The damage at Campus Y was hard to gauge. 

Employees of The Meantime, the coffee shop at the bottom of the building, were the first to realize what had happened when they arrived for a Sunday afternoon training session late last month.

Some of the damage at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s social justice and innovation center looked impulsive: the swastikas drawn on the floor stickers, the n-word written on a whiteboard, the torn newspapers and photos. Opened cans of food were sitting out, and papers and books were scattered.

Other details didn’t indicate rash decisions. Names were scribbled on a canvas in the shape of a Confederate flag. Thirty-five W-2s were stolen, giving the vandal access to the social security numbers and addresses of Meantime baristas. A cardboard tombstone painted with the words “Tar Heel Dead,” accompanied by a shovel, was left in the co-presidents’ office. 

Still, some of the evidence was confusing: shirts with Confederate flags crossed out with red Xs were laid across banisters. The suspect left his driver’s license and pieces of mail. He wrote his name on a whiteboard.

Campus Y co-president Thilini Weerakkody was on a date when she learned the news and drove to the sandy pink building. Groups of students walked around, looking for the vandal and assessing the damage. 

“I just felt that moment when you’re sucked of energy, and you’re just like, ‘Oh, my God, this is gonna be so much more than I can handle today,’” Weerakkody says.

Last week, the Campus Y began reclaiming its space through “You Can’t Silence Us,” a digital campaign documenting the group’s return to the building and places that had been marred by hate.

Nineteen people—symptomless, double-masked, and socially distanced—converged for the photoshoot. Participants painted phrases like “THIS IS OUR HOME” and “Do not forget James L. Cates Jr.”—an homage to the Black man stabbed to death by white supremacists on UNC’s campus in the 1970s—across posters. They took photos in front of the spot where the suspect broke in, and where he set up displays. They photographed themselves replacing books and ripping up Confederate flag stickers. They invited members of UNC’s Black Student Movement and Hillel, and made their message loud and clear.

“The leadership was sad, and then the community was angry, and they were [fired up], and they wanted something to put their energy into,” Weerakkody says. “This is a response to that. This is a way for us to channel all that into an effective and graceful event.”

The campaign is also a way for students to address people who called for justice for the organization. 

“We are going to acknowledge that the prison industrial complex was created for and by white people,” Weerakkody says. “If we were to promote them, we would be catering to those individuals.”

The university informed the public of the damage to the Campus Y: the announcement mentioned the break-in, “antisemitic symbols,” and a “racial epithet,” but left out other descriptors. A Campus Y statement, along with a Daily Tar Heel story, revealed the rest. The Faculty Executive Committee, the Campus Safety Commission, and others have made public statements supporting the Campus Y. Aside from the initial statement and individual professors, Weerakkody says the university’s administration has not acknowledged her and her co-president.

“We were begging for support,” she says. “We were begging for safety. And we didn’t receive it. I don’t think any other student group centered on service, social justice, or serving marginalized people did either, in the years before us.”

The university has attempted to involve campus police in the aftermath. Officials say campus police have offered to meet with students and have made additional safety recommendations. They also say officers fixed the basement door, where the suspect is believed to have entered. The Campus Y footed the bill, Weerakkody says.

This incident isn’t isolated. There have been at least five other reports of racist vandalism since 2019, both on and off campus. Local activist Lindsay Ayling listed 28 events since 2017, including rallies as well as individual visitors. 

Neo-Confederates have walked around, displaying guns, knives, and handcuffs, on a campus where the Confederate monument Silent Sam presided over simmering racial tensions for more than 100 years. In 2019, the Ku Klux Klan organized outside the courthouse in Hillsborough, white robes and all. Others livestream themselves on campus and threaten students.

Hate crime incidents in North Carolina increased by 48 percent in 2019 over the previous year, according to FBI data; it also saw the highest number of hate crimes reported since the FBI began collecting and publishing this data in 1992. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported 29 hate groups in North Carolina in 2020, down from a record-high of 40 in 2018. 

Ayling recalled a moment in 2017 where a football fan harassed and threatened a student handing out fliers about Silent Sam. At one point, she says, she was pinned between the fan and the student. Afterward, she was unsure about reporting the incident to the university, but says she was told it would be used as part of an investigation into Silent Sam. She met with officials, filed a lengthy report, and nothing happened.

“The report doesn’t actually do anything,” Ayling says. “They don’t take it seriously, and they won’t take any measures except telling you your experience was invalid.”

The university informs students of campus threats and emergencies via Alert Carolina, but historically hasn’t informed students of alt-right individuals on campus. This led campus activists to create “UNC Anti-Racist Alerts” in 2019, a system that texts students when these groups are close to campus in the absence of information from university officials.

“Alert Carolina is committed to only reporting confirmed facts and the Alert Carolina website is the best official source of information during a health or safety situation,” the university said in a statement. But in October, an alert about an armed person on campus revealed flaws with Alert Carolina. Police reviewed security camera footage and said there was never an armed suspect to begin with. 

UNC Campus Police have not released information on the Campus Y suspect, who was apprehended and is undergoing psychiatric evaluation. The investigation is still ongoing. Despite this, the energy around the building is different. 

“In a historical context, white supremacist groups would go to institutions like ours to use intimidation to stop us doing our work,” Weerakkody says. “That was the impetus of doing ‘You Can’t Silence Us,’ which is where we are now. The idea was born out of a time when we were really low. We felt like we didn’t have control.”

At this week’s event, there were new concerns. Two separate men, dressed in all black, were seen taking photos of the students and their posters. When the group was standing together, someone shouted a homophobic slur from a car. The Campus Y members don’t know who these people are. 

“There was a sense of fear,” Weerakkody says. “We were trying so hard to reclaim our space, and it showed us that this fear is still present. But the presence of white supremacy, and the presence of threat and intimidation, proves that we need to be doing our work.” 

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