CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Protesters at North Carolina’s flagship university took advantage of a non-confrontational police response to topple a century-old Confederate statue that’s long been the target of critics who say it symbolizes racism.
Now, backlash over the Monday night takedown could make it harder to negotiate a resolution to the fate of other Confederate monuments in the state — including three on state Capitol grounds being debated Wednesday by a state historical commission.
A year before protesters took down “Silent Sam,” University of North Carolina campus police responded much differently to a similar protest. In 2017, officers in riot gear faced criticism for heavy-handed tactics after using metal barricades to keep activists from getting near the statue.
The portable barriers weren’t used Monday, and officers didn’t keep protesters away from the statue. The bronze figure of an anonymous soldier was pulled down from its stone pedestal with ropes by protesters who used banners to mask their action.
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University and legislative leaders said they’re taking a hard look at how protesters used “mob rule” tactics to bring down the statue. A top legislative leader urged all levels of government to reevaluate the response to such protests, while campus police were preparing a detailed timeline of events leading to when “Silent Sam” fell.
North Carolina’s powerful Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger urged officials “from the Governor down to the local District Attorney” rethink how they deal with such “violent riots” and work on “re-establishing the rule of law.”
Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC System President Margaret Spellings, along with the heads of their boards, issued a joint statement acknowledging “many have questioned how police officers responded” but it wasn’t the administration’s intention to allow the statue to fall.
They said the protest was “unlike any previous event” on campus, “carried out in a highly organized manner.”
To outwit officers, the protesters raised four tall black banners on bamboo poles, along with banners on the ground, concealing efforts to tie a rope around the sculpture. They then split into two groups. Most marched away as a small group remained behind. The banners were up for about an hour before the groups converged and yanked the statue down, according to videos.
The tactics appeared to have evolved from previous protests where activists wrapped the pedestal in banners, put up signs or staged a sit-in at its base. Police guarding the statue have also been closely watched by activists.
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. Many students, faculty and alumni argued that “Silent Sam” symbolized racism and asked officials to take it down.
Campus police referred reporters to university media relations officials, who declined to answer questions Tuesday.
Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who teaches law at the University of South Carolina, said police at protests balance factors ranging from potential harm or damage to fostering community relationships. Further, social media has changed how protests coalesce.
“Those sets of priorities are in tension with each other. There is typically not going to be a single right answer,” he said, later adding: “There will always be the potential for something to happen that would not have happened if police had taken a harder approach.”
The backlash comes on the eve of the state historical commission’s meeting to discuss Gov. Roy Cooper’s request to remove three other Confederate monuments at the state Capitol.
Two state lawmakers — moderates from each political party — said they’re worried the protesters’ actions Monday could prevent finding peaceable solution to Confederate memorials statewide.
“People will harden their positions in response to this,” Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, said in an interview, later adding: “When someone is taking a swing at you, it’s human nature to try to swing back … or say ‘I’m done with you.'”
Democratic Rep. Ken Goodman of Richmond County said he doesn’t approve of the way the statue was destroyed, but understands frustration over Confederate monuments.
“It needs to be resolved and I don’t think leaving the statue there resolved the issue … but you can’t erase history, so maybe there’s some third way to deal with that issue,” he said.
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.
On Tuesday, students stopped by the empty pedestal to take photos or simply observe the protest’s aftermath.
Freshman Joy Aikens said she’s glad the statue is gone: “It was being talked about but it seemed like there wasn’t very much listening or actual conversation going on.”
Associated Press writers Alex Derosier, Gary D. Robertson and Emery P. Dalesio contributed to this report.
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