Bobbing up and down like the familiar Cameron Crazies, a student crowd at Duke University on Friday chanted, “I believe that we will win!”
In many ways, they already had, though their cause was not basketball.
Late Friday, a weeklong occupation of Duke’s Allen Building ended when eight student protesters left holding hands, dissolving into tears and hugs with supporters.
“They’re coming out to build a movement,” said the Rev. William Barber II, president of the NAACP in North Carolina and a leader of the Moral Monday protests, who was on hand for the event.
Barber noted that the sit-in’s end came on the 56th anniversary of the birth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a 1960s civil rights organization. The bells of Duke Chapel rang in the distance, and he called the bells “the sound and the tolling of a new beginning of student activism.”
Wearing black, some with hats to hide their unwashed hair, the protesters insisted they would continue their activism on behalf of Duke workers.
“It is so good to be outside,” said Sydney Roberts, one of the students. “After seven days of lockdown, after seven days of back and forth with the administration, trying to appeal to their basic human dignity, we’re taking action outside.”
They vowed to join the tent city that had sprung up to support them outside the building. There, someone had erected a painted cardboard cutout of what had become a widely shared photo of the group, standing on a balcony, arms raised in solidarity. The area had become known as “A-ville,” which stood for Abele Quad, the spot that had only recently been named for the black architect who designed many of Duke’s buildings.
Duke President Richard Brodhead issued a statement Friday after the students left the building that houses his office.
Though we have disagreed about the specifics of their demands and their choice of means, I respect their underlying passion for making Duke and the world a better place.
Richard Brodhead, Duke University president
“Though we have disagreed about the specifics of their demands and their choice of means, I respect their underlying passion for making Duke and the world a better place,” Brodhead’s statement said. “The university renews its commitments toward advancing the causes of fairness and inclusion across this community, including for workers. I now look forward to our coming together in this important cause.”
Nine protesters began occupying the main administrative building April 1. Duke officials shut it down for much of the week, relocating 35 classes.
The protesters had issued demands including an increase in the minimum wage for university workers, an outside investigation of Duke’s employment practices and termination of three administrators they say have acted inappropriately.
Protesters said the university first threatened them with disciplinary action if they didn’t leave by last Sunday. But by Monday, Duke had reversed that stance, saying the students would face no disciplinary or legal penalty for their actions.
Negotiations continued for a time during the week, with high-ranking administrators coming and going from the occupied building. The protesters would occasionally emerge on a portico to cheers and chants outside, where they would consult with organizers of their group, called Duke Students and Workers in Solidarity.
On Monday, another demand was met – a public apology from Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III. Two years ago, Trask was involved in an incident in which he hit a parking attendant with his Porsche on campus. It was news of this incident, in the Duke Chronicle student newspaper, that galvanized the protest in the first place.
The contract parking attendant last month filed suit against Trask and Duke, claiming that he used a racial slur during the episode. Trask has disputed details of the incident but admitted Monday that his “conduct fell short of the civility and respectful conduct each member of this community owes to every other.”
By late Monday, Duke said it would only continue negotiations with the students when they left the building. The protesters wouldn’t budge. They had come prepared, with nonperishable foods, cases of bottled water and sleeping bags. They set up in a small reception area outside Brodhead’s office and were under 24-hour watch by campus police.
A local cafe sent coffee. Supporters delivered pizzas and sandwiches to guards at the door, but were not allowed inside. The students had bathrooms but no access to showers. They used baby wipes to sponge off.
They’ve really been focused on getting us out of here rather than the issue at hand.
Jazmynne Williams, one of the protesters
Along the way, the students tried to keep up with their schoolwork. Some Skyped in to classes and communicated with professors by emails.
The negotiations were at times difficult, said protester Jazmynne Williams, who spoke by phone early Friday from the building. “They’ve really been focused on getting us out of here rather than the issue at hand,” said Williams, a sophomore from Austin, Texas.
The tone of the administration shifted during the week.
Though negotiations stopped on Monday, Brodhead issued a letter to the campus Wednesday in which he said the university would take several steps to “address issues of respect, civility, wages and inclusiveness for staff.” That included an independent expert to review grievance procedures, a review of guidelines for contractors, and the start of a process to increase its minimum wage, which is now $12 an hour.
As the drama unfolded, more tents appeared at A-ville, and each day there was music, food and more organizing. Someone brought a car battery so students could charge their cellphones. Each day, professors visited the camp to hold teach-ins. On Friday, one of them gave a history lesson on Duke protests of the past.
Students tweeted and posted to Facebook constantly. They offered signs to support protesters at Ohio State University and at Appalachian State University, where students held demonstrations on North Carolina’s controversial LGBT law.
Protesters said the atmosphere in the building became difficult when they were no longer allowed on the balcony and had limited contact with others.
Still, they looked back on the experience and saw the impact they had.
“It’s nice knowing that what we started – what was making the nine of us occupy this building – has brought together so much more and has really galvanized the community,” Williams said.
The Rev. Mark-Anthony Middleton, a Durham pastor, was at Friday’s sit-in conclusion.
“The city, the state and the nation have heard you, we see you and we’re with you,” Middleton said to the protesters.
Then he declared that Friday was not a day of surrender or defeat. “Today is their graduation day.”