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09/14/2018

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UNC officials watched protesters closely as Silent Sam fell, texts show

By Tyler Dukes, WRAL investigative reporter

RALEIGH, N.C. — Top officials at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were closely monitoring the crowd that gathered around Silent Sam last month as protesters drifted back and forth between the controversial monument and Franklin Street.

McCorkle Place had been the site of plenty of these protests before, as groups pressured the university to remove the statue dedicated to students who died fighting for the Confederacy – erected during an era of surging white supremacy campaigns across the state.

But campus officials this time wondered if things might be different.


"You think they're gonna take that thing down?" Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Christi Hurt texted her boss, Winston Crisp, at 8:11 p.m. on Aug. 20.

"One can hope," Crisp, the university's vice chancellor for student affairs, texted back a minute later.

About an hour later, protesters pulled the statue down from its plinth, an event Hurt confirmed to Crisp with a screenshot of the toppled monument captured from social media.

"Holy s***," Hurt wrote at 9:25 p.m.

"No comment," Crisp responded a minute later.

The comments, among hundreds of pages of records released Wednesday in response to a request from WRAL News, stand in contrast to official university statements released in the ensuing hours calling the actions of around 250 protesters "unlawful and dangerous," and pledging an investigation. They highlight the delicate path campus officials have trod in recent weeks in condemning the actions of protesters – even as some UNC System leaders call for the statue's restoration.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt has maintained that the university was "not remiss" in its decision to keep the statue standing before it was toppled, an act she defined as "the destruction of state property." She said the university was following a 2015 law passed to prevent the removal of such monuments, which have become flashpoints of protests across the South. But since its fall, she's also said the figure does not belong "at the front door" of the university.

So far, five people have been charged in connection with the protest the night the statue was toppled. A UNC professor also faces an assault charge from that night, and others have been arrested in subsequent protests.

The university says the investigation is ongoing. But hundreds of faculty members have written to Folt arguing against the return of the statue to McCorkle Place, arguing it memorializes racism and white supremacy.

Crisp's comments, among the texts and emails from Folt, Police Chief Jeff McCracken and other top officials on Aug. 20 and 21, appear to be the highest-profile opposition to the statue's original placement so far, coming as they did from a member of the university's executive staff.

In a prepared statement, spokesperson Joanne Peters Denny said the text messages between Crisp and Hurt "reflect the personal opinions of individual staff members and are not official University positions."

"The University has been clear that while there are strong feelings about the monument, the destruction of property that took place on August 20th was unlawful and dangerous," Denny said. "The University is now focused on working with its Trustees to develop recommendations to present to the Board of Governors for the disposition and preservation of the monument."

Denny said Crisp and Hurt declined to comment Thursday, writing in an email that they were "busy with preparations to ensure that the more than 2,000 students remaining on campus for Hurricane Florence are safe."

UNC-CH released the 800 pages of emails and text messages at 3 p.m. Wednesday, two hours before the university suspended operations ahead of the storm. In a follow-up statement, Denny said the public records office "worked diligently to provide [the] records before our campus ceased mandatory operations for several days." WRAL requested the documents on Aug. 21.

'Silent Sam' supporters memorializing statue with flowers

The correspondence shows that many of the university's top executives and public relations staff were closely monitoring the protest – both on the ground and from their homes – as it began in the late afternoon, trading updates via group texts.

They kept tabs on crowd size and movement, and noted the arrival of both UNC professor Dwayne Dixon – a member of the left-wing Redneck Revolt group who weeks later was charged with simple assault – and Maya Little – the UNC Ph.D. student charged with defacing the monument with paint and her own blood earlier this spring. The evening protest was originally billed as an event to support Little.

Campus officials also spotted police officers moving back from the monument.

"Crowd returned. May have to pull officers back," Derek Kemp, associate vice chancellor for campus safety, wrote to one group.

WRAL News reported last month that a separate batch of text messages from the town showed that Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue urged his officers to "stay way out" from the statue and avoid engaging with the crowd.

"Protesters getting upset because police now standing between them and the monument," Jeni Cook, a UNC media relations manager, texted to fellow staffers at the Office of University Communications just before the monument fell. "Police just pulled back and away from the monument."

The statue's toppling quickly drew the attention of UNC System leaders like Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith and system President Margaret Spellings, who told campus leaders she spoke with the governor about the issue less than an hour later.

"What actions are being taken?" Smith wrote to Folt and UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Chair Haywood Cochrane at 10:22 p.m. on Aug. 20. "Please advise and if need be we can schedule a call or meeting early am."

Smith and Spellings called the statue's removal "unacceptable, dangerous, and incomprehensible" in a joint statement the next day, decrying "mob rule and the intentional destruction of public property.

Their view was shared by dozens of alumni and others who wrote to the chancellor and other university officials to criticize the university's handling of the incident. Others supported the protesters, calling the tearing down of the statue "long overdue."

The morning after Silent Sam crashed to the ground, Crisp finalized a statement to his top student affairs staff that he and Hurt had begun crafting within a half-hour of the monument's fall. He praised staff and first responders, noted that the university is working on messaging and acknowledged that many questions remain unanswered.

But he pointed out that on Aug. 21, they had more pressing matters at hand than the toppled Confederate memorial.

"In the meantime, today is the first day of classes for a new semester. Our jobs are the same this morning as they were yesterday and the days before. As I continue to say, each and every student on this campus, whether they are supporters of the Confederate Monument, or were engaged in the activity last night, deserves and must have our support, teaching, and advice," Crisp wrote. "That is our work, and our calling."

Fred, this is the cost of having people in positions of responsibility who are unable to differentiate right from wrong. Perhaps the entire system needs to be cleaned out.

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