No, It Was Not Mob Rule. It Was Civil Disobedience.

More responsive, as always, to their legislative overlords than to the students and public they purportedly serve, UNC system president Margaret Spellings and Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith issued the following statement concerning the toppling of Silent Sam on Monday night on the UNC Chapel Hill campus.

“We have been in touch with UNC-Chapel Hill Trustee Chair Cochrane and Chancellor Folt both last night and this morning about the removal of the Silent Sam statue on UNC-CH’s campus. Campus leadership is in collaboration with campus police, who are pulling together a timeline of the events, reviewing video evidence, and conducting interviews that will inform a full criminal investigation.

The safety and security of our students, faculty, and staff are paramount. And the actions last evening were unacceptable, dangerous, and incomprehensible. We are a nation of laws — and mob rule and the intentional destruction of public property will not be tolerated.”

The statement was circulated to the UNC, Chapel Hill community with the additional signatures of Chancellor Folt and Board of Trustee Chair Haywood Cochrane.

Leaving aside the laughable comment that the actions of Monday evening were “incomprehensible,” we should be clear that they were the antithesis of “mob rule.”  To use an odious term our military likes to employ to show it is in full control of the mayhem it unleashes, the toppling of Silent Sam was “surgical.”  It was obviously well-planned and carried out with care, resulting in no harm to anyone or anything except the statue itself.  This was a disciplined collective act of civil disobedience, not mob rule. A mob would have broken windows, turned over cars, rampaged across campus and Franklin Street; a mob would have, in other words, acted indiscriminately.

The first statement from Chancellor Folt’s office about Monday evening’s action referred to persons “unaffiliated with the University”—the old “outside agitators” canard.  Can we please recognize the irrelevance of making any distinction in this case between those officially connected to the university—as current students, faculty, and staff—and the general public?  We are a public university.  As such, we have no right to exclude anyone from walking on our campus or speaking their mind on its grassy lawns or (as happens every day) in the “pit” in front of the student union.

Furthermore, Silent Sam was a statue placed on the campus by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  The university granted the UDC access to the campus; it did not erect or pay for the statue itself.  It has always been unclear to me who actually “owns” the statue; there is no good case for claiming it is university property.  Instead, we seem to have been its cooperating—and increasing troubled—custodian.  As a target of protest or of support, then, it seems clear to me that the statue was fair game for all citizens, irrespective of their affiliation or not with the university, since the statue’s own “affiliation” is cloudy at best.

Civil disobedience entails breaking the law.  It does so when the established modes of redress for a wrong have proved unavailing, and it does so in the name of a good that it claims the law is flouting.  Law enforcement, the powers that be, can respond with outrage, insist that the majesty of the law requires these offenders be punished, and resolutely ignore the moral point the protesters are making.  That becomes the ground on which the battle is waged.

At least Chancellor Folt acknowledges that the statue is “divisive,” and that what it stands for is offensive to some people.  I assume that, in her case, the protestors’ actions were not “incomprehensible.”  But she seems, for reasons I will not presume to speculate about, to have lined up with the decision to refuse to “tolerate” this civil disobedience and to conduct a “full criminal investigation.”

Civil disobedience always carries with it the recognition that laws are being broken and there may be consequences for that fact.  Some writers on civil disobedience even claim that a willingness to submit to punishment is part and parcel of this particular type of action. It is certainly true that, in the past, the spectacle of the law coming down on the protestors has sometimes served the cause those protestors are trying to promote.  In our polarized moment (much the same was true in the 1960s), I think it highly likely that sympathy for the protestors and the desire to throw the book at them will both be in ample evidence as this story unfolds.

However, in one way, Monday evening did not replay the 1960s.  The police (like the crowd itself) showed admirable restraint.  Obviously, a decision was made (by whom I do not know) that the welfare of a statue was not worth harming a single, real living human being.  An admirable decision—and I took the occasion of thanking the first campus police officer I saw on campus yesterday for the way the whole campus force handled the evening.  He responded that the safety and well-being of the people there was their chief concern, to which I responded: “Exactly.  As it should be.  Well done.”  Unlike so many 1960s demonstrations, Monday evening did not turn into a riot.

The law is within its rights to conduct its full criminal investigation and to show that it places the destruction of public property [again, whose property is Silent Sam anyway?] above the welfare of the public who find it an insult (and worse).  My hope is that if a decision to prosecute is actually made, that hundreds of those, like me, who sympathize with the protestors’ actions will step forward, say we were there that night and participated in its toppling of the statue, and insist on being held to account with all the others.  That, at least, is my plan for myself as we wait and see what happens next.  If they want to create martyrs, let’s give them bushels full.

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