Let’s silence Silent Sam for good

December 11, 2018

Joe T. and Robert Wilson report from North Carolina on the ongoing campaign against a Confederate statue on the UNC campus that students want to stay torn down.

THE BATTLE over “Silent Sam,” the statue of a Confederate soldier on the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill campus, reached a new stage when nearly 80 graduate workers began a coordinated action of withholding grades to protest the university’s plan to spend millions to protect this symbol of white supremacy.

This is a fraction of UNC’s graduate workforce, but the action is affecting more than 2,000 students who won’t have grades turned in — a clear display of the power of graduate workers. And support for the grad workers is growing, with students and faculty signing statements of support.

Last week, the university announced plans to spend over $5 million to erect a new indoor facility to host the statue. Earlier in the fall, students assembled to protest this racist symbol, and the statue was torn down. The announcement threatening to bring Sam back was met with similar public outcry.

ON THE same day that the university’s plan was announced, several hundred people gathered across the street from the statue’s former location at the Peace and Justice Plaza on Franklin Street.

Students rally against a Confederate statue at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Students rally against a Confederate statue at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Anthony Crider | flickr)

The event was organized by several groups, including Defend UNC, a coalition of campus activists that formed after the statue was torn down, when students found themselves targeted by campus officials and white supremacists from the surrounding area.

North Carolina’s “Research Triangle” in central North Carolina — site of the state’s three major universities (UNC, Duke and North Carolina State), along with the cities of Durham and Raleigh — has become a main battleground in the fight to rid U.S. cities of Confederate monuments, with several other statues coming down in the Triangle.

At the evening protest last week, a young Black student welcomed the crowd, saying: “Thank you for being here, because you’re telling me my life matters.” She talked about how she, like many other Black students over the years, felt that walking across campus under Silent Sam’s motionless gaze was a constant reminder of both the university’s and society’s ingrained racism.

“There are other, less expensive ways to learn about history,” another student told the crowd, referencing the exorbitant cost to move Silent Sam to an indoor venue that would also house exhibits about slavery, the Civil War and the civil rights movement.

Besides those protesting the university’s announcement, there were scattered racists provoking demonstrators, including driving by in their cars and yelling support for Silent Sam. The crowd continually shouted them down to ensure the focus remained on speakers rallying to build dissent against the university.

Protesters surged into the streets, marching through traffic until finally circling through campus back to the plinth where the statue once stood. There, the crowd chanted and challenged police. “What goes up must come down, keep this fucking statue down!” was the most popular chant with the crowd, echoing calls from protests earlier this year that built up to the tearing down of Silent Sam.

THE DECISION on whether to build a shrine to the Confederacy will come down to the UNC Board of Governors, which is supposed to announce its decision by December 14. Earlier this year, though, UNC officials claimed they had no power to remove the statue without approval from a state agency, which they had no plans to request.

Although it is the middle of the finals period, students plan to keep the pressure on the Board of Governors to ensure that what was once a campus symbol of white supremacy remains where it belongs — removed.

The grad workers withholding grades is an important action to keep this issue in the spotlight. Graduate workers at UNC have been organizing a union through United Electrical Workers Local 150, a statewide local for public-service workers, though the protests of Silent Sam were organized by rank-and-file grad workers organizing under the name “Silence Sam.”

Meanwhile, more than 100 faculty from the School of Education issued a statement protesting the plan for an indoor home for the statue:

In speeches dedicating the monument, Silent Sam was erected as a symbol of hatred, bigotry, and white supremacy. It was part of a movement that worked to suppress the political and economic power of black Americans, to establish structures to extend white dominance, and to suppress the aspirations of people of color...The monument’s continuing presence on our campus is contrary to our school’s commitment to the transformative power of education.

Over the past academic year, there have been numerous clashes between students and the university over the statue. Outside of students tearing the statue down, the most prominent action occurred last spring when Black student activist Maya Little poured fake blood over the statue. She received a campus sanction for that act. Now, she and another graduate student are facing charges — including assault on a police officer and inciting a riot — in connection with last week’s protest of the university decision to bring Sam back.

Little and other students have received numerous threats from campus officials, law enforcement and neo-Confederate forces across North Carolina, yet they have maintained their organization and militancy in the face of this intimidation.

Whether the grade action will draw in broader layers of graduate students into the movement remains to be seen. While keeping Silent Sam on the ground figures prominently, the grad workers have other demands, including raising wages for campus workers, increasing benefits, reducing fees and improving campus buildings.

This interplay between social movements and workplace demands has been a feature of many recent workplace actions, such as McDonald’s and Google workers staging #MeToo inspired walkouts and protests and charter school educators in Chicago demanding sanctuary status for their schools.

The closer together that activists are able to bring these different struggles, the stronger their movement will become. A recent poll showed that 63 percent of North Carolina voters aged 18 to 34 approved of the statue’s removal, illustrating the base of support activists can build on.

With the Board of Governors meeting and the end of semester fast approaching, tensions will continue to boil at UNC — and graduate workers will feature prominently in whatever decisions are made about the fate of Silent Sam.

Further Reading

From the archives