ECU band protest still stoking strong emotions

East Carolina celebrates after scoring during the second half of East Carolina's 70-41 victory over UNC at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C., Saturday, September 20, 2014.
East Carolina celebrates after scoring during the second half of East Carolina's 70-41 victory over UNC at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C., Saturday, September 20, 2014.

The silent kneeling of 19 band members a week ago at East Carolina University still reverberates in Greenville and beyond, with Gov. Pat McCrory on Friday calling the protest “extremely inappropriate.”

McCrory’s re-election campaign distributed videos of TV interviews with the governor about the Marching Pirates who took a knee during the national anthem. “They have every right to express their First Amendment rights,” he said, “outside the stadium.”

It was the latest in a brouhaha that began at the ECU football game last Saturday, when some of the Marching Pirates joined in a national wave of protests against police shootings of African-Americans. Such demonstrations have spread from the NFL to college games in recent weeks, but the ECU incident has elicited a particularly emotional response. The band had to have a police escort from the game when some fans spat on the members or threw things at them.

“This has been a trying week, to say the least,” said Tamar Turner, an ECU junior from Philadelphia and president of the university’s Black Student Union.

In a matter of days, university officials seemed to both affirm students’ free expression rights but also crack down on future demonstrations. The new chancellor, Cecil Staton, issued an initial statement saying that civil discourse is “part of our ECU creed.” He said the university would defend students’ constitutional right to free speech.

Then, two days later, the band director and two other university officials said such protests would not be tolerated and that the members had “collectively reaffirmed their commitment to the unique privilege and responsibility that comes with wearing the uniform of the Marching Pirates.”

Band members receive course credit and some have scholarships at ECU. Kieran Shanahan, a Raleigh lawyer and vice chairman of the ECU trustees, said the protest would be akin to students standing up in class making political statements. Besides, he said, the crowd at Dowdy-Ficklen turned out for a ball game, not politics. “What if we had a football player running for a touchdown and he decides that his protest is to put a knee down a yard from the goal line?” Shanahan said.

Alumni and donors complained. The university’s athletic boosters are trying to raise $55 million for a renovation and expansion of the stadium. “There’s been a lot of discussion with donors, lots of questions,” said Shanahan, who was on the sideline when boos erupted toward the kneeling band members. “There are lots of donors who love their country and love the flag and were just appalled.”

Beyond the booing and bottle throwing, the fallout continued after the game. A Fayetteville radio station refused to broadcast this weekend’s ECU football game as a protest of the original protest, and a marketing professor pledged to bring her gun to campus to assert her Second Amendment rights. In the end, the faculty member, Tracy Tuten, said she did not bring a gun to campus because she didn’t want to risk being charged with a felony. She said she wanted to carry a gun because she felt unsafe after having been stalked by a student in the past.

But amid the negative response, student leaders say there’s been a groundswell of support for the band members from those who want the university to affirm student rights, pay attention to their safety and be more transparent about its policies.

On Monday, more than 100 students, black and white, turned out for the Black Student Union’s “die in” – a peaceful protest at the center of campus. ECU’s student government representatives reached out to express concern for the band members who felt bullied.

Turner said at least one band member had been threatened. The angry crowd response at the stadium, he said, was “really just distasteful behavior.”

Messages of support and solidarity flowed on social media. The Black Student Union officers stood, arms raised in a black power-style salute, in a photograph posted on Twitter Friday. The historically black Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at ECU posted its own simple message: “Black Pirates Matter.”

“I’ve just been trying to tell people not to give up, not be discouraged,” Turner said, “but to use this as a stepping stone.”

Turner praised the chancellor for his initial statement, saying he didn’t take sides in the emotional issue.

Staton, a former Republican state senator in Georgia who took the helm at ECU on July 1, emailed the campus late Thursday in an attempt to calm the situation. Saying it was “a challenging, but wonderful time” to lead the university, Staton walked a fine line between promising freedom of expression for students while also explaining that the university would put limits on when and where protests could take place.

“To our students, let me be perfectly clear: you have the right to express yourselves peacefully and responsibly, and the right to expect to do so without fear of intimidation or violence,” he said. “I will not tolerate the mistreatment of any student, and anyone who perpetrates such mistreatment will be dealt with swiftly.

“However, when necessary, I will also ensure that public safety is preserved and maintained for the benefit of all who are a part of our campus. The university has a responsibility, if necessary, to place reasonable constraints on the time, the place and the manner of expression or conduct, but within those constraints, the university respects and will defend that right.”

Staton said the situation at ECU is no different than those at other universities around the country. “We are an imperfect campus in an imperfect society,” he said, and asked everyone to resolve differences peacefully.

ECU’s hometown, Greenville, is in a military-friendly part of North Carolina, and two other band members held a U.S. flag during the game last weekend as a sort of counterbalance to the students who kneeled. Staton, while expressing respect for the First Amendment, pointed out “the deep relationship our university has with the military and the men and women who serve and have served.”

Tuten, the faculty member, wrote a blog post on her website under the heading #AllRightsMatter. “We have First Amendment rights because of the sacrifices made by those who defended and won this country’s freedom. We also have other rights,” she wrote. “While I support the spirit of Dr. Staton’s message, I am disheartened that only the First Amendment is mentioned in his letter.”

ECU is due to play the University of South Florida in Tampa on Saturday. The next home game is Thursday night with Navy. All eyes are expected to be on the band.

Meanwhile, ECU’s Board of Trustees has scheduled a special meeting on Tuesday to discuss the situation with the chancellor. Shanahan said the board wants to make sure ECU can move forward “in a way that’s proper and in the best interest of the university.”

Turner, head of the Black Student Union, said the students want to make sure that problems at ECU are brought to light.

“We’re all here as Pirates,” he said. “We need to stand up for each other.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill