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Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

There’s this story I’ve been obsessing over lately. It’s equal parts hilarious, pathetic and infuriating. It’s an example of how indefensibly awful governmental decision-making can be—and more important, emblematic of how institutional white supremacy can be so pervasive.

This is happening in my backyard—North Carolina—so let me get you up to speed. There are two things you should know about my state: Like other Southern states, we have an odious legacy on race—slavery, secession, the Wilmington coup of 1898, segregation, “urban renewal,” Jesse Helms, the whole deal. Unlike other Southern states, however, we have a mostly progressive education legacy, centered on the oldest publicly chartered university in the country, the University of North Carolina.

Our story begins where these two threads converge. In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy donated a monument to UNC. At its commemoration, Civil War veteran and local businessman Julian Carr—there’s a town named for him a few miles down the road—fondly recalled the time he “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds.”

The statue, depicting a Confederate soldier, became known as Silent Sam and stood there for 105 years, until protesters toppled it in August 2018. In January, UNC-Chapel Hill’s outgoing chancellor—she’d given her notice that day—had its base removed. The monument was stashed away, and that was that.

Or so everyone thought. But let me back up.

Silent Sam had been the target of protests for decades, but things heated up a few years ago. After white-supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine black people in South Carolina, and Southern states began reconsidering their Confederate symbolism, North Carolina’s right-wing General Assembly passed a law in 2015 barring the removal of Confederate monuments. Two years later, after neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, protesters in Durham ripped one down anyway. That fueled the fire around Silent Sam.

For a year, the demonstrations became increasingly tense: There were protests and counter-protests, cops and tear gas, white supremacists and neo-Confederates. The statue turned into a PR nightmare for UNC. By the time it came down, almost everyone on campus was glad to see it go.

That wasn’t the case with UNC’s Board of Governors, however. The BOG, which manages the 17-campus UNC System, is appointed by the General Assembly. So when the General Assembly took a hard right turn in 2011, so did the BOG. And when UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor removed Silent Sam’s base in January, the BOG promptly removed her, months ahead of her scheduled departure. Several members insisted that Sam be returned to his former home—the hell with what students and faculty thought.

As it happens, neo-Confederates felt the same way. And here’s where things get weird.

Jump ahead to Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving, when, out of the blue, UNC announced that it had reached a “settlement” with the North Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans over the disposition of Silent Sam. This was strange, considering no one could recall the SCV filing a lawsuit over the statue. Stranger still were the terms of the deal: Not only did the neo-Confederate group get custody of the monument; it was also going to receive $2.5 million to build a facility to house it.

Yes: a $2.5 million gift from the state to an organization that romanticizes and mythologizes the slave-holding South, with the money specifically going to further spread those racist myths. That seemed bad. It soon got worse.

By the weekend, we’d learned that the SCV’s lawsuit, UNC’s answer, and the consent decree—i.e., the settlement—had all been filed within minutes of each other. By Monday, we’d discovered that UNC’s interim president and the BOG chairman had signed the consent decree days before the lawsuit was filed. And that’s not the best part.

An area attorney and former BOG member published a leaked message from the SCV’s “commander” to members detailing the group’s secret negotiations with UNC. I’ll gloss over the details, but here’s the gist: The SCV had been looking for a way to sue over Silent Sam since it was toppled, but the group found that it didn’t have a case. It didn’t even have the legal standing to sue. Nonetheless, when the BOG learned about the possibility of a lawsuit, it pre-emptively approached the neo-Confederates about a settlement. So long as Silent Sam didn’t end up back on UNC’s campus—too dangerous—UNC was willing to give the SCV whatever it wanted to avert a lawsuit that UNC knew it had no chance of losing.

I’ll note that UNC didn’t admit black students until the 1950s, and by 1963, it only had 18 black freshmen. The money it paid the SCV could cover the average debt of about 120 UNC graduates. Instead, it’s going toward a shrine for a treasonous white-supremacist insurrection.

So far, no one at the BOG has tried to defend this shit sandwich, but as best anyone can tell, they simply wanted the Silent Sam migraine to end. If it took paying Confederate fetishists a few million bucks to make that happen, so be it.

This is how institutionalized white supremacy works.

First, there was the presumption that objects meant to honor—not remember, but honor, which is what monuments do—those who fought to preserve chattel slavery should be protected by the state, and with it came an implicit message that the descendants of the slaves are worth less than the descendants of the soldiers who fought to keep them in chains.

Second, there was the failure to think about the moral implications of giving neo-Confederates money that could have helped disadvantaged communities or pay for scholarships or go literally anywhere else, knowing the money will further racist lies about the Lost Cause.

These considerations, if they were ever considered at all, were dismissed as unimportant. Because, to the white people making these decisions, they were.

Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in National/International

Donald Trump’s Aug. 15 press conference, during which he defended the racists in Charlottesville and attacked those there to protest them, was one of the worst performances of his presidency.

It came a day after the Durham, N.C., statue to commemorate Confederate soldiers came down thanks to activists who took it into their own hands.

“So this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “I notice that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder: Is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself—where does it stop?”

Early the next morning, cranes and crews of workers began removing all four of the Confederate monuments in Baltimore. Here we were, a small crowd, at 4 a.m., black and white, crustpunk and square, reporter and activist, watching the statue of Confederate generals Lee and Jackson being hoisted through the air in the surreal pre-dawn light and taken away. It felt like a moment of catharsis—a rapid response to the racist rally and white radical terrorist attack in Charlottesville, as the city hauled away one of its four monuments to the Confederacy. Two others had already come down, and the last one would be carted away at dawn.

The mayor, Catherine Pugh, an African-American woman, is being widely praised for the order, which came after a local activist group planned an event called “Do It Like Durham,” referring to a group of activists that pulled down a statue dedicated to Confederate soldiers in that city.

Sarah Willets, with INDY Week in North Carolina, reported on the scene in Durham. Before the statue came down, Takiyah Thompson, one of the activists responsible for the event, told her: “This land has never been ours for my people. … This land has never been ours for Native Americans. This land has never been ours for queer people. This land has only been ours for rich ruling white elites, period.”

The Durham rally seemed to be winding down. However, after someone walked up with a ladder, things went quickly from there. Thompson climbed the ladder and wrapped a rope around the statue.

“It’s important to not just talk about, for instance, the Confederate monument being taken down as vandalism in that moment,” said Bree Newsome, who made news when she broke the law to climb the pole and take down the Confederate flag on South Carolina’s capitol grounds back in 2015, to Willets. “Yes, literally it’s vandalism, but if you understand the historical context and the history of that monument being erected, then you understand morally why it’s necessary for the monument to come down.”

After Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, we should have removed the statues that are coming down now—if not well before that.

“It’s going to be very exciting ... as we really confront the power structure that has existed here for a very long time in ways that are full frontal,” said Muhiyidin d’Baha, who later became famous when he leaped across a protest line and grabbed a rebel flag from a racist hand, to me the day after the Mother Emanuel shooting. At the time, he was standing at the foot of a statue of John C. Calhoun, a former vice president and staunch defender of slavery. “In ways that say, ‘This statue does not need to be here anymore.’”

After the shooting at Mother Emanuel, the city rallied around its white mayor, who said the right words. However, the Calhoun monument did not come down. Activists rallied again this week for its removal. It is necessary. But Charleston, like America, is so steeped in white supremacy that we white people should not be able to feel good about the removal of a statue.

Less than 24 hours after the Durham monument takedown, Takiyah Thompson was arrested as she left a press conference after the sheriff said, “No one is getting away with what happened.” So far, eight people have been charged—the same number of white supremacists who have been charged after Charlottesville.

I am still haunted by what I saw in Charlottesville. I took a video as police were clearing out the park where the racist rally was planned, and I got footage of a man beating a white anti-fascist in the head with a long stick; a still from that video is above. Later, he was filmed and photographed beating a black man, Deandre Harris.

He looks, hauntingly, like me—a little heftier, with a slightly longer beard. How can I see him and feel good about symbolic acts? I have the physical quality he values most. I could have ended up like him. I grew up in Columbia, where Newsome took down the rebel battle flag. I was taught, not so much at home, but in the world around me, to honor people like Robert E. Lee. And I was taught not to notice my own whiteness. Now, I can’t not notice it.

After I left Charlottesville on that fateful weekend, I felt disgusted by my own skin. Whenever I saw another white person, I cringed, wondering which side they were on. I knew people thought the same thing about me.

Six days after the Charlottesville horrors, it was announced that Steve Bannon was leaving the Trump White House. Much like I feel about the monuments coming down, I’m glad he’s out—but it’s only a small part of something so much larger. White supremacy is a white problem. Even if its more awful displays disgust us, we still benefit from it.

There were plenty of white anti-racists fighting the racists in Charlottesville, and they largely kept them out of Boston a week later. But until we fight a lot harder, we don’t get to feel good when a monument comes down.

It is not only Bannon or Trump who has a white supremacy problem. It is us.

Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. Send tips to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter @demoincrisis. Podcast every Thursday at www.democracyincrisis.com.

Published in National/International