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In the latest example of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s continuing struggle with race relations, student activists at the state’s flagship institution have launched a text alert system that warns recipients when racist groups come on or near the campus.
Students and other advocates who took part in the protests against Silent Sam, the controversial Confederate monument that once stood in the center of the campus but was torn down last year, believe university officials have failed to keep them apprised of the activities of potentially dangerous white nationalists who have either appeared on Chapel Hill grounds or on the fringes of the university.
On at least one occasion, the leader of such an organization was able to walk on campus openly carrying a gun, which is illegal in North Carolina, and was not arrested or charged.
“They have done absolutely nothing,” Lindsay Ayling, the graduate student and activist who devised the alert system, said of Chapel Hill administrators.
The controversy over Silent Sam, and similar Confederate monuments at other colleges around the country, such as the University of Virginia, have roiled campuses and prompted a nationwide debate about the appropriateness of colleges celebrating racist historical figures. The angry disputes between supporters and opponents of the statue at Chapel Hill were widely considered to be the impetus for the departure earlier this year of Carol L. Folt, the former UNC chancellor who now leads the University of Southern California.
Folt summarily ordered that the statue’s pedestal and commemorative plaques be taken away from campus last January, angering the university's governing board, which she had not consulted. Activists had already toppled the actual statue in August 2018 after fighting for more than a year to have it removed.
Protesters with white supremacist ties who disagreed with the removal of the statue have continued to frequent campus, unnerving many students.
Lance Spivey, chairman of Heirs to the Confederacy, a group supporting Confederate symbols, walked around the campus carrying a handgun and accompanied by his supporters in March until police asked him to leave.
Kevin Guskiewicz, the interim UNC chancellor, wrote in an email to students and professors after the incident that firearms would not be tolerated on campus and future perpetrators would be arrested and barred from UNC. He said he would also convene a commission to study campus safety.
This did little to appease Ayling, who says she has little trust in administrators after battling them for years on Silent Sam. She wanted a way to notify her peers in real time about what she perceived to be possible threats but didn’t have the technical skills to put a system together herself.
Ayling worked with a Durham-area photographer to develop the software for the text alerts, which is akin to Alert Carolina, the system the university uses to inform students about hazardous weather and other dangers.
Joanne Peters Denny, a university spokeswoman, declined to discuss alerts about racist groups on campus. Instead, she provided Inside Higher Ed with the following statement: “The account you referenced is not an official university alert system. The Alert Carolina System is the university’s official method of communication during an emergency or incident that poses a threat to the campus community. Alert Carolina is committed to only reporting confirmed facts and the Alert Carolina website is the only official source of information during a health or safety situation.”
Ayling's alerts were tested on the first day of classes this academic year, Aug. 20, when students spotted the Heirs group on the borders of campus, within view of where Silent Sam once stood. The group members never entered the campus, but they were armed, Ayling said.
She went to the area herself to confirm the Heirs were present and then sent out the text to the several hundred people who subscribed to the alerts at the time. A group of counterprotesters eventually gathered at Franklin Street, the line between the campus and the town of Chapel Hill.
More than 1,000 people have signed up for the alerts since that episode, Ayling said.
Spivey said in an interview via Facebook that the alert system won't affect any events his group might hold at the Chapel Hill campus in the future.
“We are not racists, let alone white supremacists, and we will not be deterred by inaccurate descriptions or an ‘alert system’ (laughable) of any type,” Spivey said. “The people who oppose us in Chapel Hill, the people participating in this ‘alert system’ are hate-filled pawns of persons with anti-American agendas.”
Two members of Spivey's group were arrested in March for vandalizing a campus memorial honoring black slaves and others who helped build the campus. The duo allegedly wrote racist slurs and threw urine on the Unsung Founders Memorial.
Student activists have volunteered to verify incidents that may occur on or close to campus, Ayling said. She declined to discuss how many activists had offered to help or the costs associated with the alert system, saying the information “could be used against” them.
Her model has been replicated elsewhere. Activists in the nearby town of Hillsborough asked whether they could adopt a similar system using the same software. The Ku Klux Klan rallied outside a courthouse the day after the Hillsborough alerts were implemented, and using the alerts, locals were able to gather and scare off the KKK, Ayling said.
“I think this alert system shows how the community is more than capable of defending itself than we sometimes realize,” Ayling said. “We shouldn’t look to administrators or police, who are unsympathetic at best and hostile at worst to antiracism.”