Silent Sam “talks” too much

Enough already, Sam!

Demonstrators flocked to the area around Silent Sam on Aug. 22. Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images, as appeared in TIME.

In the past few days, I said I wasn’t going to write about Silent Sam, the Confederate memorial statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus since 1913, unless there were new events. That was before a day filled with multiple conversations with people in our school, email exchanges with a student and an argument about the statue with my husband. The statue’s nickname may be “Silent Sam,” but there is nothing silent about Sam. He talks too much…through us all and our perceptions, preconceptions and misconceptions about what he means and whether he can be removed by our UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor. While I’d like to talk about something else for a while, I feel compelled to write about Silent Sam.

Some of the disagreements in our home, the School and beyond are because of the reference frames people bring to discussions about the statue. What is a statue? In a basic sense, it is hundreds of pounds of stone and bronze. It is an inanimate object. In giving the statue a name, Sam, we have personified him. He is no longer simply a statue and a nod to the past. He has taken on meaning in the present. He is a metaphor and, perhaps, a proxy for all the feelings people have about the South, the way life was once and is no more, race, racism, fairness, equity and a lot of other important issues that we feel strongly about. His very presence makes many feel powerless and violated. It feels like we are fighting the War between the States all over again. I resent the way the statue is dominating our conversations and, thus, intruding on what we are here to do, what our mission is…to improve public health, promote individual well-being and eliminate health inequities across North Carolina and around the world.

Can the chancellor just remove the statue?

In my opinion, Silent Sam is like a visitor who has stayed too long. He’s got to go. He’s got to go so we can get on with why we are here at UNC-Chapel Hill and the Gillings School. He’s got to go, because he is causing us to argue with one another instead of focusing our energy on our mission (which isn’t to say we’re not doing our jobs). He needs a good home, and his departure should be respectful. If I had the money, I would create the NC Museum of Southern History, and I’d relocate Sam there, along with many other artifacts.

We need to understand the context in which the statue was erected, and we should not try to erase that past, but neither should it be a beacon on our campus. We also should acknowledge that we humans have many different perspectives on monuments to the past. In fact, a recent NPR poll found that more than 60 percent of Americans, including 44 percent of African Americans said these monuments shouldn’t be moved or taken down.

In spite of those sentiments, I believe that Congressman David Price, who represents Orange County and parts of Durham and Wake counties, got it right when he said in an interview with the Durham Herald-Sun, published Aug. 30:

‘Take it down and put it in a museum. That’s my view,’ he said. . . .
‘You can’t choose your history, but you can certainly choose what history you revere and what history you honor. This is not a history that we should be putting on a pedestal.’

No matter how much I and many others might like to find another home for Silent Sam, the chancellor cannot simply call the grounds crew or a moving company to remove the statue. The Cultural History Artifact Management and Patriotism Act of 2015 prohibits state agencies, including the University, from permanently removing any object of remembrance – defined as a “monument, memorial, plaque, statue, marker,  display of a permanent character that commemorates an event, a person, or military service that is part of North Carolina’s history.”

The Confederate Monument, commonly known as “Silent Sam,” is a state-owned monument and an object of remembrance as defined by the law.

Also, by law, if one of the items noted above is moved, it must be with the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission and must be to a place of equal prominence. Limitations on removal included in the statute state, “An object of remembrance may not be relocated to a museum, cemetery, or mausoleum unless it was originally placed at such a location.”

The issue is the law. UNC’s attorneys were alerted and concluded that Governor Roy Cooper was incorrect in saying that UNC could take down the statue because it was unsafe, which the law accommodates. The law, again, is pretty specific on this, defining the caveat as “which a building inspector or similar official has determined poses a threat to public safety because of an unsafe or dangerous condition.” So, if it were crumbling or falling apart, we could remove it. To say that is the case for the Silent Sam statue would be untrue. The governor also did not have the authority to grant permission to the chancellor, but that’s a separate issue.

The real push should likely be to change the law to allow local jurisdictions, as a matter of civil, civic discourse, to decide the composition of their public spaces. (Our situation is complicated in that UNC is state property.)

I heard a very interesting discussion on NPR in the past week or so in which it was argued that the statue should be removed so that we can repurpose our public spaces for uses that are more appropriate to this time and place. I like that. Our public spaces should be places that are consistent with the diverse, inclusive and fair climate we want to create at UNC-Chapel Hill. Silent Sam is not consistent with that climate.

What does it mean to stand up for what one believes?

We’ve had a number of discussions in the Gillings School in which people have argued that this is the time to stand up for what we believe, for example, by marching or demonstrating at the statue. Of course, people should be able to do that and can do that. However, if students, faculty and staff really want the statue to go, more than anything they need the law to change. That means registering, voting and letting our elected state office holders at every level know in no uncertain terms that this law, as written, is unacceptable and should be changed.

As dean of this school, I have a right and even a duty to express concern for people’s safety. I care about the people in this school. When we heard that there was the potential for violence near the statue last week, and that some of the people in the crowd might have been carrying weapons, it was appropriate for me to express concern and to caution people to be alert and aware if they attended. I would do that again. I have been in many marches over the years. I am well aware that the risks have changed. In the 1960s and 1970s, people did not use cars as weapons, for example. And if people are going to demand that the chancellor   action, they should be informed as to what actions she can take without breaking the law. It is she who would be arrested for moving the statue, not me or you.

We should talk about what kinds of actions entailed in standing up will have impact vs. those that may make us feel we are having an impact. Potentially powerful actions might be much less visible than a march – or they might be a march. I would prefer that standing up have the potential to achieve real outcomes about which we care.

Be respectful of town, campus and other police officers

I have not always lived in environments where police officers were fair and respectful of marchers. (Philadelphia in the 1960s was challenging.) Chapel Hill is different, however. The police chiefs and the people with whom we have interacted over the years have been fair and restrained. I was not at the event last week, although I had offered to attend when I heard that some staff might be required to be on duty. (They were not.) I was told by two different people I trust and respect that some participants, not necessarily students – and, I am confident, not Gillings School students – had spit on police officers. That is unacceptable behavior, and unfair to people who were doing their jobs.

Speech that is not protected

Although some speech that most of us would find unacceptable is deemed protected under the First Amendment, speech that incites to violence is not protected. Toward that end, I was relieved that Chancellor Folt denied a request from Richard Spencer and the National Policy Institute to speak on campus.

There are lessons to be learned

I want our School and University to be a place where we can discuss the nature of public spaces and how we can deal with remnants of a less inclusive past in ways that make us stronger and better, without animus. On campus, this year’s Carolina Conversations will kick off Wednesday, Sept. 6, with a program called “The First Amendment and Free Speech at UNC.” This discussion will explore what the First Amendment protects at a public university. More details are available at http://diversity.unc.edu/. On Sept. 11, at 7:30 pm, Kenneth Marcus, Founding President of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, will speak on campus regarding “Human Rights and Anti-Semitism in the Current Climate.” Within the Gillings School, we are continuing to provide spaces for meaningful discussions where people can express feelings without fear and opportunities for us all to learn about the law, the First Amendment and the history of this place. That’s what a university should foster, as part of our commitment to make diversity, inclusiveness and equity real.
Barbara


The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

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