UNC students will gather today to protest the use of an undercover police officer during the Silent Sam protests on campus in August.
Above: Police stand around Silent Sam during the August protests. Photo from the News & Observer.
Maya Little first met Victor at the Silent Sam sit-in.
Victor was interested in hearing all about Little’s history Ph.D, and he had some interesting stories to tell about himself. Victor was a veteran, suffering from PTSD and anxiety, and working at his brother’s body shop in Durham.
Like the other protestors gathered at the base of Silent Sam, he said he wanted the statue to be removed from campus. During his time there, many others met Victor and exchanged details about their lives.
Little was nearby on Nov. 2 when someone left an explosive device near Davie Poplar. As police officers rushed to the scene, she spotted her friend Victor — but this time he was wearing a DPS uniform and was identified by a fellow campus police officer as Hector Borges.
The event has sparked a debate over the use of undercover police officers in student organizations, especially around Silent Sam. Some of the UNC students who took part in the sit-in, like Little, felt they had been lied to and manipulated. On Tuesday at 1:30 p.m., those students are hosting a march to protest the use of undercover officers among student groups.
“[Victor] would always go out of his way to talk to students,” Little said. “He had this whole story. Reflecting back on it, it was to ingratiate himself to us. To get us to maybe pity him or something.”
Little was present at Silent-Sam sit-in almost every day from Aug. 22 to Aug. 31, and so was Victor.
“A lot of the time when he would talk to me, he’d talk to me about his anxiety,” she said. “He asked me questions, that, now that I think about it, were kind of personal. Where I was from, where I went to school, what I did there… where I lived, my family, these types of things,” she said.
“I would say, ‘you’re always welcome here,'” she said.
At first, DPS declined to comment on specific details of operation, but said that officers both in uniform and undercover had been placed near Silent Sam to ensure safety for students.
It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Borges when Little and her friend, Samee Siddiqui, confronted him about his false identity on video.
“You told us you’re Victor and now you’re saying you’re Hector,” Siddiqui said in the video, to which Borges replied, “Do you guys understand that my job is to provide safety?”
As the press picked up the story, UNC released a more thorough statement. “We care deeply about our students and our community’s rights to free speech,” it said. “By nature, public college campuses present unique challenges for campus police because members of our campus community and outside groups often come together to protest or to participate in other activities.”
There has been concern at other protests across the country of protesters coming from outside sources. In its statement, the university said that after the events in Charlottesville, it wanted to prevent any chance of students being inadvertently caught up in violence.
“The whole thing about the statue is that we want to bring it down peacefully and legally,” Little said. But no single student group exists to protest Silent Sam. At the protest on the evening of Aug. 22, the crowd gathered at Silent Sam had chanted “Tear it down!” That night ended with three arrests. Little said that none of the protesters at the sit-in engaged in any kind of violent activity.
Throughout the sit-in, there were uniformed officers at nearby Graham Memorial. At one point the officers stood between protesters and members of ACTBAC, an Alamance County-based group that says it protects southern heritage. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls it a hate group.
But some threats to the protesters seemed to go unchecked. On one gameday, a UNC fan issued a rather direct death threat to a protester.
— Silent Sam Sit-In (@silentsamsitin) September 24, 2017
Before that video was recorded, Lindsay Ayling, another Ph.D. student in history, saw the argument escalating and stepped in between the man and a protester to try to prevent things from becoming physical. “This man, he just kept walking forward, and then he pressed his body against me and crushed me between him and the person he was threatening,” Ayling said.
Protesters showed the video to Derek Kemp, associate vice chancellor for campus safety and risk management, at a Chancellor’s Advisory Committee meeting three days later.
“After saying these kinds of things, that man walked into the football game, filled with students,” Little said. “No one arrested him, no one stopped him, no one asked for his name or information.”
Little recounted another incident in which several men asked how the protesters would feel if they brought their guns tomorrow. And a group called You Will Not Replace Us allegedly claimed the placing of a tiki torch at the nearby Old Well with “See you soon” written in a ransom note style. Tiki torches have been used by white supremacists in recent demonstrations.
The lack of visible action concerning these threats and the use of an undercover officer are driving motivators for protesters like Little and Ayling to march on Tuesday. They feel that campus police has not done enough to protect protesters from real threats on campus while spying on the protest instead.
“From the beginning of this year, the administration has sent out warnings about how outsiders have been coming in to stir up trouble around Silent Sam,” Ayling said.
She noted that people from the community have been participating in the protest, but would never consider them outsiders. “[The University] is trying to create this image of dangerous people who don’t belong in our community,” Ayling said, “when in fact, the people of Chapel Hill, the people of Hillsborough, Carrboro, etc. all have a stake in taking down a symbol of white supremacy on our campus.”
“I just don’t feel like there’s any transparency between us and the administration, and I almost feel like they’re kind of targeting us,” Little said.