Around the base of a Confederate statue on the UNC campus, a small community has cropped up.
On ledges beneath the figure of a soldier known as Silent Sam sit poster-board signs reading “No Hate” and “No Fear,” a box of powdered donut holes, Capri Sun juice, and four hand-sewn cloth dolls, each holding little signs that spell out “Fuck the patriarchy and racists.”
Even at two a.m. on Friday, during the first week of the fall semester, a small crowd of students is here. The group has fluctuated in number since last Tuesday night, when hundreds of people came to the Chapel Hill campus to protest Silent Sam and some vowed not to leave until the monument was gone. They’re sitting on blankets on the damp ground and in lawn chairs with their backs to the statue, keeping an eye on the open, grassy space between them and Franklin Street.
The approach of any new person is greeted with a mix of curiosity, excitement, and suspicion. After all, the group has been visited in the dead of night by an American flag-wearing duo using a late-night Wiffle ball game as a cover to start trouble, has had their only shelter (a tent) seized by campus police, and, on Sunday, found a tiki torch like those carried by white supremacists in Charlottesville earlier this month, bearing an ominous message in cut-out magazine letters: “See you soon.”
But early Friday morning, most visits are friendly. One student drops off a handful of Reese’s. “Thanks for what you’re doing,” he says. “This is awesome.” Another hands over a bag of warm French fries and says, “You guys need these more than I do.” A polo-shirted guy on a bike stops to ask about the gathering. “So you guys have been camping out to make the monument go away? Very college, very cool,” he says.
Throughout the week, mini-history lessons have been given here, as well as prayer services. A sort of exhibit has popped up where people can write on cardboard signs how they have been affected by white supremacy, both overt and covert.
Debate over whether to remove Silent Sam has been simmering since at least 1965 (as evidenced by a letter to the editor of the Daily Tar Heel that year, in which Al Ribak argued that the memorial’s goal was to “associate a fictitious ‘honor’ with the darkest blot on American history”) and has reached a fever pitch in the wake of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the toppling of a Confederate monument by protesters in downtown Durham, and the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee from the entrance of Duke Chapel.
“It just was, like, expected then that we would come on campus at the beginning of the school year and we’d be watching as this gets taken down,” says junior Tahj Warren, who has spent several nights camped out by Silent Sam. “And the fact that that didn’t happen, it was just a shock and it was kind of a slap in the face, especially when Duke takes down their statue.”
The university says its hands are tied by a 2015 state law that prohibits the removal of “objects of remembrance” without approval from the N.C. Historical Commission. Last week, Governor Cooper said the school could “take immediate measures” if the statue posed a public safety threat, but Chancellor Carol Folt and the UNC Board of Trustees disagree that the school has the legal authority to remove the monument, which is dedicated to students who fought for the Confederacy. (The mayor of Chapel Hill and several town council members have called for its removal.)
Although Folt has said she would take down the statue if she could, inaction by the university over the years is akin to “being reminded over and over again that your safety isn’t valued,” said a junior participating in the sit-in Friday who only gave the first name Suad. “It’s a lot of mental, physical, and emotional danger.”
All of this culminated last Tuesday with a rally calling for removal of the monument, which was guarded by metal barricades and police. That rally launched this week’s sit-in (“Let’s try something different,” Warren explains) and a few reactionary appearances by those who see Silent Sam as a noble tribute to veterans and Southern heritage.
But for those participating in the protests, particularly students of color, Silent Sam, with its towering stature and prominent place on campus, sends a different message.
“Nine-B. That’s what this statue says to me,” says Warren, referring to part of industrialist Julian Carr’s speech dedicating the monument in 1913. In it, Carr launches into a horrifying anecdote about a time he “horse-whipped a negro wench” who had “maligned a Southern lady” and sought refuge on the UNC campus.
It’s an excerpt that has been invoked several times as passersby stop to ask protesters what they’re doing and why. Gabrielle Johnson, a junior, thinks these conversations, as well as the larger action, have convinced some people that Sam should come down. University officials, however, have been less receptive to dialogue about moving or adding context to the statue, she says.
“As long as it comes down, I don’t care what happens to it really,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be destroyed. It doesn’t have to be burnt. It can be put in a museum somewhere. Chancellor Folt can keep it in her bedroom. But it has no place being glorified on our campus out here in this central location, as if we’re proud, because it’s nothing to be proud about. It’s a part of history that is terrible, that is wrong, that has caused pain and sufferingthat still continues to do so for many.”
On Saturday afternoon, the presence of a handful of young men waving Confederate flags prompted about seventy people to answer a call from sit-in organizers for support.
Among them were twelve-year-old Isaac Janiak-Stein and his little brother, Saul, who saw the crowd while going to lunch with their family. They believe the statue should be moved to a museum, where it can be understood in the context of history.
“We don’t want to be represented as that,” said nine-year-old Saul, “but we want to know it existed and that there are two different beliefs.”
The counterprotesters, who drove about an hour to campus, said they support having a “rededication” to clarify what the monument represents. To the chagrin of some protesters, they said their experience Saturday was “enlightening” for both sides and would consider coming back.
Meanwhile, sit-in participants say they won’t leave until Silent Sam does. While students and members of the community have been generous with supplies and retweets, they’d like to see more people join them at the statue.
“There are a lot of people who aren’t out here because they don’t feel comfortable and they are scared, but no protest is going to be comfortable,” said Johnson, sitting on a slightly deflated air mattress just before two on Friday morning. “And nothing is going to change by being comfortable.”