerous, and why the antiracism movement that’s emerged in the wake of the statue’s fall is here to stay.

INDY: Tell us about April 30, the day you first rose to prominence as an activist. 

MAYA LITTLE: I had been involved in protests around Silent Sam since August [2017], when the sit-ins started. What I saw myself doing was something that I was employed by the university to do and given admission as a grad student to do: to provide service to the university through educating and through reviewing and teaching history. All we wanted to do was show that, within this monument’s history and within its current representation, it represents white supremacy, and it has no place on this campus. At every end, we were met with resistance by the administration, whether in petitions and passing out information around the monument or in having signs and banners. 

On April 30, I was continuing to do what, again, I was employed to do: to teach. To provide the historical context that this university refuses to do. To have an armed Confederate monument on this campus facing north toward Chapel Hill’s historically black neighborhood without what the Confederacy and white supremacy were covered in and built on—which is black agony and black blood and exploitation—is historically inaccurate.

So you covered the statue with a mixture of red paint and your own blood. 


You called it a “contextualization” of Silent Sam. What’s the context you wanted to add?

What we wanted to add—and what we’ve been trying to add, and what students have been trying to add since 1968, since black students have been at UNC—is that Silent Sam is the representation of white supremacy. The cause that the Confederacy advanced, the cause that Silent Sam’s builders and dedicators advanced, was white supremacy and the enslavement of black people, and they actually continued the exploitation of black people during Jim Crow and today.

The history of Silent Sam didn’t end in 1865, when many of the young men who served the Confederacy from UNC—who were officers who were, by and large, economically invested in the slave system the Confederacy advanced—came back. It didn’t end in 1895, which in North Carolina could be said to mark the end of Reconstruction. It didn’t end with the murders supported by Julian Carr, one of the dedicators of the statue, of countless black politicians and journalists in Wilmington. And it hasn’t ended today. UNC does everything in its power—spends money, uses its resources, and uses its police—to protect a Confederate monument at the expense of the safety and dignity of its students.

What was the response?

The response from UNC was expected. It takes the university 105 years to do anything about a Confederate monument—and in fact, they didn’t do anything about it; students and community members took upon themselves to remove the monument—but it takes them three minutes to arrest me and have a facilities crew on campus clean up the monument, because God forbid anyone see a Confederate soldier covered in blood. I was given a criminal charge—vandalism of a public monument—and the university also pursued Honor Court charges against me. 

In the terms of the community response, there’s been so much support because there has been so much activism in this area. One thing that the university is trying to do—in trying to keep such a clean, well-kept monument and in silencing dissent—is to negate the fact that there are so many people who don’t want this monument on campus, who are sick of paying their tuition and student fees and taxpayer dollars to this monument, and sick of UNC’s white supremacy. They’re sick of UNC beating protesters and students and exploiting its workers. A lot of what’s been built up this year—and I would say these past fifty years of black student activism at UNC—is an antiracist community that’s willing to stand up when the university refuses to.

What was your experience on August 20, when Silent Sam came down?

I went to give a speech at the Peace and Justice Plaza right across from Silent Sam. Many other students gave a speech. Many black students and community members and people who have felt not only humiliated but unsafe, because the university wants to protect a racist statue instead of them, spoke and talked about that pain. 

What people saw happen was a community standing up to defend itself and keep white supremacy out of it when the university has done nothing. That day was one of the only days at UNC I’ve ever really felt like I belonged here and that there were people who cared about my safety and who cared about stopping white supremacy at UNC. 

The people who opposed that were UNC Police, Chapel Hill Police, some local white supremacists, and eventually the university. UNC has condemned people in its own community—students and faculty and workers and people within Chapel Hill—as outside agitators. That kind of rhetoric is not unfamiliar when it comes to civil disobedience against racism. A lot of times, people who have taken it upon themselves to serve their moral obligation rather than to serve a racist system have been called outside agitators. As someone who studies history, this kind of rhetoric is particularly dangerous. In times of extreme repression toward demonstrators and people who are struggling for their rights to their lives, people in power calling them outside agitators has given room for people to believe that, if violence is done to these people who are advocating for justice but whom we call outside agitators, that’s OK, because they’re not one of us and they don’t belong. 

As university officials have debated what to do with Silent Sam, many people have argued that it poses a safety hazard. Why is that?

The only people who seem to deny that would be the university, and it’s impossible for the university to deny that it’s a safety hazard. It’s a public safety hazard when they have police stationed around the monument and continue to have them stationed around the pedestal 24-7 at all times. In fact, the university since spent $400,000 just last year in security for the monument. And not only security for the monument but police to violently assault and harass antiracist protesters. And when antiracist activists and students talk about the monument as a public safety hazard, what we’re saying is that these monuments have always been supported by people who support white supremacy, and more so now, they’ve become beacons for white supremacist groups to do violence and harm to communities that these monuments are placed in. 

We’ve seen that at UNC. We’ve seen white supremacist groups come to UNC to display hate symbols like the Confederate flag to threaten students, to threaten community members, and to make UNC a visible space of white supremacy. And what we’ve seen also is the police and administration supporting that by not only tacitly giving these people a space to rally for white supremacy but also by beating protesters, pepper-spraying protesters, and silencing all dissent.

How hard has it been to keep these demonstrations going in the face of opposition from administrators and police officers?

They’re trying to make it impossible by using physical violence on us and by making arrests and issuing no-trespass orders. I remember at the August 30 protests, where people were directly pepper sprayed and had nowhere to go. The police had no idea what to do, and the only reason some people who had been directly pepper sprayed were able to see and get out of that space was because of antiracist medics who were in the area and gave people salves to put in their eyes and on their nose and in their faces. Later that night, the police arrested three medics and issued them no-trespass orders for campus.  

In the wake of my arrest last Monday, that’s the same thing that happened. First what happens is this physical violence—the use of pepper spray and of chemical weapons that are not allowed in war, the beating, the punching. And then come the arrests on charges like assaulting an officer or incitement to riot. And I mean, these charges become things that are ridiculous. It’s like, “You got blood on my uniform. You assaulted me.” Or, for incitement to riot, “When I choked you, that scared people. So that caused a riot.” These are the kind of charges that we get.

And then what happens after people get those charges and have to fight an expensive legal battle just for being present at a protest against racism is that they’re issued no-trespass orders for campus. In my arrest, the officer, who has alleged that I assaulted him, personally came to Hillsborough during my surrender to deliver a letter of trespass from UNC Police. So as an employee and a student at UNC, I’m not allowed to go in McCorkle Place—where many of the buildings in which I’ve worked in the past are—indefinitely. If my charges are dropped, I’m still not able to go there. It’s up to the chief of police to decide. So imagine, that’s happened to almost every single antiracist activist who has been arrested on McCorkle Place. To me, it’s obvious that the only people UNC wants on McCorkle Place are white supremacists and police, because those are the only people who are given license to physically assault and then ban people from campus.

What are your thoughts on the Board of Trustees’ proposal for Silent Sam? What about the community’s response?

This idea of an education center is completely false. It’s a shrine to white supremacy. It is the re-erection—UNC being the only university in 2019 that will erect a Confederate monument and build a shrine around it that is specifically designed so that no one will protest at it. It is not contextualized at all. The only context that will be provided is by the university, which has failed for the last 105 years to do anything. And this will be built in south campus, which is today—because the university is still very segregated in its housing—where the majority of the black students who go to UNC live. It’s also a five-minute walk from a synagogue. The university has decided to build the shrine that these people rally around next to a synagogue, next to black students. Not only that, not only do you have that total indignity to us—and to make us pay for that, too—but then you have the creation of a police force specifically to squash dissent. 

The day after [the proposal] was announced, there was a huge rally at the Peace and Justice Plaza [and] hundreds of protesters were there. I announced during that rally the [teachers’ assistants] faculty strike. What the university has told us throughout this year and is clearly telling us with this proposal is that it doesn’t care about a safe and equal working environment for us. It doesn’t care about our students. Asking our students to study, to work, to live in this environment in which they are not protected, in which they are not valued, is contrary to our mission as educators, is contrary to what we want to provide students. 

We’re not going to perpetuate white supremacy onto our students. We’re not going to perpetuate their exploitation and the university humiliating and disregarding their safety. That is why we’ve committed to striking, to withholding grades, and to not perpetuating the university’s administration.

What has been so strong throughout this year for me has been the support of the community who are tired of having this symbol of white supremacy in their community and on a campus where they visit or work or study. And that’s exactly what we’ve needed. The only thing that made the university listen, has gotten them to do anything, and has made any change in the landscape of UNC has been direct action, has been refusing to cooperate with the administration. And that’s going to continue until the administration decides to work for its students and its workers and the university and the community around it.

What do people need to know about this community that’s sprung up?

The people in this community are taking into their own hands what the law and the police and the university have not done for them, and that is protecting each other, making this an equitable and fair community, and making it a place in which people are not abused or afraid because of their race. That’s why it’s going to last, because that has effected real change. The creation of that community has strengthened so many people, and the university has proven itself to not be a part of that community. And so have the police, and so has the legal system in Orange County. The more people have seen that—the more people have seen the administrators or city officials or police are against them—the more they turn to direct action, to fight for themselves, and to fight for their equality.

Contact editorial assistant Cole Villena at or on Twitter @colevillena. 

One reply on “Maya Little Isn’t Done Fighting White Supremacy at UNC”

  1. Ms Little would do much better actually studying history rather than forwarding Leftists spin. One million Freedman starved to death while Robber Barons funded Transcontinental RR Transatlantic Cable and purchase of Alaska while stealing much of the Federal contacts in Credit Mobilier scandal. North wanted to be free of Blacks not free for Blacks. More Free Blacks lived in South because of severity of Northern Black Codes. Union General Nathaniel Banks contraband policy became the Jim Crow laws that mirrored Illinois antebellum Black Codes.

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