Author's Note: Until Tuesday, Duke Officials had not allowed non-student journalists campus access to directly report on the sit-ins. The author is a student representative in Duke's Graduate Professional and Student Council. He writes in his personal capacity. This article does not reflect the opinions of the GPSC.
Perhaps we've seen or endured disputes over bicycle and pedestrian-vehicle collisions. Usually these incidents end with an exchange of frustrated words, insurance information, and apologies. Rarely have car collisions reignited debates and activism about race and workers' rights at a major U.S. university. A two- year old collision incident between Duke's number-two, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III and former contract parking attendant Shelvia Underwood threatens to do just that.
The Duke Chronicle reported over the weekend that students seized the Allen Building, the university administration's headquarters. They demand improvements to working conditions and accountability for what they see as an egregious affront by a powerful administrator towards a working-class contractor.
Shelvia Underwood, the contractor who Trask hit two years ago while she directed traffic during a football game, and whose case had remained dormant since, has sued the Vice President. She alleges he yelled a racial slur and administration officials conspired with campus police to force her to drop her formal complaint about the incident. For an investigative piece published earlier this year, Chronicle journalists asked Trask about the incident. The Vice President at first denied that his car hit Underwood. However, when the Chronicle presented him a copy of an apology note he wrote, the Vice President later admitted that he had "not intentionally" hit Underwood and that she had stepped suddenly in front of his car. He denied using a slur and noted that she did not follow up on her police report.
After a day of camp-outs inside and outside Allen, the administration reversed its threat of impending disciplinary measures citing university non-retaliation policies. Facing shows of support from various student organizations, city officials, Duke parking workers, and faculty, the administration in a late Sunday night message to the entire Duke community granted amnesty but has since suspended negotiations until the students' voluntary exit. Protesters point out the administration, not they, control access to the building. The mood among Duke workers remained upbeat on Monday. With a nice breeze and a cloudless sky, one worker told me "If you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything" while another exclaimed "[the protestors] are making history."
Duke University has endured a series of public relations setbacks in the last year. From a noose hung on a tree to Muslim prayer debates, to a death note on the door of a freshman LGBT student's dorm room, Duke's administration has, like other universities, struggled to reconcile Duke's traditionalist atmosphere with the increasing diversity spurred by its growing international reputation. Couple these diversity issues with a contentious battle over unionization (won by adjunct faculty last month), and the university seemed almost ripe for the first administration building sit-in in a decade. In fact, aside from Trask, the occupiers have demanded the termination of other officials they allege have permitted or, even spurred on, institutional racism and hostility in Duke's Parking and Transportation Services (PTS) department.
Critics of the event coverage have compared it to the Lacrosse scandal. In this narrative, political correctness trumped recognizing the complexity of the case, and Trask, innocent, faces an undeserved trial in the press.
But the activists are really fighting the gross power and economic disparity this incident represents. Whether the Vice President intentionally hit Underwood or not, whether he uttered a racial slur or not remains a secondary concern. Let's assume that Trask did none of these things. Trask, by his own admission hit Underwood. This contact caused Underwood to fall and sent her to the hospital with a muscle contusion and a possible fractured elbow (see medical report here). He drove off. After this incident, Trask had another official deliver his note of apology instead of delivering it in person. He later flat out denied the event. In short, the steps taken in the moments directly after the incident and in the following weeks showed at least an indifference to Underwood's well-being.
Trask, who holds an important position at Duke, would not have "fall[en] short" (his words in an apology released Monday afternoon) in this situation had he volunteered to help, exchanged contact and insurance information, and offered to compensate Underwood for any minor injuries related to her fall (North Carolina law suggests deference to pedestrians and traffic officials). His current problems stem, as he now admits, from his initial lack of common courtesy and lack of forthrightness.
Events have escalated to far beyond where administrators or Trask expected them. The protesters have garnered community support from religious leaders and Duke's workers, who see in them not distant students, but fellow fighters. But with the negotiation stalemate, the protesters seem to be struggling, through festive karaoke and constant conversation, to answer the question on outside observers' minds: What's next? Only time, outside forces, and, above all, shared community will answer that question.
Student and workers' frustration echoes national frustrations with wages, racial injustice, and establishment impunity. That frustration manifests in political organizing, from the Black Lives Matter movement to Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. Though only a local issue so far, Duke's protest potentially has national implications.
Such implications may rightly worry Duke administrators who (understandably) value stability over publicity. With shouts of "shut [Duke] down!" protesters and occupiers have thrown their bodies "on the gears" of Duke's privately funded administrative machine and have forced it to a momentary standstill. Whether administrators ultimately will (or should) come around to the majority of students' demands or not, the Duke community, North Carolina, and perhaps the nation, will have to recognize that "We see you."
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