Police stand guard after the confederate statue known as Silent Sam was toppled by protesters on campus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Top UNC leaders condemn Confederate statue toppling

August 21, 2018 - 3:05 pm

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina university officials and a former governor condemned the toppling of a century-old Confederate memorial on the state's flagship campus by protesters who said its presence on campus was rooted in racism.

The University of North Carolina system's president and the chairman of the Board of Governors on Tuesday promised a full criminal investigation of the Monday night protest that brought down the statue known as "Silent Sam." The bronze figure of an anonymous rebel soldier was pulled down from its tall stone pedestal by protesters using ropes and banners to mask their action.

"The safety and security of our students, faculty, and staff is paramount," President Margaret Spellings and board chairman Harry Smith said in a statement. "And the actions last evening were unacceptable, dangerous, and incomprehensible. We are a nation of laws_and mob rule and the intentional destruction of public property will not be tolerated."

Meanwhile, former Gov. Pat McCrory compared those who helped topple the statue to Nazis. The Charlotte Observer reports that McCrory asked Tuesday if the protesters are any different from Nazis who tore down statues and burned books in the 1920s and 1930s.

The statue, erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913, had been under constant, costly police surveillance after being vandalized in recent months.

Protesters appeared to outwit officers by raising four tall black banners on bamboo poles, along with more banners on the ground, concealing efforts to tie a rope around the sculpture. They then split into two groups, with most marching away from the statue as small group remained behind. The banners were up for about an hour before the groups converged and yanked the statue down, according to videos.

Around midnight, workers covered the fallen statue with a tarp, lifted it with a backhoe and put it into the back of a truck for a trip to an undisclosed storage location.

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore said the protesters should be arrested and prosecuted "to make clear that mob rule and acts of violence will not be tolerated in our state."

His statement and those of the UNC system leaders were stronger than a Monday night comment from Chancellor Carol Folt, who didn't call for arrests and charges.

Instead, she called the protesters' actions unlawful and dangerous, while acknowledging that the "monument has been divisive for years, and its presence has been a source of frustration for many people."

Once the statue fell, "Silent Sam's" face down in the dirt, demonstrators kicked it and cheered, chanting "Tar Heels!" and "Whose Campus? Our Campus!" as passing cars honked in approval.

Many students, faculty and alumni argued that "Silent Sam" symbolized racism and asked officials to take it down. In response to assertions that the statue wasn't a symbol of white power, protesters read from its 1913 dedication speech by tobacco magnate Julian Carr, who praised Confederate veterans for terrorizing former slaves and making sure "the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States."

Two friends who have protested against "Silent Sam" for years, C.J. Suitt and Will McInerney, wondered Tuesday if UNC will return the statue to its still-standing pedestal.

"People have been protesting the statue since the '50s and '60s and it always finds a way to come back. People find a way to defend it," said Suitt, a Chapel Hill resident. "It feels a little surreal. I feel excited but I also feel like — all right, how long is it going to be before they bring the crane in and put him back?"

North Carolina is one of the Southern states with the most Confederate monuments , and has been a focal point in the national debate over them following a deadly white nationalist protest a year ago in Charlottesville, Virginia .

Protests over the UNC statue flared in the past year, and another Confederate monument in nearby Durham was torn down by protesters shortly after the Virginia rally.

Gov. Roy Cooper had called for removing "Silent Sam" and other rebel symbols on public land. A state historic panel is set to meet Wednesday to debate Cooper's request to remove other Confederate monuments at the state Capitol.

Still, the Democratic governor issued a statement Monday night on Twitter arguing the protesters took the wrong approach.

"The Governor understands that many people are frustrated by the pace of change and he shares their frustration, but violent destruction of public property has no place in our communities," said the tweet from his official account.

Campus police referred questions to the university's media relations department, which declined to answer questions Tuesday.


Associated Press writer Alexander Derosier contributed to this report.


Follow Drew on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JonathanLDrew


This story has been corrected to reflect the proper spelling of the last name of C.J. Suitt, which doesn't have an "e'' at the end.

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