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August 27

Silent Sam is Down: A Report From the Anniversary Party

The following report was compiled collaboratively and details a recent anniversary mobilization and celebration of the fall of the Silent Sam Confederate statue in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

CW:  Police and Gender-based Violence

s the sun began to lower on the humid, 90°F day where students and community members gathered in the public square in front of the old post office, below the state flag (and a solid orange flag, ironically raised by the town of Chapel Hill in protest against gun violence), organizers gave out free anti-racist ice cream to cool people down.  On the first day of class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students and other community members gathered to celebrate the anniversary of toppling the Confederate/Jim Crow monument known as “Silent Sam” on their campus. For the past year, activists clashed with police, unbadged white supremacists, and white bourgeois university officials to defend their home from white supremacy. They honored the enslaved and free Black people who built the University and praised the collective ungovernability that transfigured their landscape a year before: “all it took to bring Silent Sam down was ten seconds and a rope!” At the celebration that night, students, workers, and neighbors disrupted campus and town functions with chants of “We’re here, we’re gay, we fight the KKK!” while holding flares, holding the streets, and burning a Confederate flag.

Peace and Justice Plaza. Read more about the recent history of policing at UNC in this zine.

There was much to celebrate.  Just earlier that morning, anti-racists responded to a White supremacist demonstration by armed Confederate flaggers of the “Heirs to the Confederacy”. They paraded up and down Franklin Street, harassing people of color and visibly queer community members while under full protection of both campus and town police. (Earlier this year, members of this neo-Confederate group defaced a monument honoring the enslaved people who built campus with urine and racial slurs.)

Some Gunmen of the Heirs to the Confederacy

Thanks to coordination from the activist operated “UNC Anti-Racist Alerts” system, it didn’t take long for anti-fascists & anti-racists to converge on the white supremacists and run them out of town.

At around 7:00pm in Peace and Justice Plaza, just across the street from the UNC campus where those still trespassed from the University could gather with comparatively less police harassment, hundreds assembled to celebrate as a community.  The evening began with a land acknowledgement to the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation offered by Jamison Lowery, a student and a member of the (yet still federally unrecognized) Lumbee tribe.

 

“To recognize the land is an expression of gratitude and appreciation to the school’s territory we reside on and a way of honoring the indigenous people who have been living and working on the land,” Lowery said.

No sooner had the land been acknowledged than organizers gave a brief Know-Your-Rights training in the face of a perennial campaign of police terror against activists.  Then, the celebration began in earnest with the UNC Gospel Choir.

Barbara Sostaita, an undocumented student activist with the UndocuCarolina student group, spoke about the abolition of white supremacy and the creation of the worlds we want to see. “I know that no one – whether with criminal convictions or not – belongs in prisons or cages.”

The next speaker, Shawn Birchfield-Finn, one of the defendants currently facing jail time for an alleged role in the toppling of the statue (despite neither testimony nor video evidence supporting the state’s charges) sent a statement to be read by another defendant, Amber Mathwig, (the former Student Veterans Services Coordinator who had been fired just months before for disrupting a police shooting on campus):

“Y’all – CHPD just arrested my neighbor in front of her house for a “seatbelt” violation.  She’s an obviously very pregnant Black woman and 5 officers surrounded her; they hit her when she reached for a cigarette; they put her in handcuffs, took her cellphone, put her in a squad car and sped off. I have all of this on film. I’m in contact with her family, they were told she is being taken to CHPD station first for processing and will then be taken to Hillsborough and held on a $350 bond. I’m going with her family to bail her out as soon as we get word that she’s been moved to Hillsborough Jail. Will probably be late to celebration but if y’all have the chance could you raise up the fact that CH/Carrboro PD are harassing our neighbors on the daily and the urgent need for cop watch here.”

The gathered crowd seethed as the final speaker at Peace and Justice, Black Congress member De’Ivyion Drew, came forward to calls for UNC police and its new police chief to believe sexual violence victims and to refrain from using force against those they’re apprehending. This led into chants of “All those racist police, we don’t need them.”  The new chief of police, David Perry, gained national prominence prior to beginning his job at UNC for harassing and silencing survivors of serial rapists on the FSU football team. The crowd then took first the streets and then the campus to occupy the open grassy space created by the toppling of the Confederate monument. On top of where a racist statue once stood, Tamia Sanders, co-chair of Black Congress, stated that students and the community would continue to rise above white supremacy.

Raul Arce Jimenez and Jon Fuller, both toppling defendants, also shared a few words. “What used to be here doesn’t need to be here,” Raul said. “So, today we celebrate, as we did last year when it came down, the absence of a symbol of white supremacy. This symbol stood for more than a hundred years, glaring down on Black and Brown students as they walked by. It stood here to welcome students, but I ask ‘Who felt welcomed as they walked by this statue?’”

Not long after inquiring who felt welcome, mounted police officers circling the crowd were met with “Get those animals off those horses” – an answer in itself. The crowd continued to the Unsung Founders Memorial, the sole monument to enslaved Black workers on campus and the site of a recent hate crime by the same Heirs to the Confederacy that had been run out of town that morning. Michelle Brown, a former student and organizer, contextualized the monument before leading the assembled crowd in a moment of silence to honor the Black workers, enslaved and free, that built the university.

“This institution would not physically exist without Black and brown people,” Brown reminded the crowd before they laid flowers atop the memorial and observed a moment of silence.  Brown welcomed UNC students — especially first year students. “I admire you, I really do,” Brown said. “To come to this university after everything that’s happened the past two years…I hope it’s because you know you can follow in the steps of anti-racist activists who came well before me and well before most of the people in front of you, who will continue to fight for this university. I hope you’re here because you want to join us.”

The crowd then continued to the Old Well, a symbol of the university dense with crowds of first year students eager to take part in the contrived campus ritual of drinking from the well on the first day of class. Disrupting the ritual, Danielle Dulken, a researcher in American Studies, spoke of the continuing legacy of white supremacy on the campus as reflected in the names of buildings. The full text of Danielle’s speech is available online here.

Old Well

“The building names, like Silent Sam, have a purpose on our campus,” Danielle said. “They seek to enact, enforce and honor white supremacy. It isn’t hard to see how the white supremacist honorifics across campus support and undergird the Board of Governors’ legislative policies,” Danielle continued. “And it isn’t hard to see how their foot soldiers, the UNC administration and their police force serve and uphold it…The names are both a symptom and a cause of racism on campus, in the state and the nation. But we tore down Sam,” Danielle finished. “We renamed Hurston Hall and we will do it again and again and again and again until they all fall!”

“Ella Baker was a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight,” sang the crowd. Then Lindsay Ayling, PhD student and anti-racist activist, took the microphone – and took the fight to the streets.

She compared the administrators, police, and politicians who failed to save Silent Sam to the gun-toting white supremacists who had threatened the community earlier that day. Both “try to hide their weakness with outward displays of aggression and toxic white masculinity. But the truth is, their power pales in comparison to the strength of our community. When we get organized, when show up in numbers, when we keep showing up and refuse to back down – it doesn’t matter how many institutions are working against us. In the end, all it took to bring down Silent Sam was 10 seconds and a rope…This is our campus, and these are our streets.”

Hundreds of activists poured into the street in front of the Old Well and the seat of the campus administration, driving cars out of their way with flares and banners until they arrived at the crossroads at the center of town. They the intersection and disrupt the the “normal” operations the town and campus, both of which have shown how far they are willing to go to uphold the white supremacist status-quo.

Our Streets, photo by @juliawall_

As various police departments scrambled to respond to the protestors amidst cries of “How do you spell nazi?  C-O-P” led by none other than antiracist icon Maya Little.

Then, Michelle once again took the mic to lead the the Assata Shakur poem:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

It is our duty to win.

We must love each other and support each other.

We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

But the party was not over!  As the crowd dispersed in groups, a small group gathered in the center of the intersection to burn a Confederate flag. “We’re here, we’re gay, we fight the KKK!” they shouted for the second time that day, dancing on the ashes left behind.

Ashes of a Confederate Flag

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