Police stand guard after the confederate statue known as Silent Sam was toppled in Aug. 2018 by protesters on campus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C.  (File photo by AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File) The fall of Silent Sam
Police stand guard after the confederate statue known as Silent Sam was toppled in Aug. 2018 by protesters on campus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. (File photo by AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

White supremacist groups at the Capitol got their start in places like Chapel Hill, where UNC leaders failed to recognize the danger. Now Biden will need to stop them.

A few days before the U.S. Capitol was stormed, I came across a sealed envelope while cleaning out a cluttered drawer. 

Inside was a just-in-case letter I’d once written for my family and put in our mailbox on my way to attend another protest over Silent Sam, the now-toppled Confederate monument on the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina. UNC-Chapel Hill. It was never read.

I always took care not to place myself in dangerous situations at the demonstrations. But you can’t control everything, as the Charlottesville white supremacist rally in 2017 had made clear. 

I don’t recall which of the protests or counterprotests prompted the letter. I went to some (just missed getting pepper sprayed at one); I didn’t go to more (missed the blue smoke bombs all together). 

But it was in the fall of 2018, when it should’ve been clear to all what Chapel Hill was dealing with. It is what the entire nation is dealing with now. 

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And now President Joe Biden and his administration are tasked with mitigating the pre-existing tinderbox of white supremacy sparked by his predecessor. He will certainly do better in “not stoking the flames of hate and chaos,” as Biden has said, which is a start.

Perhaps the problem’s seriousness and depth are obvious enough now that a violent mob barged into the Capitol hunting for lawmakers and chanting to hang the vice president while a gallows and noose waited outside. Perhaps now that National Guard troops working the presidential inauguration have had to be betted to insure they wouldn’t continue the attack that we’ll be vigilant rather than dismissive. Time will tell.

The work of the moment and the work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy — of decency, honor, respect, the rule of law, just plain, simple decency,” Biden told the nation on Jan. 6.

The tensions and dangers seen in Chapel Hill in those couple of years as white supremacists became emboldened by a winking president were a warmup to the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol.

Conditions on UNC’s campus had been worrisome well before the statue came down, but the peril seemed wrongly assessed by the university’s administrators and police from the start. 

Anti-racist students advocating removal were the targets of threats and slurs. Yet the students were spied on by undercover campus police and generally treated by the university as the problem. After Silent Sam was pulled down in August of 2018, UNC left up the plinth while wavering over what to do with the statue and making neo-Confederates feel more welcome on campus than student activists. Things quickly escalated.

Emboldening extremists

Michael German, who studies far-right groups and their ties to law enforcement and went undercover with them for the FBI, spoke to The Guardian about the danger of such failures. 

“Far-right militants are allowed to engage in violence and walk away while protestors are met with violent police actions,” he said. German explained that the reluctance to treat extremists as the threat leaves the impression they have the government’s approval, further emboldening them.

At North Carolina’s flagship public university, one could observe that consequence take hold. Alumni making crude remarks to anti-racists en route to football games became local neo-Confederates, who were then joined by far-right militants and hate groups traveling from all over. Police became regulars on rooftops. A campus road would get barricades during demonstrations presumably to prevent any vehicles from driving onto the quad.

One would’ve thought all anybody needed to know about the danger the far-right presented was seen in Charlottesville. But the lesson had not seemed to penetrate. Meanwhile the anti-racists most at risk were loudly ringing alarm bells, not just for their own safety but because they knew the threat was larger than Chapel Hill.

Some of the same individuals who flocked to the defense of Silent Sam and other Confederate monuments in North Carolina, and then to “reopen” events last year, have already been arrested for actions in D.C. The same far-right groups of white supremacists were there.

Inside the Capitol, they got so close; we now know, within seconds, within feet. They’re not giving up. And yet the impulse to diminish what happened and the people involved persists. Even after five years of not wanting to see the obvious threat Trumpism presents to the nation, too many would still rather trick themselves into feeling safe by not taking seriously the threat.

“This isn’t just a Trump thing that goes away when Trump goes away,” Elizabeth Neumann, a former DHS assistant secretary for threat prevention under Trump, told The Atlantic in an article about how the Biden Administration will address white supremacy. She continued, “And this isn’t just a bunch of really crazy Trump people. This is something darker and deeper that has been around a very long time. We have aroused the sleeping giant … and we’re now going to be dealing both with [Trump’s] radicalized supporters and this white-power movement on steroids for the foreseeable future.”

Capitals in all 50 states are on alert. Raleigh streets were barricaded this week, military-grade vehicles were on the ground, and cops were on rooftops. Washingtonis fortified with concrete barriers, razor wire, and tens of thousands of troops, like a nation bracing for invasion. The enemy is here though. They have strong ties to the military and police, and they got too close on January 6 to quit now.

When Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes his hand off the Bible today, this will not be over, whether the barricades disappear or not.