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When demonstrators pulled Silent Sam from his perch Monday night, the University of North Carolina joined an ignoble list of colleges where peaceful protest gives way to lawlessness and mob rule.
At the University of California at Berkeley, riots over professional provocateur Milo Yianoppolous’ planned speech caused injuries, started fires and resulted in more than $100,000 in damage.
At Evergreen State College in Washington, a professor’s pushback over a request for whites to leave campus for an anti-racism “Day of Absence” led students to take over, corralling the college president and virtually holding him prisoner.
The outcome in Chapel Hill wasn’t so stark, but the bare facts remain: Police standing sentinel were distracted by a smoke bomb and vandals rushed to topple the statue. Protest became an act of destruction as persuasion gave way to force.
National news outlets trained their lenses on Carolina and obligingly framed the act in a familiar narrative — the Old South confronts its Confederate past as enlightened, ennobled youth reject racism and strike a symbolic blow for civil rights. The reasons for ripping Silent Sam from his pedestal notwithstanding, that arc fails to grapple with the spreading surge of campus chaos that continues to roil the American academy.
Installed in June 1913, the statue depicts a Confederate soldier and was dedicated to the UNC students who left their studies and took up arms during the Civil War. Modeled after a 16-year-old, the likeness doesn’t venerate plantation owners or saber-gripping commanders. It recognizes the sacrifices young men made in service to their state.
As a whole, the South fought to perpetuate slavery, but as individuals, many rank-and-file Confederate troops were fighting to defend their homeland from what they perceived as invasion. It’s historically inaccurate and morally wrong to reduce the war to a showdown over states’ rights, but it’s equally disingenuous to cast every Confederate as a sadistic slavedriver.
The statue was part of Carolina lore, complete with a schoolboy legend that Silent Sam would awaken and fire a shot from his bronze rifle should a virgin walk past. Sam also became an unwitting athletic mascot and the target of school-spirit vandalism from fans of rivals Duke and N.C. State.
Since the 1960s civil rights movement, students and professors have called for Silent Sam’s departure. Opposition mounted in the 2000s, coalescing into consensus following the 2017 killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia and a nationwide campaign to remove Confederate monuments from prominent public spaces.
Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC System President Margaret Spellings wanted Silent Sam expelled, but he remained stubbornly in place due to a 2015 North Carolina law that blocks government agencies from removing any historical monument without a state panel’s permission.
Sam’s saboteurs could have allowed the administrative review process to play out. If the outcome is unsatisfactory, they can lobby to repeal the monument preservation law, and should legislators turn a deaf ear to their pleas, they can effect change at the ballot box.
That’s how democracy works. Mob vengeance, of course, is much quicker.
Gov. Roy Cooper, who himself wants Confederate monuments relocated from public squares to historical sites that commemorate rather than celebrate — a fair compromise, perhaps — expressed concern in the hours following the campus melee.
Perhaps Sam would feel more at home on a battlefield or in a museum or Civil War interpretive center, but he should’ve been afforded the opportunity to leave willingly and lawfully.
History is continually rewritten. Future generations may remember the toppling of Silent Sam as a resounding blow for racial equality, but if the trend of college students escalating the clash of contradictory ideas into physical confrontation continues, the incident might be studied as yet another riot where might was conflated with right.
Demonstrators had a legal pathway to dispose of Silent Sam. That winding path required patience and persistence, but emotion, impulse and force won out. That’s a disturbing reality the University of North Carolina must now address.
The offense some of us take at an inanimate object doesn’t excuse vandalism or violence. The ends don’t justify the means.