UNC-CH teaching assistants hold grades, protest move to save racist statue

University of North Carolina students and teachers protest on campus and in the streets of Chapel Hill on Dec. 3.

The struggle surrounding Silent Sam, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill monument to the white supremacist Confederacy, sharpened intensely last week as administration plans to re-erect the statue on campus prompted a strike by university teaching assistants.

The UNC Board of Trustees approved a plan Dec. 3 to rehouse Silent Sam. Last August a coalition of students, community members and activists toppled the statue. As presented by UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, the “restoration” plan calls for the construction of a $5.3 million building to serve as a “history and education center” contextualizing the statue.

The reactionary project will also cost $2 million a year to create a 40-person mobile police force to respond to protests on campus, costing roughly $800,000 a year in operating expenses.

Folt’s announcement prompted immediate protests from the outraged UNC community. The night of Dec. 3, at a hundreds-strong community march against the administration’s proposed move, UNC grad student Maya Little called for grad students to strike and withhold final grades until the university abandons its plans.

“The university works because we do,” said Little. “If we don’t get it, shut it down.” Little is a leader in the anti-Sam movement. She was recently found guilty of defacing the statue with a mixture of paint and blood earlier this year.

Little was arrested later that day and charged with inciting a riot. Word of the strike quickly began to spread and garner support. According to the activist group Strike Down Sam, at least 79 TAs and instructors have pledged to withhold nearly 2,200 final grades until Sam is permanently removed from campus.

Teaching assistants issue demands

Silence Sam, a website associated with the striking TAs, released a set of demands Dec. 6 aimed at university officials. The TAs insist the administration withdraw its proposal for the new building and the new police force, commit to keeping the statue off campus in perpetuity and hold listening sessions with the local community.

Should those demands be met, they said, TAs will release the grades currently being held.

The Sam monument was originally erected in 1913 to memorialize UNC students who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Concerned students have criticized university officials’ approach of trying to resurrect the statue. The students cite the statue’s role in a white supremacist cause as contributing to a hostile campus environment for Black students.

Black faculty and student groups, graduate student associations, the School of Education and library workers, among others, have called for the statue’s permanent removal.

At a packed Faculty Council meeting Dec. 6, UNC junior and Black Congress co-chair Angum Check confronted Chancellor Folt and Arts & Sciences Provost Robert Blouin. Check held a sign referencing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

“Carol Folt is the moderate MLK warned us about — more devoted to order than justice,” the sign read.

Check and other students commandeered the meeting and read from King’s letter, criticizing the hypocrisy and cowardice of Folt and other university officials.

“You want to further militarize the police to squash us and to brutalize us,” Check told Folt. ”You handed me the MLK Award this year, and I want to tell you, you are a disgrace. Never hand out an MLK Award ever again.”

The proposed new facility, which would be completed by 2022, sits near an area where many Black students live and near a Jewish synagogue. Officials admitted they had not considered the potential danger to these communities that might come from placing an object venerated by white supremacists and Confederate sympathizers nearby.

“There seems to be a fundamental failure here to understand the pain, the suffering, the affront, the assault on people that has been perpetrated by the statue, that has been perpetrated by the actions that the statue sought to justify,” Edwin Fisher, a School of Public Health professor, told the Dec. 7 Raleigh News & Observer. “Unfortunately, it is still being perpetrated by the business-as-usual of the proposal that has been brought forward.”

University representatives, for their part, claim their hands are tied by a 2015 law prohibiting the relocation of public monuments without express approval by the General Assembly.

The Faculty Council, for its part, found Folt’s logic unconvincing and asked that the university reject the plan to rehouse Sam. “We have a desperate need for moral leadership from the top that will have the courage to break an unjust law and say [enough], and take the risks that that involves,” said council member Harry Watson, a professor of Southern history.  

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