Barry Saunders

Saunders: Not the first takeover for this Duke building

Protesters hold a banner inside a room in the Allen Building, the main administrative building on the Duke campus. The protesters staged a sit-in and were camped inside the building. Duke University officials say the protesters won’t face disciplinary action.
Protesters hold a banner inside a room in the Allen Building, the main administrative building on the Duke campus. The protesters staged a sit-in and were camped inside the building. Duke University officials say the protesters won’t face disciplinary action. Ashlyn Nuckols

Note to future student radicals: the first thing you need is a worthy cause.

The second thing you need is a catchy name. Theme song is optional.

The Duke University students who have occupied and refused to leave the Allen Building on campus since Friday feel they have the former: Among other things, they’re demanding that the minimum wage for Duke employees and sub-contractors be raised to $15 an hour. They’re also demanding the immediate firing – “without compensation” – of executive Vice President Tallman Trask III.

In a lawsuit filed on behalf of parking employee Shelvia Underwood, Trask is accused of striking her with his Porsche as she directed traffic for the Duke-Elon football game in 2014 and of directing a well-known racial slur at her while speeding off.

Participants have been granted amnesty for the takeover, so perhaps they don’t need a snazzy name.

Every successful student protest group has had one, though, right?

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The Weathermen. Students for a Democratic Society. Yippies.

“We can camp out six weeks for (tickets to) a basketball game,” Mohamed Chamas, a sophomore global cultural studies major, bellowed to an intense crowd of 75 or so students about 11 a.m. Sunday. “You can camp out one day for your fellow students.”

I’ve got it: How about the Duke Bedevilers?

Theme song? “The Trasks of My Tears.” (Sorry. I won’t do that again.)

The nine Duke students who emerged from the dark of the administration building into the light of the second-floor balcony were exhorted by students on the ground. From the balcony hung a huge banner: “OCCUPIED. NO justice. NO peace.”

The protest had everything their radical predecessors had: a cause, a target for their righteous ire, picket signs and music. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which has become as inescapable at protests of every sort as “Close To You” by the Carpenters was at weddings in the 1970s, blared from a speaker.

Speaking of ancient history, being taken over by angry students is not new to Duke’s Allen Building. The first time it was used as a pawn in negotiations was in 1969, when the current students’ grandparents were probably collecting Archies’ comic books and trying to bake a cake using a warm light bulb with their Easy-Bake Oven. In February of that year, though, 60 black students barricaded themselves inside the building to get the attention of what they felt was an indifferent, if not hostile, administration.

The Durham mayor at that time, Wense Grabarak, told the administration he had mobilized 240 National Guard members to take back the building by force if the school wanted them to – even as negotiations sped toward a peaceful resolution. That – mobilizing guardsmen and cops – won’t happen this time.

“That was one of the signature moments in Duke history,” Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American Studies at Duke, said while standing off to the side Sunday watching students chant their support for the students at Allen: “We love you. We see you.” “Whose university? Our university.”

What made that 1969 takeover epochal, Neal said, is that “black students were protesting for black studies courses, more black students and black professors. ... The president met with them. I was joking with someone earlier and saying that Terry Sanford is looking down at (Provost Sally) Kornbluth and (President Richard) Brodhead and saying, ‘Y’all are stupid. These are your students. Meet with them.’”

Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld said Monday the administrators had met with the students, but won't meet with them again until they vacate the building.

Duke’s West Campus on Saturday night was subdued, the quiet punctured only by the arrival of campus buses from which students disembarked. Maybe it was so subdued because the UNC Tar Heels had just won and advanced to the NCAA Championship game. Could’ve been because it was late, too – around midnight.

I parked just outside the occupied building. Ashlyn Nuckols, one of the Bedevilers, had already told me the administration was letting no one inside the building and no one back inside: occupiers who left were not allowed back in. Students feared Duke security might arrive at any moment and arrest them, so they wanted reporters and fellow students as witnesses.

In a series of e-mail dispatches from behind the Gothic walls, Nuckols, a sophomore cultural anthropology major, kept me apprised of what was happening with her fellow students and her as they hunkered down in self-imposed captivity.

What is the mood like? How many of you are trapped in there?

“The mood is energized from all of the support we’ve been getting. There are nine of us.”

Did you prepare for a long siege?

“Yes, we are well-prepared. ... We have water, orange juice and tea. We have pizza, Indian food, pb&j, oranges and a bunch snacks.”

Can I come?

Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson and school board member Sendolo Diaminah arrived Sunday morning and briefly addressed the students, as did Franciscas Akins, a campus bus driver. It was hard to hear the soft-spoken Akins even with a microphone. I asked him afterward what he thought of the support shown by students for his fellow workers and him.

“It’s very exciting. What they’re sacrificing for us is so phenomenal,” he said. “They’re putting their bodies on the line for us.”

Why aren’t more of your co-workers out here doing the same? I asked. (He appeared to be the only one.)

They may fear retaliation, he said.

Don’t you?

“I don’t think King was afraid of retaliation when he was marching in Selma. I don’t think Gandhi was so afraid of the British government when he stood up. ... It’s always a possibility they could fire me, but there comes a time when principle should trump fear.”

Preach, brutha!

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