Confederate statue Silent Sam toppled by protesters at North Carolina's campus

A Confederate statue in the heart of North Carolina's flagship university was toppled Monday night during a rally by hundreds of protesters who decried the memorial known as Silent Sam as a symbol of racist heritage.

Despite a police presence, demonstrators acted quickly in action that school called 'dangerous'

Protesters celebrate after the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam was toppled on the campus of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. (Julia Wall/The News & Observer via AP)

A Confederate statue in the heart of North Carolina's flagship university was toppled Monday night during a rally by hundreds of protesters who decried the memorial known as Silent Sam as a symbol of racist heritage.

The statue erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913 had been under constant police surveillance, costing the university hundreds of thousands of dollars, since it was vandalized last year. Protesters appeared to outwit officers by swiftly surrounding it with banners on bamboo poles before yanking it down.

The crowd had gathered across the street from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill plaza for a series of speakers at 7 p.m. before heading over to the quadrangle. About two hours into the protest, a group pulled it down, according to television footage. Once it was on the ground, demonstrators kicked it and cheered.

Afterward, a small crowd remained around the empty pedestal, chanting "Tar Heels!" and "Whose Campus? Our Campus!" as passing cars honked in approval.

The top officials at the University of North Carolina system said in a statement Tuesday that the actions were "unacceptable, dangerous and incomprehensible."

UNC board chairman Harry Smith and system president Margaret Spellings said the university won't tolerate the intentional destruction of public property.

They said UNC-Chapel Hill leaders and police are reviewing evidence and conducting interviews "that will inform a full criminal investigation."

Many students, faculty and alumni have 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 its 1913 dedication speech, by tobacco magnate Julian Carr, celebrating the Ku Klux Klan's post-war campaign to terrorize former slaves.

Police and protesters react to a smoke bomb as some protesters are removed during Monday's rally in Chapel Hill. (Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

UNC leaders including Chancellor Carol Folt had previously said state law prevented the school from removing it. Once it was down, a dozen officers surrounded the fallen statue, which was eventually covered with a tarp.

The site of the empty pedestal "is pretty breathtaking," said Ricardo, who's African-American. "I think most people here are happy. I'm ecstatic."

Junior Ian Goodson said he came out after he heard the statue fell because he wanted to see history.

"It's a significant event for UNC," he said.

Governor chides demonstrators for wrong approach

He said that while he doesn't agree with what the Confederacy stood for, he understands that some saw the statue as an important memorial.

Asked whether he's glad the statue came down, he said: "I was always kind of torn."

The protesters used banners and long poles to cover and then remove the statue, which had stood since 1913. (Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

Gov. Roy Cooper had called for removing Silent Sam and other rebel symbols on public land. A state historic panel is set to meet this week to debate Cooper's request to remove other Confederate monuments at the state capitol.

Still, the Democratic governor issued a statement on Twitter on Monday night arguing the protesters took 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 the tweet from his official account.

North Carolina, which ranks among the handful of Southern states with the most Confederate monuments, has been a focal point in the national debate over them following a deadly white nationalist protest a year ago in Charlottesville, Va.

Protests over the UNC statue flared in the past year, and another Confederate monument in nearby Durham was torn down shortly after the Virginia protest.