UNC Police investigating flag theft, along with racist vandalism

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Heirs to the Confederacy activists Nancy Rushton (right) and Ryan Barnett hold what appears to the the UNC System flag during a protest against Linda Sarsour in Hillsborough on Sunday. (photo by Tony Crider)

Sometime early on Sunday, a custom-made UNC System flag was removed from a flagpole in front of the UNC System Office in Chapel Hill.

Jason Tyson, a spokesperson for UNC System, confirmed on Friday that the flag, which is valued at $603.72, was removed and remains missing. He also said that at about 2 p.m. on Sunday someone driving past the office building noticed a Confederate flag flying.

“It was one of three flagpoles we have on the grounds,” Tyson said. “We have the state flag of North Carolina, the United States flag, and the system flag — that’s a custom-made flag. That flag was gone, and in its place was a Confederate flag. UNC-Chapel Hill police took the Confederate flag down and got rid of it.”

Tyson added that he wanted to emphasize that the UNC System “would never fly the Confederate flag.”

Randy Young, a spokesperson for UNC Police, said in a text to Triad City Beat that the agency is investigating the flag incident, adding that officials “have not ruled out that this was related to the vandalisms on campus Sunday morning.”

Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz sent a message to inform members of the UNC-Chapel Hill community of “two racist actions.” At about 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, Guskiewicz said two individuals defaced the Unsung Founders Memorial, which honors slaves who built the university, by “writing racist and other deplorable language.” He also said that UNC Police “discovered that an installation outside the Hanes Art Center was vandalized with hateful language and racial slurs.”

Maya Little and Lindsay Ayling, two graduate history students who have been active in the campaign to remove the Silent Sam Confederate monument, said on Twitter earlier this week that they learned through a lawyer and faculty member that their names were specifically mentioned in the racist graffiti.

Guskiewicz’s message did not mention the change-out of flags at the UNC System Office, which is also located on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. But he singled out the group Heirs to the Confederacy, which has led at least two pro-monument rallies at UNC-Chapel Hill since December, in his message about the vandalism.

“University police are in the process of obtaining a warrant for the arrest of one of the individuals who is known to be affiliated with the Heirs to the Confederacy and was identified on surveillance tape,” Guskiewicz said on Sunday. “University police are reviewing the tape to identify the other person involved.”

Lance Spivey, the co-founder of the Heirs to the Confederacy, said in a statement to the Durham Herald-Sun on Monday that the group did not approve of the vandalism.

“If these acts of vandalism were in fact committed by any member(s) of Heirs, then the perpetrator(s) were acting on their own, in a renegade capacity and unsanctioned by the board of directors,” the statement read. “I, and the Heirs to the Confederacy as a whole, will have no part in the damaging, desecration, or destruction of any historical monument, memorial, or marker, and actually support the protection of all such monuments, be they Confederate or otherwise.” Spivey told the New York Times on Monday that if the two members turned out to be culpable, the Heirs would take “whatever punitive measures it deems necessary.”

As of Friday, no criminal charges appear to have been filed.

While no one has taken responsibility for the flag incident, neo-Confederate activists celebrated the raising of the Confederate flag on Facebook, while treating the theft of the UNC System flag like a war scalp.

At 8:05 a.m. on Sunday, Nancy Rushton, a co-founder of Heirs to the Confederacy who travels from South Carolina to attend pro-monument events in North Carolina, posted a photo of the Confederate flag flying alongside the North Carolina state flag at a location that appears to be the UNC System Office. Tyson, the UNC System spokesperson, said he identified a Twitter account that tweeted a photo of what appears to be the missing UNC System flag at protest against Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour in Hillsborough on Sunday. The photos show Rushton and Ryan Barnett, a neo-Confederate activist who has been showing up at pro-monument rallies around the Triangle since early February, holding what appears to the be UNC System flag.

Rushton and Barnett could not be reached immediately for comment.

Spivey and Howard Snow, also a core member of Heirs, can be seen standing behind Rushton and Barnett in the photos. Spivey and Snow also did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

In a Facebook comment earlier this week, neo-Confederate activist Joshua Pennington exulted about a “surprise” his group gave to an opposing group of antiracists demonstrating in support of Sarsour.

“Well, let’s just say that they were surprised with something from campus that got replaced with a battle flag,” he wrote.

Pennington replied in a Facebook message to a request for comment: “Go bark up another tree.”

Steven Triplett, a Guilford County resident who has addressed Winston-Salem City Council in support of the Confederate monument and protested at UNC-Chapel Hill, also celebrated the Confederate flag raising at the UNC System Office.

In a Facebook post at 9:04 a.m., he wrote, “Antifa and commies: Attention, be surprised about our Confederate flag is risen at UNC campus in Chapel Hill this morning. Let all of our Confederate armies and supporters stand to look at this Confederate flag in first day since April 14, 1865, and let us salute to this flag, so now we are celebrating. Let our UNC chancellor and our Gov. Roy Cooper will be big surprise and get heart attack by themselves that we are happy to celebrate [sic]. We hope our Trump president will be smiling to see at our Confederate flag in my post today [sic]. God bless our CSA country. Amen.”

Triplett did not respond to a message for this story.

Heirs to the Confederacy founder Lance Spivey (back, left) and member Howard Snow with the apparent UNC System flag.