Hundreds of students rallied on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill Wednesday afternoon, demanding changes to campus policing after a series of disturbing racist incidents at the school and what students called a tepid response from police.
The rally remained largely peaceful and no arrests were made, though a window in the campus administration building was broken late in the day.
(EDIT: On Thursday police charged Calvin Deutschbein, a PhD student and activist at UNC-Chapel Hill, with misdemeanor injury to real property in the breaking of the window.)
Students gathered on and around the steps of the Wilson Library in the early afternoon. There they shared personal stories of harassment and rough treatment by UNC police, who they say treat students protesting the return of the Silent Sam Confederate monument as potential dangers even when unarmed.
By contrast, a right-wing group called Heirs to the Confederacy brought weapons — including a handgun — to campus earlier this month. Though bringing a firearm on campus is a felony, the group was asked to leave the boundary of the university without any arrests. Police officers were photographed shaking hands with members of the group.
Shortly thereafter, members of Heirs to the Confederacy were charged with vandalizing the Unsung Founders memorial, which honors the slaves who built the campus. They were also charged in a separate incident, wherein a custom UNC system flag was stolen and replaced with a Confederate flag.
“I believe the individuals who brought weapons to campus should have been arrested,” said UNC-Chapel Hill student body president Ashton Martin, who spoke at Wednesday’s rally.
UNC-Chapel Hill Police Chief Jeff McCracken, defended his department over that incident and others in a recent guest column in the student newspaper, The Daily Tarheel. He also criticized student protesters as wishing to destroy all authority on campus.
University administration say they have brought in an outside consultant to review the gun incident and several other recent problems on campus. Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz has announced the formation of a campus safety commission.
But some students who spoke at the rally said they believe the commission is largely for show and unlikely to solve the campus’ larger problems.
Cortland Gilliam, a PhD student, told the assembled students he had been repeatedly approached to be a member of the commission but turned down the invitation.
The language of the invitation made it clear the administration is focused on building a relationship between students and police, Gilliam said. But the work that needs to be done is not on that relationship but the way police see their jobs and their treatment of students — especially minority students.
The invitation’s assertion that the safety of the campus is a top priority seems like a bad joke when police shake hands with white supremacists committing felonies by bringing weapons to campus, Gilliam said. If that were the case, he said, the student body would at least have been alerted that an armed individual who had made threatening posts online was on the campus
“The safety of the campus has never been a top priority of this university,” Gilliam said.
“If not students, faculty and staff who or what is this institution protecting?” Gilliam
said. “The answer is as apparent as it has always been: whiteness and white supremacy.”
De’Ivyion Drew, a board member of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Black Congress, told the crowd she will be of three undergraduate students serving on the commission — and she intends to use the opportunity to work for change from within the system as well as outside it.
UNC’s poor history on race stretches back to the slaves who built the campus up through the dedication of the “Silent Sam” Confederate memorial to today, Drew said. Police now protect white supremacists who come armed to campus while black students fight to remove racist iconography from the campus and have their humanity acknowledged.
“To this day, a bronze statue honoring a person who has never existed is more worthy to protect and serve than human life and wellbeing of students in their home community,” Drew said.
Tamia Sanders, co-chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Black Congress, shared her feelings of anxiety and depression as she struggles with both UNC administration’s defense of a Confederate monument and threats from white supremacist groups on campus.
“I am tired of having to fight for my humanity,” Sanders said.
She called the sort of pressure black students face on a campus that defends monuments to white supremacy “it’s own kind of torture” and said she almost envies white students who have the option to ignore the controversy.
Ultimately, she said, she and other students dedicated to change will continue to fight.
“No matter how exhausted or depressed I am, UNC will never silence me,” she said.
After the rally at Wilson Library, students marched to the South Building, where they planned to deliver a list of demands to the interim chancellor. They found the doors locked and instead stood outside shouting their demands – (click here to see video) as police secured the building.
As student protesters rallied outside the building, a window of the administration building was broken. It was not clear who broke the window and no arrests had been made as of early Thursday.
Joel Curran, Vice Chancellor for University Communications at UNC-Chapel Hill, addressed the incident in a statement.
“We have heard the concerns about the ways UNC Police have handled recent campus demonstrations and public safety events, and we are addressing them,” Curran said in the statement.
“We value and support free speech and civil discourse as we work to strengthen the relationship between the police and the community,” he said. “However, breaking windows does not represent these values. It endangers the safety of people and is not acceptable. We are grateful no one was injured. “
Ashton Martin, the student body president, spoke to students throughout the day about what they want in a new police chief. She is on the selection committee.
“I think we’re looking for someone who has experience policing minority communities and campus policing specifically,” Martin said. “We’re not looking for a beat cop. We’re looking for someone who understands what is needed when you’re policing a campus community.”
“Those people are out there,” Martin said. “We’re not looking for a unicorn.”