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What’s A Threat? Chalktober And Sylva Sam

It’s been two months since Jackson County Commissioners voted not to relocate Sylva Sam.  However, anger about the statue remains. 

Sylva Sam still stands on its perch in front of the old Jackson County courthouse, though it is fenced in now.  Down the steps on Main Street, “Black Lives Matter” is routinely drawn in chalk on the sidewalks.

This is part of Reconcile Sylva’s #Chalktober. The group is still calling for the monument’s removal.  Since the chalk messages started about two weeks ago, Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton says they’ve received numerous calls.  He says while many may be unhappy about it, the drawings are lawful.  Business owners and town workers have swiftly washed away the chalk each day.

“I wouldn’t say that I feel any safer.”

That’s Natalie Newman of Reconcile Sylva. She says the group is still concerned about racism in Jackson County. There have been complaints of threats since the group began in July.

“There are over 2,000 people in that group and they are not all on the same page on where they stand you know, not everyone in the group has made threats toward Reconcile," says Newman. “I think that the leaders of Jackson County Unity Coalition and some of their members have gotten smarter about sharing that stuff publicly,”

Newman is referring in part to the change in tone on the Jackson County Unity Coalition Facebook group since the county commissioners vote August 4.  Both groups have made an effort to support local nonprofits and move beyond the issue of the monument but tensions remain. 

Frank Huguelet of the Jackson County Unity Coalition asked members of the Facebook group not to engage in hateful speech.  He’s had to remove a few members for posting things against the group’s new guidelines.

“I told people: ‘Guys, we won the vote. The vote is done. The only people who can change anything about the statue are the five people on the county commission. They are it. All you are doing is giving them exactly what they want. They are filming it and putting it on Facebook and now because of it there is a horrible public safety risk and the statue has to go, says Hughuelet, referring to Reconcile. 

Huguelet has shifted his focus to a project to erect a monument to enslaved people in Jackson County. He is also coming out of retirement – previously he wrestled under the name Heavy Metal Ric Savage - for a Stuff The Bus wrestling match this Saturday, October 10.

At the start of September, Reconcile Sylva shared almost 100 pages of negative feedback - mostly from Facebook comments – with local law enforcement. These messages range from crude to violent. 

Some of the more violent examples are “form a county militia to take out the trash,” and “lynch them all.”

District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch says her office has been made aware of the complaints, but that none of them meet the legal definition of a threat.

“In order to have a legitimate communicating a threat crime, it's got to meet very certain guidelines. So for example, ‘I hope they all get shot.’ That is incredibly offensive. But it's not a threat because this person is saying, ‘I hope they…’, They're not saying,' I'm going to do this...,'” says Welch.  

So far, no official complaints associated with the threats have been filed according to both the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and Sylva Police. But there has been one case that has gone beyond Facebook.

Penny Minich from Reconcile Sylva says a lit cigarette was thrown at her while protesting at the beginning of September.  Minich says the person yelled that they were ‘ashtrays’ from the car as the cigarette hit her in the head.

“What responsibility do you have to stand up and say enough? No, I don’t expect the legal system to do much about it but if it stops Josh from coming out and yelling or throwing something worse at us then it’s something that has to be done,” says Minich.

Minich brought videos and other evidence to the hearing – and her interview with BPR. In North Carolina, if there is no need for an investigation of a threat, the plaintiff can take the case directly to the magistrate.

“It’s a cigarette butt,” says Minich. “It used to have a lot more ash on it but its been stored in a Ziploc bag. I wasn’t sure if the magistrate would want it or not.”

According to court documents, Jackson County resident Josh Marks has been served with a misdemeanor assault charge. Marks has been documented during other incidents with Reconcile Sylva such throwing candy at protesters and at the Confederate monument. Minich says that she hopes the groups can come together at some point.  

“We willing to work with Jackson County Unity Coalition to reconcile and find a path forward – absolutely,” says Minich.

For now, #Chalktober continues.

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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