Black student leaders at UNC-Chapel Hill stood on the steps of the administration building Monday protesting the mistreatment of Black students by campus police and highlighting the ongoing issues of race and equity on campus.
The protest comes days after two far-right activists carried Confederate battle flags around campus Saturday and put smaller flags on yard stakes around the Unsung Founders Memorial.
The monument sits on McCorkle Place and was erected in 2005 to honor the free and enslaved people of color who helped build the university. It was built as a counterpoint to the now-removed Silent Sam Confederate monument.
“White supremacists feel safer on this campus than Black students,” Black Student Movement Vice President Julia Clark said at a protest Monday.
A photo posted by the Twitter account UNC Anti-Racist Alerts (@UNC_Alerts) on Saturday shows two men sitting on the memorial, with one of them, Thomas May, flashing an “OK” sign. The gesture has been associated with white supremacists and Proud Boys, self-described “Western chauvinists” perhaps best known for participating in street brawls and the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
May has adopted the OK symbol as a kind of personal insignia, printing it on a custom T-shirt and affixing it to the windows of his car.
This incident followed other student-led protests and weeks of national controversy over Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones getting tenure at UNC-CH. Some Black students and faculty at UNC-CH have said it is a symptom of larger problems with how the university handles issues related to race and equity.
The UNC-Chapel Hill NAACP, a group that’s returning to campus this fall, hosted Monday’s protest to lift the voices and demands Black students have made to university leaders. The group of about 30 students, faculty and community members stood outside the South Building, where the offices of the chancellor and other administrators are located on campus.
Jarrah Faye, president of the group, spoke about the over-policing of Black students on campus and criticized acting UNC-CH Police Chief Rahsheem Holland. Faye also pointed out how UNC Police allowed “known white supremacists” to roam north campus Saturday, a stark difference to how officers violently shoved Black students out of a recent trustees meeting.
“This is not okay and we’re not going to stand for it anymore,” Faye said.
May: ‘I did nothing wrong’
The Twitter account that alerted about Saturday’s incident was created by student activists and is not run by the university.
In a video posted in the Twitter thread, May also makes a whipping motion after saying, “It would be nice to have a couple slaves.”
Another video shows May discussing the possibility of throwing acid on the memorial. The text of the thread indicates that the men also spat on the memorial on Saturday.
“I did nothing wrong,” May told The News & Observer in a text message on Monday.
“If people would leave us alone when we flag and respect our heritage instead of coming out and harassed us none of this would happen,” said May, one of the people profiled in The News & Observer’s Sound of Judgment project this spring. “No different than Silent Sam. Why don’t unc obey the law and put Silent Sam back up?”
May and Joseph Wardwell had been counter-protesting a demonstration in Graham, N.C., on Saturday morning. May told demonstrators, including one wearing a body-worn camera, that they planned to go to UNC’s campus. He described what they planned to do and used a racial slur to describe the Unsung Founders’ Memorial.
They have counter protested many Black Lives Matter events in Graham. May has also, since activists toppled the Silent Sam Confederate monument in 2018, repeatedly visited the UNC-Chapel Hill campus to demonstrate on McCorkle Place or near athletic facilities with a Confederate battle flag.
Wardwell could not be reached for comment Monday morning.
Response from UNC Police
The Twitter account that alerted the incident was created by student activists and is not run by the university.
The UNC Police Department was notified of the incident and four officers responded to the scene. They observed the two men, both frequent participants in anti-Black Lives Matter events in Alamance County, until they left campus after about an hour.
UNCPD officers did not witness vandalism of the memorial, and the two men had not been previously banned from the campus, according to the university. There is currently no campus policy prohibiting congregating around the monument.
“As UNC-Chapel Hill is a public university and state agency, we must allow demonstrations and free speech, in accordance with the First Amendment and North Carolina Campus Free Speech Act, even when it does not align with the values of our campus,” Vice Chancellor for Institutional Integrity and Risk Management George Battle said in a statement Monday.
University officials did not respond to questions about whether the behavior of Wardwell and May in Graham and at the U.S. Capitol could or should influence the university’s response to the men’s presence on campus.
Black student leaders’ demands for safety
“What happened yesterday when racists desecrated the Unsung Founders monument makes it clear that UNC must act now to address the demands issued by Black Student Movement to improve safety of Black students, faculty and staff,” UNC Anti-Racist Alerts tweeted Sunday afternoon.
Student leaders are asking for the restoration and contextualization of the Unsung Founders Memorial, such as a sign asking visitors not to sit on it. They’ve also asked the university to distribute the anti-racist alerts through the university’s official alert system to notify students of incidents like these.
And students demanded that the university fire Holland after they say he assaulted multiple Black students, including Clark, at the recent trustees meeting.
“Our demands of this university are designed to protect the Black community at UNC, as well as to end the systemic oppression and exploitation of our community,” Clark said at an earlier press conference announcing the demands.
They organized the event after journalist Hannah-Jones declined UNC-CH’s offer as the Knight Chair for Race and Investigative Journalism with tenure.
In a statement, Vice Chancellor for University Communications Joel Curran said plans for the memorial is a “high priority” for the Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward. In 2020, the group was tasked with researching UNC-CH’s history with race and providing recommendations to the chancellor on how the university can reckon with its past.
The university is focused on protecting the memorial from vandalism and ensuring it is treated appropriately and respected, Curran said.
Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz has also put together a team to address Black student leaders’ concerns that were presented last week. That team will also gather and assess initiatives that are already underway at Carolina.
“This is an important step in bringing forward meaningful, substantive and actionable change,” Curran said.
At the protest Monday, students said while the statements and meetings with university leaders are good, they want immediate action. They shouted to Guskiewicz to take these steps to better protect people of color at UNC-CH this fall semester.
“Don’t say Black lives matter, make Black lives better,” Faye said through a megaphone aimed at Guskiewicz’s office.