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UNC activist faces no penalties for defacing Confederate statue on campus despite being found guilty

The monument in question -- "Silent Sam' -- has been a flashpoint in anti-racist activism at the school.

Law enforcement officials set up a perimeter around the platform that 'Silent Sam', a statue erected to honor confederate dead, that sat upon until it's toppling on August 30, 2018. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP/Getty Images)
Law enforcement officials set up a perimeter around the platform that 'Silent Sam', a statue erected to honor confederate dead, that sat upon until it's toppling on August 30, 2018. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP/Getty Images)

A county judge in North Carolina has found Maya Little, a graduate history student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, guilty of a misdemeanor for defacing a Confederate memorial on the campus, but declined to impose any penalties for her act of civil disobedience.

Orange County District Judge Samantha Cabe announced her decision after a day-long trial on Monday, the latest step in an ongoing drama surrounding the fate of the campus’ Civil War statue, better known as Silent Sam. The monument has stood on the campus of the university since 1913, dedicated to the men who took arms against the country on the behalf of “the Anglo Saxon race in the South.”

The trial against Little stemmed from her arrest during an April 30 protest against Silent Sam’s presence on the campus. During the protest, Little was videotaped by police body cameras shouting “Hey hey, ho ho, this racist statue’s got to go!” The video was played during her trial as evidence against her.

Scott Holmes, Little’s lawyer, argued that she shouldn’t be found guilty of breaking any law, but that if she were so judged she would have been justified because of the racist nature of the statue. “One person’s defacement is another person’s improvement,” Holmes said.

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In her own defense, Little, a 26-year-old doctoral student of history, admitted that she smeared red ink, mixed with her own blood, on the pedestal that held Silent Sam in protest of the statue’s presence on campus. “The Orange County court system must also reckon with the Black blood that stains it,” Little read in a statement to the court. “Justice may not be found in this courthouse, but it can be found in community we have built when the police, University, and laws failed us.”

In rendering a decision, Cabe said it was obvious Little was guilty of defacing the statute, but granted her a “continued judgment.” Under North Carolina law, county judges may allow such discretion for minor crimes. As a result, Little has no technical conviction in the matter and will not have to pay court costs or restitution for the estimated cost of $4,050 to clean the statue.

Silent Sam has been a source of divisive tension on the UNC campus and the surrounding town for decades, but in recent years the monument has drawn refreshed negative publicity to the tiny college town that’s better known for basketball celebrations than confrontational street activism. The statue’s legacy as a monument to white supremacy is well known. At its dedication in 1913, Confederate Army veteran Julian Carr offered these remarks, which have been kept in the university’s official archives:

One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.

More recently, national and international protests have focused on anti-Confederate symbolism following a church shooting at Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and a deadly confrontation last year over a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists and peaceful protesters near the University of Virginia. During this period, Silent Sam has emerged as a lightning rod of anti-racism activism on the UNC campus.

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On the eve of the first day of classes in August, even as the UNC administration, state officials, and community activists debated the statue’s fate, a group of protesters toppled Silent Sam, thrusting the campus once again into the uncomfortable glare of international attention over how communities ought to deal with the historical significance of monuments to the nation’s slaveholding past. 

Last week during the annual celebration of UNC’s founding, Chancellor Carol Folt issued an apology for the university’s role in slavery.

“As chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I offer our university’s deepest apology for the profound injustices of slavery, our full acknowledgment of the strength of enslaved peoples in the face of their suffering, and our respect and indebtedness to them,” Folt said in her October 12 University Day remarks, commemorating the campus’ 225th anniversary. “And I reaffirm our university’s commitment to facing squarely and working to right the wrongs of history so they are never again inflicted.”

A day after Little’s trial, former UNC Chancellor James Moeser told the campus newspaper that he should have ordered the relocation of Silent Sam when he led the university from 2000-2008. “I actually regret that we didn’t remove the monument when we had a chance when I was chancellor,” Moeser said in in an online interview published Wednesday by The Daily Tar Heel. “The fact is there was no demand for it, but we could have done it, and we could have done it without tremendous controversy.”

Moeser said he didn’t know during his tenure that “this monument and others were erected in the white supremacy movement of the 1890s to the 1920s. And this monument was erected in 1913 as part of that whole movement funded by the Daughters of the Confederacy. It was an attempt to create the myth of the Lost Cause.”

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But in recent years he’s learned otherwise and now opposes returning Silent Sam to its open-air pedestal on campus, preferring instead to house it on campus in a museum-like setting.

“It’s an important architectural landmark. It would be a great place to do a really well-built museum of the University’s history and civil rights history, and Silent Sam could be a part of that, because slavery and segregation are part of the story of civil rights,” Moeser told the newspaper. “To me, the monument cannot be outside anywhere, where it would be an attraction to demonstrations and continues police vigilance and potential violence. It’s a dangerous thing to have, so it needs to be in a curated space, inside some place in a museum.”

After her trial, Little told The Daily Tar Heel that she appreciated the judge’s decision, but would have considered it a total victory if the charges against her had been dropped as a signal of the state’s opposition to the statue’s presence on campus. “I’m going to continue fighting white supremacy at UNC, and Silent Sam was one facet of that, and he’s gone – thank God for that,” Little said.