UNC’s use of an undercover police officer to monitor protests against the Silent Sam statue are drawing criticism from protest leaders. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com
UNC’s use of an undercover police officer to monitor protests against the Silent Sam statue are drawing criticism from protest leaders. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

Orange County

That ‘auto mechanic’ at the Silent Sam protests wasn’t a mechanic, activists discover

By Ray Gronberg

rgronberg@heraldsun.com

November 07, 2017 06:00 AM

UPDATED November 07, 2017 03:57 PM

DURHAM

Activists leading protests at UNC-Chapel Hill about Silent Sam have identified and outed a campus police officer who went undercover in an apparent effort to keep tabs on what they were up to.

The officer, Hector Borges, posed as an auto mechanic named “Victor” who sympathized with the protest movement. Some participants suspected his undercover status from the outset, but confirmation came Thursday after two activists spotted him working on campus, in his police uniform, after a fire and explosion at the Davie Poplar tree.

Their ensuing conversation with the officer wound up on video, and social media, along with criticism of the UNC administration for using an undercover officer to monitor students.

It’s different from ordinary campus police work involving uniformed and plainclothes officers because “you had an officer trying to create a fake back story and trying to infiltrate a student group,” said Maya Little, a Department of History Ph.D. student and Silent Sam sit-in organizer who posted the video to her Facebook feed.

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for unlimited digital access to our website, apps, the digital newspaper and more

Another organizer and Department of History Ph.D. student, Lindsay Ayling, said Borges also kept an eye on a protest against the UNC system Board of Governors’ September move to bar the UNC School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights from providing legal representation.

Emotions run high at 'Silent Sam' protest at UNC

Tempers flare and emotions run high in August during a rally and march calling for the removal of the Confederate statue known as 'Silent Sam' on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill.

Julia Wall, Ethan Hyman and Chuck Liddy jwall@newsobserver.com, ehyman@newsobserver.com and cliddy @newsobserver.com

The university’s tactic “has a chilling effect on free speech,” as “activists are afraid to come out to the statue when they know they’re constantly being watched,” said Ayling, whose academic specialty is the revolutions and popular uprisings that roiled France in the 18th and 19th centuries. “We can’t really call ourselves a democratic society when we’re conducting police operations against free speech.”

Protesters call for removal of UNC's Silent Sam statue

A group of about 100 gathered at the "Silent Sam" statue on the UNC campus to protest, seeking for it to be removed from the school grounds, on August 31, 2017.

Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

UNC released a statement from campus police spokesman Randy Young that said authorities are “aware of the recorded conversation” between the officer and the activists.

Young also said UNC police have “assigned officers to the area around Silent Sam, both in uniform and plain clothes,” since a mid-August rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, by white supremacists opposed to the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee triggered violence and one death.

Since then, protesters in Durham toppled a statue outside the county offices on Main Street, and Duke University removed a statue of Lee that had long stood at the entrance to Duke Chapel.

At UNC, activists like Little and Ayling want Chancellor Carol Folt’s administration to take down Silent Sam, but the chancellor’s authority is restricted by a 2015 state law that makes it difficult for state agencies or local governments to take down a so-called “object of remembrance.”

The campus-police deployment, including the use of plainclothes officers, has “the sole purpose of maintaining student and public safety,” Young said.

Activists, however, have questioned UNC’s motives.

With backup from the N.C. Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies, officers monitored an Aug. 22 rally on McCorkle Place so that it didn’t turn into a reprise of the Durham statue pull-down. Since then, officers have stood watch at Silent Sam.

As “Victor,” Borges was a daily presence at the statue from Aug. 22 through to the end of the month, Little said, adding that other activists reported seeing him the next week.

Both women said Borges tried to ingratiate himself with the protesters. “The people he was trying to get to know and talk to were all students,” Little said.

“He seemed like a nice guy,” Ayling added. “I talked to him a lot about my dissertation research. He talked to other people about their children. One activist is bilingual, so he spoke Spanish to her to gain her trust.”

But the officer, who records indicate hired on with the UNC Police Department in 2013, didn’t take kindly to being called out last week after the protesters spotted him in uniform. “Here’s the thing, do you guys understand that my job is to provide public safety?” he said at one point in their recorded exchange.

Police departments do use undercover officers, though to reduce the possibility of recognition, one department in a region will sometimes borrow an officer from another jurisdiction.

Authorities have also used undercover officers to monitor student protests. During the 2016 Allen Building sit-in at Duke organizers of the adjoining vigil on Abele Quad suspected campus authorities had undercover or plainclothes officers watching them.

UNC’s Silent Sam has long been a flash point

The Confederate statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus was a point of friction and protest long before the Charlottesville rally in support of a statue of Robert E. Lee turned tragically violent and left three people dead, thrusting the issue into the national spotlight.

Lynn Bonner video, N&O file photos Video produced by John Hansen

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg