RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Activists who tore down a century-old Confederate statue this week at North Carolina’s flagship public university took campus officials by surprise, the school’s top administrator said Thursday.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill expected about 100 people to peacefully protest the earlier arrest of an activist demanding removal of the memorial nicknamed “Silent Sam,” Chancellor Carol Folt said during a conference call. Instead, a larger crowd gathered Monday night, dispersed and then returned to yank down the statue as banners hid their actions from police.
“I will tell you absolutely that we had no anticipation of any plans to tear down the statute,” Folt said while taking questions from reporters.
The bronze statue erected in 1913 is in temporary storage. Its future is unclear.
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Folt emphasized that there have been dozens of campus protests in her five years on campus.
“They’ve all been handled in the way that people thought was appropriate, given the information they had coming prior to the event. We’re in the process of trying to understand what happened, how did it happen and what were the responses,” Folt said. “We have not completed our review of those events.”
Folt said she wasn’t ready to explain the non-confrontational response of campus police as activists gathered around the stone base on which the statue stood. At a similar protest a year ago, campus police in riot gear used metal barricades to keep activists from getting near the statue. The school was criticized by some for heavy-handed tactics.
The portable barriers weren’t used Monday, and officers didn’t keep protesters away from the statue.
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.
“Silent Sam”, erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, had been under constant, costly police surveillance after being vandalized in recent months. Many students, faculty and alumni argued the Confederate memorial symbolized racism and asked officials to take it down. But a 2015 law passed by the Republican-led General Assembly made it nearly impossible to remove the Confederate statue permanently unless the legislature passed another law doing so.
“That Confederate monument has been a flashpoint and a divisive symbol for decades, and especially since Charlottesville has been the focus of increasing frustration, anxiety and pain for people,” Folt said. “I can’t speed up the process of laws. And I understand that for people that could be frustrating. But we can’t change the law.”
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