On August 30, 2018, a violent altercation reportedly broke out between opposing groups of protesters at a protest over a Confederate statue at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill).
The statue, known as Silent Sam, was erected on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus in 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to memorialize soldiers who fought for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Controversy over monuments connected to slavery in the United States and the Confederate Army has mounted in recent years on both university campuses and in other civic spaces. Protests calling for the removal of such statues have been met with counter-protests defending the statues, in some cases resulting in violent clashes.
In recent years, UNC-Chapel Hill students and faculty have held demonstrations and raised calls for the removal of the Silent Sam from campus. On August 20, 2018, a group attending a “Remove Silent Sam” rally knocked down the statue from its base. The event quickly led to national media attention and debate over the statue’s removal and its future.
On August 30, 2018, students and other community members held a demonstration on campus during which they played music and danced to celebrate the statue’s removal. Dozens of alleged members of a group known as Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County (ABCTBAC) held a counter-protest in an area cordoned off by police. As police began escorting departing ABCTBAC protesters to a parking lot, demonstrators who were celebrating the statue’s removal reportedly followed and taunted the other group. Skirmishes between some protesters broke out and police responded by deploying pepper spray. Three protesters were arrested.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about violence during a protest on a university campus. While students, faculty, and other members of civil society have a right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, the exercise of such rights does not extend to violent activity. Such violence puts members of higher education communities and the public at large at risk of harm and undermines institutional autonomy.