UNC Black community groups demand safety and equity on campus

By: - July 7, 2021 2:30 pm

A group of Black community groups at UNC-Chapel Hill held a press conference on Wednesday to present a set of priorities to address safety concerns of Black students, faculty and staff.

The priorities unveiled by campus leaders from the UNC Black Student Movement, Carolina Black Caucus and Black Graduate and Professional Student Association, center on safety and equity for the school’s Black community. This includes the termination of UNC Police’s Interim Chief, Rahsheem Holland.

Holland, who has been serving as chief since David Perry went on leave in May, was present at the Board of Trustees meeting last week where police forcibly removed demonstrators from the room. The vice president of UNC’s Black Student Movement, Julia Clark was punched in the face by Holland, as seen in a video from Spectrum News.

“The decision to allow Officer Holland to remain in his role further proves that this university holds no regard or remorse for the violence that is placed on Black students and community members,” Taliajah Vann, president of UNC’s Black Student Movement said. “Rahsheem Holland’s appointment to this position is a threat to the safety of — and is an affront to — the Black community whom he brutalized.”

George Battle, vice chancellor for Institutional Integrity and Risk Management at UNC, disputed Clark’s account and stood by the actions of the officer at the meeting.

“After the board voted to move into closed session pursuant to the North Carolina open meetings law, the demonstrators remained for a few minutes to express themselves. UNC Police then instructed the group to depart, and most did,” Battle said in a statement. “A small number of individuals did not leave the meeting when asked. UNC Police followed protocol and moved those protestors into the hall. We respect the right of our community to peacefully express themselves, but the law is clear that demonstrators cannot disrupt public meetings and proceedings. The situation was resolved with no injuries and proceedings were able to continue without further interruption. The officers on the scene dispute the allegation made by the demonstrators, however anytime an individual makes a claim of excessive force, UNC Police will review the claim.”

On Tuesday, the university announced that Chief Perry had resigned, and Holland would continue to serve as chief of the department until a replacement was found.

The group’s demands also include prioritizing the hiring of Black faculty and requiring departments to publicly report their faculty’s demographic makeup, as well as any formal allegations of racist practices. This comes as a wave of prominent Black faculty members have announced their departure from the university in recent weeks.

“We’ve all seen in the past couple of weeks how many faculty and staff members we’ve lost — but this is not a new issue,” Clark said. “We have been steadily losing Black faculty and Black students for years. There was a point in time where the Black student population at UNC was 12 percent, we are now currently at eight.”

The group also emphasized the need for the university to properly acknowledge and memorialize racist actions in its past. Leaders called for the construction of a permanent memorial for James Cates Jr., a Black Chapel Hill resident who was murdered on UNC’s campus in 1970 by a white supremacist biker gang.

The Unsung Founders Memorial

In addition, the group called for a restoration and contextualization of the university’s Unsung Founders Memorial, which honors the enslaved Black people who built the school’s campus. Clark said that poor signage has led visitors to disrespect the monument by sitting on it or even changing their children’s diapers on top of it.

“The Black people holding up the table and the chairs of the Unsung Founder Memorial deserve rest, our founders deserve rest,” she said.

Leaders of the Black Student Movement are expected to meet with the Board of Trustees Vice Chair, Gene Davis and board member Ralph Meekins on Thursday to discuss their demands.

“At this present moment, we remain open to any assistance that he can give us,” Vann said. “We are entering the space fully prepared to work with him and do everything we can to get action taken on these items. But we ultimately won’t know until we go. We have been perpetually disappointed by people in his role, even by him sitting in that room one Wednesday, when Black students suffered so much.”

The conference comes the day after Nikole Hannah-Jones, acclaimed journalist and creator of the 1619 Project, announced she would not be coming to UNC following a lengthy battle over her tenure.

Campus leaders commended her decision, saying that she should prioritize herself and not go where she was merely tolerated.

“We applaud her decision to teach at a university where Blackness is celebrated instead of barely tolerated,” Vann said. “And we encourage other Black academics to do the same.”

As Policy Watch reported, university administrators failed to offer tenure to Hannah-Jones upon her hire as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism — a position that since its creation has come with tenure upon hire.

The group ended the conference by reiterating what Student Body President Lamar Richards said in his editorial last month where he encouraged prospective Black students and faculty to look elsewhere. Leaders said the message still stands, but they are working to make the school safe for Black students.

“I would have transferred already if there was not a strong and powerful and loving Black community at UNC,” Vann said. “We get all of our love from each other, because we’re not going to find it from the administration or anybody else on this campus. So ultimately, we are doing the work now. But if this university wants to see more Black Students — if they want to have more talented Black students and faculty pouring into this place — they have to do the work and make the change to something acceptable, because right now it absolutely is not.”

A full list of the group’s priorities can be found below:

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Kyle Ingram
Kyle Ingram

Kyle Ingram is a senior at UNC Chapel Hill from Concord, NC majoring in journalism and political science. He has interned with NC Newsline and Raleigh's News & Observer.