The faculty and graduate teaching assistants at UNC-Chapel Hill this week released the final grades they were withholding as part of their protest of the proposed return of the Silent Sam Confederate statue to their campus.
But they’re making it clear the battle is far from over.
In a piece for the Student Nation section of The Nation magazine, UNC PhD student Nicole Castro says administrators at UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC system shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking this year’s toppling of the statue was a flash in the pan. Rather, Castro said, it is the latest chapter in a struggle against the statue and what it represents that has gone on for half a century.
The TAs of UNC are not only participating in a campus-wide history of resistance. We join a national legacy, taking our cues from the indigenous activists and activists of color who have paved the way for our actions. Take, for a contemporary example, the Standing Rock Pipeline movement, known for its nationwide #NODAPL support in 2016. Most national coverage spoke of the participants as protesters, yet this collective identified as water protectors: “That label of protester…could never describe the protectors that are here.” The word protester, up for use here at UNC, speaks to a short-lived disruption. A protector acts from a place of deep commitment: a series of choices that defines a life philosophy. A UNC protector, like our indigenous role models, recognizes racial injustices on campus over the span of months, years, and decades, and won’t be turned away or dismissed just because the proposal has been moved back three months.
This life philosophy is what we are teaching our students through action: Tar Heels are no stranger to protest. From the Food Workers Strike of 1969 to the recent actions of Maya Little, a graduate student, who contextualized Silent Sam using paint mixed with her own blood, UNC has long been at the forefront of nationwide debates on issues of civil and workers’ rights. And it’s in this tradition that we—graduate students at UNC—have chosen to resist Folt’s grotesque proposal through the powers we have at our disposal.
The university has already attempted to spin this fracas as a misguided effort by disgruntled radicals to disrupt undergraduates’ “Carolina experience”—that is, preventing our students from getting their education by withholding their exam grades. On the contrary: As teaching assistants and instructors, we spend hours every day in the rooms with the students—we teach the material. We assign and grade the work. We field questions and talk to students during office hours. And by and large, the undergraduates have expressed their enthusiastic support. Far from an abdication of our duty to teach, our disruption this fall represented a long-standing commitment to our students’ right to learn at a place free of hatred. Only an administrator could mistake an exam for an education.
UNC has awakened a collective of graduate students, instructors, and faculty—groups that, previously, were not united, divided as we were across the departments and schools that split us into silos. But we need your help, too. We can be “divided and conquered” as much as any collective, a strategy UNC will be sure to deploy with further threats aimed at our school’s national standing. If you are a UNC student, now done with finals, keep making noise. Contact Chancellor Folt and Dean Kevin Guskiewicz directly with your demands: that Silent Sam never be allowed back on campus and that there be no negative repercussions for campus members who seek to make it a place safe from white supremacy. Ask your parents to do the same. Send letters of support to your instructors, and make it clear that you stand by their choices, now and in the future.
With the UNC Board of Governors having rejected the plan of UNC-Chapel Hill Carol Folt and the school’s trustees to build a $5.3 million history center that would house Silent Sam, Folt is asking students for feedback on how they would like to see the issue resolved.
As UNC-CH PhD student James Sadler points out in an exhaustive Twitter thread collecting statements from students and student groups, that input is already widely available and resoundingly against the statue’s return to campus.