Protesters have toppled a Confederate statue in the US state of North Carolina during a rally decrying the monument as a symbol of racist heritage.
The statue, known as “Silent Sam”, was brought down Monday night on the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill) campus, as protesters rallied against the monument, which has been at the centre of controversy for years.
The bronze figure of a southern soldier atop a tall stone pedestal, erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913, had been vandalised in recent months and was under constant police surveillance, costing the unversity hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Protesters on Monday night appeared to outwit officers by splitting into two groups. Most marched away from the statue while a smaller group surrounded it with banners on bamboo poles, concealing efforts to tie ropes around it. Then the groups converged and pulled it down, according to videos shared online.
Demonstrators kicked the toppled statue, chanting “Whose campus? Our campus!”. Others who were present during the protest tweeted images of the toppled monument.
Sam Siddiqui, a PhD student at UNC-Chapel Hill, tweeted “euphoric scenes here at Silent Sam. Hugs and kisses”.
Silent Sam is down pic.twitter.com/mUqf7NkS0A
— Samee Siddiqui (@ssiddiqui83) August 21, 2018
Others shared photos of the toppled statue, saying “Sam is silenced” and “Silent Sam taking a dirt nap”.
— Tim (@tko8686) August 21, 2018
Carol Folt, the chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, called the action “unlawful and dangerous”.
“The police are investigating the vandalism and assessing the full extent of the damage,” she said in a statement on Twitter.
“The monument has been divisive for years, and its presence has been a source of frustration for many people not only on our campus but throughout the community,” she added.
Many students, faculty and alumni had called the statue a racist image and asked officials to take it down. Others argued that it should remain as a tribute to fallen ancestors.
Protesters responded to the assertion that the statue wasn’t a symbol of white power by reading from its 1913 dedication speech by tobacco magnate Julian Carr, which praised Confederate veterans for terrorising former slaves and making sure “the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States”.
University of North Carolina leaders, including Folt, had previously said state law prevented the school from removing it.
While North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper had called for the removal of Silent Sam and similar symbols on public land, his office said on Twitter Monday night that the protesters had taken the wrong approach.
“The Governor understands that many people are frustrated by the pace of change and he shares their frustration, but violent destruction of public property has no place in our communities,” said a tweet from Cooper’s official account.
A state historic panel is set to meet this week to debate Cooper’s request to remove other Confederate monuments on the state Capitol.
North Carolina ranks among the handful of Southern states with the most Confederate monuments and has been a focal point in the national debate over them following a deadly white supremacist protest a year ago in Charlottesville, Virginia.
At that protest, white supremacists and other members of the far right rallied against the city’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate leader Robert E Lee. As the rally and counterprotest were ending, James Alex Fields allegedly drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.
Protests over the UNC statue have flared in the past year, and another Confederate monument in nearby Durham was torn down shortly after the Virginia protest.
The debate over Confederate symbols has been ongoing for years, but it came to the forefront in 2015 after Dylann Roof, who posed in a picture with a Confederate flag, entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot dead nine black worshipers.
In the weeks and months following the shooting, protests took places in cities across the country, calling for the removal of the symbols.
According to the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), at least 110 Confederate symbols have been removed since 2015. But the watchdog found that more than 1,720 Confederate monuments, place names and other symbols remained nationwide.