As the UNC Board of Governors awaits recommendations from a task force on the final disposition of the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam, the system’s new interim president says he does not personally favor returning the statue to its former location on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Although I was not a supporter of the way the monument was taken down in August, my personal position is we should not be putting the monument back on McCorkle Place,” interim President Bill Roper said during a press conference at the board’s meeting today at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The Board of Governors previously rejected a recommendation made by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees in December to create a $5.3 million “history and education center” to house Silent Sam and create a “mobile force platoon” to respond to student unrest across the 17-campus system. The Board of Governors appointed a five-member task force to work with leaders at UNC-Chapel Hill and bring back a new set of recommendations by March 15. Despite the Board of Governor’s previously rejecting the proposal, Roper said today that the task force would “look carefully at the report” and “make sure that it is the right path forward.” He added that he would be “supportive of that effort.”

Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith said the action of UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Folt, who is leaving her post on Jan. 31, to remove the remnants of Silent Sam earlier this month, will not affect the Board of Governor’s ultimate decision on the matter. He also said that despite shared disappointment with the manner in Silent Sam was toppled by protesters last August, board members “were very cautious not to get into retaliatory decision-making.”

Folt’s order to remove the remnants disrupted a collaborative process, he said.

“So we had a lot of different runways that we were looking at, which I won’t get into today,” said Smith, a businessman from Beaufort County. “I think that was a little bit of my frustration that I struggle with a little bit because I was on my heels personally when that happened. One of the biggest concerns that I had was that the actions that were taken would harm the result that we may have gotten if we allow the process to completely weigh out.

“From my perspective now, I think this governing body would rise above those emotions, and still focus on just what’s right, but the concern is that the way it happened would create a backwards to all the work we’ve done,” he added. “I think we’re going to continue to work forward with the path we’ve got and focus on doing just what’s right.”

The Board of Governors voted on Friday to publicly release an “after-action report” completed by the Parker Poe law firm on the Aug. 20 toppling of Silent Sam. Josh Ellis, the associate vice president for media relations for the university system, said the report will be distributed once the university’s lawyers have the opportunity to look it over.

Marty Kotis, a board member from Greensboro, applauded the motion, and said he hopes the university will also release police body-camera video to shed light on what took place the night the statue came down. A draft version of the report was leaked to WBTV News in Charlotte. According to the story published by WBTV, the report states that officers surrounding the statue withdrew as protesters began to throw frozen water bottles, eggs and other things. This reporter’s note include the notation “projectiles thrown” during the three-minute window between the protesters’ return to the statue and the officers withdrawal, although it’s unclear whether the phrase reflects a first-hand observation or an overheard comment by an officer.

“That information came from I think our security people,” Smith said. “I wasn’t there. I think we’ve gotten first-hand feedback on that. Again, I would just encourage people to read the report. I think it’s got a lot of information.”

Lindsay Ayling, a graduate student involved in the struggle against Silent Sam, accused Kotis of making “defamatory remarks” in his characterization of UNC-Chapel Hill students.

UNC-Chapel Hill student Lindsay Ayling addresses UNC Board of Governors members, including Marty Kotis (right). (photo by Jordan Green)

“You’ve described Silent Sam students as ‘terrorists’ and claimed we threw cans at neo-Confederates,” Ayling told Kotis. “This is a flat-out lie. What we were actually doing was hosting a potluck and food drive.”

Kotis stood by his comment about terrorism.

“The ‘terrorist’ comment was regarding the graduate assistants that were supposedly going to withhold grades from students in an effort to force the administration to do something,” Kotis said after the meeting. “And I said, ‘That’s akin to terrorism.’ And the reason I said it’s terrorism is terrorism by its very definition is where you have let’s say one side of a force or a military force and another side — when they fight that’s a war. When you have terrorism, you have a side like the IRA that is taking an action against someone that’s a noncombatant — the students in this case — and committing what I would call violence against them because it’s withholding grades that can jeopardize military commissions. It can affect graduate school. It could affect their job. It could affect their financial aid.”

But Kotis partially walked back previous claims made about cans being thrown at protests that he made to a News & Observer reporter in December and again on Twitter earlier this month.

“I would have my suspicions about people bringing cans to an event like that,” he said. “Maybe it was just a purely innocent coincidence, but they could be used as projectiles. I guess we’ll never know what their intent was because the police took them away from them. If they were just collecting the food I’m not sure they would be too worried about having it locked up during the protest.”

Last month, Kotis’ fellow governors approved a motion he made to direct the board’s governance committee to set sanctions including suspension, termination and expulsion for students, faculty and staff that engage in unlawful activity, including assault on law enforcement officers, disobeying law enforcement officers, rioting and resisting arrest.  

Margaret Hassel, the attorney general for the undergraduate honor court at UNC-Chapel Hill, described the resolution as a “transparent” attempt to target antiracist protesters on campus, and said conscientious future prosecutors would be honor-bound to disobey the proposed rules should they be adopted.

“The university should be ashamed and repentant for its history of racism and slavery, and the temptation to punish people who shine a bright light on that shame is predictable, but it’s not excusable,” Hassel said. “This resolution doesn’t spring from a commitment to creating a safe campus. I can’t find a record of any similar vigor in quashing alcohol abuse, sexual violence or other forms of harm or chaos. However, I hope that you, like I, want Carolina to have a safe campus, one that puts honor and integrity first. And I hope sincerely that this resolution was a misstep and not a signal — a signal that you care more about crushing people who speak up for the descendants of enslaved people who built the campus around Silent Sam than you do about understanding why honor required that the statue come down.

“You’re going to ask my successors to enforce your rules,” Hassel concluded. “If your rules prevent us from listening and understanding and considering each case, then my successors who disobey your rules are going to be the ones who have honor.”

Speakers during the public comment session, which was attended by only a handful of the 28 board members, ran heavily against Silent Sam.

One of only two people who spoke in support of the monument was Lamar Pender.

“This illegal, immoral act performed at the behest of a temporary employee of the university in the state of North Carolina had no right to have done such — a despicable act in removing any part of the University of North Carolina or anything on the grounds,” Ward said, adding that the statue and its pedestal should be returned to its previous location at McCorkle Place.

Margaret Maurer, a graduate student and teacher assistant who was present for the toppling of Silent Sam, said if board members had listened to students they would understand how the monument had put them in harm’s way.

“Protesters, including myself, have been threatened and harassed at the base of that statue for years,” Maurer said. We’ve received harassment and death threats online, including threats from white supremacists with ties to recent mass shootings. It should go without saying that protesters of color have faced the worst of this violence and harassment.”

Maurer recounted an experience she shared earlier with Triad City Beat in which she said two Silent Sam supporters attempted to knock her over on the evening when the statue was toppled. She said they laid hands on her shoulder and chest, resulting in bruising and difficulty moving her shoulder for two weeks, adding that police officers on the scene refused to take a statement or question the men.

“My students are afraid — my students of color, my Jewish students, my LGBTQ+ students,” Maurer said. And their fear is rational. “This statue is a lightning rod for violent white supremacists, and it has been since Julian Carr dedicated it as a monument to Anglo-Saxon supremacy. This statue was shameful then, and it is shameful now. I am here today because I am scared for the lives of my students. So, let me be perfectly clear: If you bring this statue back to our campus, this legacy will be your shame. This violence will be your shame.”

This article was updated on Feb. 1, 2019 at 9:26 p.m. It should be noted that this reporters contemporaneous notes from the toppling of Silent Sam corroborate the statement in the Parker Poe report that projectiles were thrown prior to officers withdrawing from the statue.

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