Friday afternoon, just before Duke University’s administration building closed, nine students with camping gear plunked themselves down in a lounge and refused to leave until the university promised action on what they call “plantation politics” on campus.
Two days later, the students were still there, despite the university’s pledge Sunday to take action before the day’s end that appeared to involve forcible removal.
The protest was triggered by the university’s handling of a traffic incident involving Executive Vice President Tallman Trask and a parking attendant nearly two years ago.
Trask had hit the parking attendant, Shelvia Underwood, a traffic control officer with McClaurin Parking and Transportation Management, with his car as she handled traffic before a home football game. That is not in dispute.
Underwood was able to return to her feet, though she said she suffered minor injuries. She told Trask that he would have to produce a permit to park and refused to let him through. She said in the lawsuit that then Trask used a racial epithet in producing his permit.
She reported the incident, which led to another Duke official asking if she would drop the matter if Trask apologized. The apology note said: “I very much regret the incident before the Elon Football game. I should have been more patient and apologize.”
Her lawsuit said Duke took no further action. The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, said Trask initially denied the incident until shown the apology note. He then admitted to hitting her with his car, but denied the racial epithet.
To the nine students in the administration building and another 80 protesters just outside, Duke’s handling of the incident signals that the powerful don’t have to take responsibility for their actions.
One of the protesters, Bennett Carpenter, a third-year doctoral student, called it a double standard that Duke administrators would seek to punish the students taking part in the sit-in with possible charges and expulsion with no apparent penalty for Trask.
“What does that mean that the consequences are so little for that administrator and suddenly so dire for these students who are simply trying to rectify a sad injustice,” Carpenter said.
Among the protesters’ demands are that Trask and two other officials involved in the case be dismissed, that Trask make a public apology to Underwood and pay her legal and medical costs, changes to Duke’s employment standards for subcontract employees such as Underwood and an increase in Duke’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Over the shouts of protesters Sunday afternoon, Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, said the university could not discuss the case because of Underwood’s lawsuit. He said Duke President Richard Brodhead and Duke’s dean of students, Sue Wasiolek, met with the nine protesters Sunday morning. Schoenfeld said the talks were productive, but would not provide specifics.
He confirmed that the university had told the students in the Allen Building that if they did not leave action would be taken Sunday, but he wasn’t specific about what the university planned to do.
Felicia Arriaga, a fourth-year doctoral student serving as a spokesperson for the protesters, said the discussion with Brodhead and Wasiolek centered on what actions Duke might take if the students didn’t leave.
A statement released by the university said its police department investigated the incident and Underwood “chose not to pursue her police complaint.” A second investigation by Duke’s Office of Institutional Equity “did not produce sufficient evidence to confirm” the racial epithet.
Duke officials said the last time students occupied the administration building was roughly 10 years ago as part of a protest aimed at banning sweatshop labor in the production of Duke-branded merchandise. Schoenfeld said protests on Duke grounds are permitted, but not in buildings that are closed, outside of normal business hours.