After commissioning an outside law firm to investigate the causes of the August 2018 toppling of the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam, University of North Carolina leaders embraced a view that more robust law enforcement is needed to respond to threats from so-called “outside” protesters.

The assessment and report was completed by the Parker Poe law firm, along with four consultants from Hillard Heintze, a Chicago-based firm founded Arnette Heintze, a former special agent with the US Secret Service. The report was submitted to the UNC Board of Governors on Oct. 22, 2018. The board voted to release the report on Jan. 24.

Chancellor Carol Folt, who was forced out by the UNC Board of Governors at the end of January, embraced the recommendations of the report.

“We have all learned that the landscape has greatly changed with the involvement of professional outside protest groups coming onto our campus, and that our campus is facing new and more dangerous challenges,” Folt wrote to board chair Harry Smith and two other members on Oct. 22.

Antiracist student protest leaders have consistently pushed back against assertions by police, university administrators and the Board of Governors that other antiracists with a distinctly different agenda from the campus community are coming to UNC-Chapel Hill to cause trouble.

“There’s kind of this rhetoric building up against people that are agitating,” Calvin Deutschbein, a graduate student, told Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood during a Sept. 25 meeting. “It’s also describing other community organizers.” An audio recording of the meeting was obtained by Triad City Beat.

“You know, I go up to Durham and help them with things, like the Fight for Fifteen, stuff like that,” Deutschbein told Blackwood. “And some of them come down for us. They’re not UNC students, but they are UNC community members; they’re people we work with. I feel uncomfortable with the language that’s used to describe people that I don’t perceive as distinct from myself or from the rest of the student body in any meaningful way.”  

UNC Police monitor the rally after protesters surround Silent Sam. (photo by Jordan Green)

The Parker Poe analysis focuses almost exclusively on failures by UNC Police and university administration to adequately prepare for the events of Aug. 20, 2017, when hundreds of students and other antiracist allies rallied against Silent Sam and tore down the statue, while ignoring the role of state lawmakers and the Board of Governors in preventing the lawful removal of a statue that many viewed as a threat to public safety.

In a ruling handed down one day after the Board of Governors received the Parker Poe report, Orange County District Court Judge Beverly A. Scarlett wrote: “The Silent Sam monument meets the definition of incendiary in that it inflames emotion and leads to agitation. There is no way that the leadership of the university is unaware that the monument is a source of physical and emotional pain for many. The university is surely aware that this monument impairs the safety of persons on campus whether student or visitor.”

In the ruling, Judge Scarlett suspended a sentence while finding neo-Confederate activist Barry Brown guilty of simple assault against Michael Mole, a 20-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill student, reasoning that the university itself was “the proximate cause” of the conflict. Considering that Mole was a student, Scarlett wrote, “this court believes that there is some financial exchange that gives him the right and authority to study at UNC-CH. What guarantees or promises has the university promoted to ensure the safety of its students?”

The Parker Poe report notes that then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law making it more difficult to remove statues and other historical monuments from public property in July 2015 — soon after Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who embraced the Confederate flag, murdered nine black parishioners in a Charleston, SC church and after the state of South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from the state capitol.

The report also notes that in August 2017 — fully a year before the toppling of Silent Sam — UNC Police Chief Jeff McCracken warned in a letter to Chancellor Folt that “recent events have served to transform” the debate around the Silent Sam monument “into a true public safety threat,” specifically citing “the August 12th conflict in Charlottesville resulting in the tragic loss of three lives, and the toppling of the Civil War monument in Durham.”

And the report briefly cites an email sent by a conservative faction of the Board of Governors disagreeing with a letter from then-Chairman Louis Bissette, then-UNC President Margaret Spellings and Folt to Gov. Roy Cooper, which resulted in Cooper expressing the opinion that the university had the authority to remove the statue.

The email, which was eventually signed by now-Chairman Harry Smith, Marty Kotis of Greensboro, Tom Fetzer of Raleigh, and Thom Goolsby of Wilmington, among others, charged that Bissette, Spellings and Folt’s effort to seek guidance from the governor “exuded weakness and hand wringing that does not accurately reflect the board’s opinion about how the potential of campus unrest should be treated.

“We would have preferred a strong statement from each of you to the chancellors, with the expectation that the chancellors, in turn, would communicate the message to their campuses,” the email continues, “that while our campuses have long been a hospitable forum and meeting place for the peaceful dissemination of contrasting views, lawlessness, vandalism and violence will not be tolerated and will be punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

In an interview with City Beat, Chairman Harry Smith rejected the notion that the Board of Governors bears any responsibility for the “actions and events [leading] to the forceful removal of the monument.”

“We’re a policy-making board, not a lawmaking board,” Smith said. “We’re going to follow the laws that the legislature passes. I’m not going to get the Board of Governors into debating what laws we should pass. There’s a due process to change them. For anybody to assume that the Board of Governors is going to break the law, that is not the case.”

Instead of focusing on how Confederate monuments have historically represented and continue to inspire racial violence, and how state leaders have frustrated lawful efforts to remove Silent Sam, the Parker Poe report focuses squarely on university administration and police.

“Our analysis suggests that the forceful removal of Silent Sam was caused by a confluence of events stemming from a number of different factors, including but not limited to: (1) ineffective reporting structures and communications practices between senior administration leadership and the UNC-CH police; (2) inadequate planning and failure to synthesize and assess pre-event information; and (3) lack of a formal protocol regarding decision-making responsibility for law enforcement related matters.”

Recommendations for more crowd control

Although the law firm’s primary recommendation calls for university administrators and police to improve communication and coordination, the 64-page report includes detailed suggestions for enhancing police training and capability for handling large protests. The report calls on UNC-Chapel Hill to provide additional training for crowd control, including the use of barricades, shields, bicycle officer details, motorcycles, and horse mounted units; arrest and extraction techniques; less-than-lethal devices such as chemical agents and smoke; and de-escalation.

Folt said in her Oct. 19 letter that the university had already “retained professional law enforcement consultants” who were developing a training program for officers.

The report also recommended that UNC Police “take advantage of opportunities train” with big-city police departments, including “Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department regarding the handling of crowds anticipated for the Republican National Convention in 2020,” and “the Greensboro Police Department in the appropriate handling of bicycles as movable barricades.”

The actions of the Greensboro Police Department’s civil emergency unit, including shoving bicycles against antiracist activists and deploying pepper spray as the unit was extracting neo-Confederates from an Aug. 30 rally at Silent Sam, caused widespread outrage among students and other community members.

“It was upsetting a few months ago that the university was going to create some kind of mobile First Amendment-suppressing unit,” said Annie Simpson, a senior majoring in studio art. “That together with training with the Greensboro police doesn’t make it sound like the university has a commitment to protecting students and de-escalating violence.”

Folt did not respond specifically to the recommendation for UNC Police to train with the Charlotte and Greensboro police departments. The chancellor did agree with a recommendation for UNC Police to explore the possibility of creating a special operations team, whose members could “share their training with the rest of the officers in the department, focusing on de-escalation techniques, crowd control formations, arrest and extraction techniques, and the use of bicycles for crowd control.”

The report also includes a recommendation for “a system-wide police force that can handle events where a single constituent university’s forces will be inadequate,” presaging a similar proposal by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees in early December to create a “mobile force platoon.” The “mobile force platoon” was part of a set of security recommendations accompanying a proposal to build a “history and education center” to house Silent Sam on campus. The Board of Governors rejected the plan for Silent Sam, and the security recommendations appear to be on hold for the time being.

Further, the report recommends that the UNC System move “forward with a plan to create a system-wide police academy,” adding that “the new academy would be located in Greensboro at a currently unused state-owned facility.” The report suggested that students at constituent universities could supplement university police forces and then join the departments when they graduate. City and county law enforcement agencies could also send their members to the academy to update their training in crowd control.

Barricades, or no barricades?

The key finding of the report pivots on miscommunication between the police chief and the chancellor about the use of barricades to surround Silent Sam during the Aug. 20 protest. The report says Chancellor Folt and Amy Hertel, her chief of staff, preferred to not have barricades up, especially on the weekend before the Monday, Aug. 20 protest, because they “might cause new students and their parents to fear for their safety on move-in weekend.” The report also addresses confusion over whether the no-barricade call was a preference or an order, and whether Chief McCracken understood that he had the option to put up barricades on Aug. 20, after “move-in weekend” had passed.

But in her response to the draft report, Chancellor Folt downplayed the significance of the decision to not use barricades in the outcome of events on Aug. 20, writing that “[Associate Vice Chancellor for Campus Safety and Risk Management Derek] Kemp said that having barricades would not have stopped the toppling of the monument. Chief McCracken reiterated the assessment that the use of barricades probably would not have made any difference and, in fact, may have endangered the safety of the police officers on the scene.”

The report also found deficiencies in the university police’s information gathering capabilities. A heavily redacted passage notes that Sgt. Jacob Kornegay, as special events coordinator, was responsible for “centralized information-gathering functions.” In Kornegay’s absence, the report says, Officer Tiesha Williams, who had previously only planned for football and basketball games, was tasked on Aug. 19 with planning police coverage for the protest the following day. The report says Kornegay participated in a 2:30 p.m. meeting by telephone as he was driving back from the beach on the day of the protest.

Along with law enforcement and university administrators, investigators interviewed Chris Otto, with the NC Information Sharing and Analysis Center, or ISAAC, at the State Bureau of Investigation. Also known as a “Fusion Center,” the outfit is part of a national network set up to coordinate among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to develop and distribute actionable information about terrorist and criminal threats. Although the report states that “the university police often work with ISAAC and the Fusion Center when preparing for major protests like the one on August 20, 2018,” it doesn’t reveal what, if any, information the Fusion Center furnished.

Many administrators and law enforcement officers said they were caught off guard by events of Aug. 20, which investigators found difficult to believe.

“Several interviewees claimed that they never expected protesters to try to bring the statue down,” the report says. “This seems unlikely given the title of the poster, ‘Until They All Fall.’ Read in conjunction with the photo of [protest leader Maya] Little’s arrest, and, in particular, the image of the downed Durham statue, the posters should have left little doubt as to the protesters’ intention for that evening.”

Student leader Maya Little addresses antiracists at Peace & Justice Plaza. (photo by Jordan Green)

Folt told investigators that she didn’t see copies of the poster until after Aug. 20, according to the report.

“Had she known about the posters, the chancellor said that she would have reconsidered her original position on the use of the barricades,” the report says. “This was a significant missed opportunity and one that could have easily been remedied.”

Folt did not address the matter in her letter in response to the draft report.

Protesters ‘infinitely’ more well prepared than expected

“We did not find any evidence of a conspiracy among or between police, administrators, and demonstrators to topple the statue that evening,” the report concludes. “Instead, we found that the protesters were infinitely more well-organized and prepared than expected. Miscommunication between the university police and UNC-CH senior leadership combined with inefficient and inadequate information gathering, insufficient staffing, and outdated crowd control training made preventing what happened on August 20 difficult if not impossible to achieve.”

Protesters surround Silent Sam. (photo by Jordan Green)

The most contentious part of the report is a passage detailing a three-minute period in which police withdrew from the statue shortly before protesters toppled it. A leaked draft of the report last month helped fuel blanket characterizations by Board of Governors members of the antiracist protesters as being violent.

“At approximately 9:14 pm, the majority of the protesters started to make their way back to Silent Sam,” the report states. “The crowd was hostile and physical. A number of the officers stated that this was one of the only times in their careers they felt scared for their and other persons’ safety. The crowd then began to throw frozen water bottles and eggs at the officers surrounding the statue.”

The report’s authors said they reviewed media accounts and interviewed UNC police officers, administrators at both UNC-Chapel Hill, and members of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, along with Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue, Chris Otto from the Fusion Center, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall and SBI Director Robert Schumeier to assemble the narrative. Although the report lists interviews with a total of 27 members of UNC Police, no protesters or other witnesses to the events of Aug. 20 were interviewed.

Many student protesters say the account is largely false, adding that that they’ve searched to no avail for media reports corroborating the alleged projectiles.

“I saw a single empty water bottle sail through the air when people returned to the statue and found police standing around it,” Ben Russell, a Chapel Hill resident, told City Beat. “I don’t recall whether it hit anyone or came close to doing so. But I’m confident that it was empty and that no frozen water bottles, or even full water bottles were thrown.

“The police involved should know as well as the rest of us that there were no frozen water bottles,” he added. “Where would they have been kept? There were no coolers, it was the middle of August, and at the time they alleged that happened, people had been at the demonstration for more than two hours.”

Annie Simpson, the studio art student, also said she was present when the protesters returned to the statue, and disputes the claim that anyone threw water frozen water bottles and eggs at the officers. She said she returned at 4 a.m. to take photographs of the remaining plinth.

“I think I would have seen egg residue and broken shells if that had happened,” she said.

The report continues, “Although a couple of officers noted that riot gear had been staged in the Swain parking lot, it was not easily accessible. At least two officers were hit with frozen water bottles. Fearing for the safety of the officers and others, Capt. [Tom] Twiddy gave the order to ‘pull out’ to protect his officers at approximately 9:17 pm. Thereafter, the officers dispersed to the periphery of the crowd and continued to monitor and gather evidence for later prosecution.”

The report does not indicate whether the two officers sustained injuries.

Rick Glaser, a partner at Parker Poe in Charlotte who is one of the authors of the report, referred questions about the disputed facts to Josh Ellis, the associate vice president for media relations at the UNC System.

The report also documents a melee between police officers and antiracist protesters soon after protesters crossed Franklin Street from Peace & Justice Plaza to march on the Silent Sam statue. Many of the facts in the passage are corroborated by media accounts. The report notes that Capt. Twiddy attempted to arrest a protester, later identified in court documents as Ian Broadhead, for violating the state anti-masking law. The report states that “Twiddy was soon on the ground wrestling with protesters as he attempted to effect the arrest,” and that Officer Bob Gerringer was punched in the back of the head as he attempted to assist Twiddy. A sergeant went running after the unidentified protester who threw the punch, but he got away.

“In the commotion, the two arrest teams got separated from one another in the crowd,” the report says.

Officers speculated to investigators that the melee was used to divert their attention so protesters could establish control of the statue. The report says that while officers were distracted protesters quickly encircled the statue with four backdrops that perfectly enclosed the statue, which were fastened together with zip ties. Then other protesters linked arms around the statue and chanted, “Stand up, fight back,” while others created an outside screen with four large banners.

“Almost every officer we talked to indicated that the event was unlike prior protests in that it was carried out in a highly organized manner and included a number of outside protesters and non-students,” the authors wrote.

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