Duke Students Sit-in to Protest Alleged Racism

By Sameer Rao Apr 05, 2016

As of press time today (April 6), eight Duke University students are still maintaining a sit-in at the school’s Allen Building in solidarity with workers of color. The occupation began Friday (April 1) in response to racist treatment of employees that was reported in the school paper.

The controversy leading to the sit-in dates back to late February and early March, when The Duke Chronicle published a two-part investigative feature on senior university officials’ alleged racial discrimination against employees. The first part, published on February 29, uncovered evidence that the school’s executive vice president Tallman Trask hit Shelvia Underwood, a parking attendant, with his car while pulling into a university football game. Underwood, a contract employee working for Raleigh-based McLaurin Parking and Transportation, told the Chronicle that Trask called her the N-word and drove off. 

Trask initially denied the incident. But when the publication confronted him with evidence of a signed apology, he admitted to the accident, but not to the racial slur. Underwood later filed a still-pending lawsuit against Trask and the university.

The second part, published on March 1, investigated a claim from ex-Parking and Transportation Services (PTS) employee L. Renee Adkins’ that speaking out against racism in the workplace lead to her termination. She described a racist environment specifically nurtured by PTS director Carl DePinto and the university’s vice president for administration Kyle Cavanaugh. Her claim has been corroborated by colleagues.

Adkins, alongside other employees and students and faculty members, issued a list of demands via the Chronicle on March 21 that included Trask, Cavanaugh and DePinto’s resignations: 

The unlawful, reckless and discriminatory behavior that is present in this chain of command should not be tolerated and cannot be ignored. For these reasons, and in the interest of upholding ethical commitments set forth by the Duke University Community Standard, we demand the immediate removal of Dr. Trask, VP Kyle Cavanaugh and PTS Director Carl DePinto, from their positions at Duke University. We also demand a full and transparent investigation and resolution of the complaints filed by PTS employees, along with a statement from the administration to the Duke community addressing the steps it has taken to resolve these complaints.

Finally, we demand a transparent hiring process to replace these administrators with officers who have a long-standing record of vigorous commitment to workplace inclusion, equitable hiring practices for people of color, women, trans* and gender non-conforming people, people of all abilities and people of all sexual orientations and gender expressions. We must ensure that these transgressions are not replicated in future administrations.

On Friday, nine students began a sit-in in solidarity with workers at the university’s Allen Building, which houses Trask and Duke president Richard Brodhead’s offices. The students issued a list of seven demands, according to a press release sent to Colorlines and the Chronicle’s published image, which includes the aforementioned three resignations; an outside investigation into the alleged culture of harassment and discrimination in Duke’s Parking and Transportation; legal reparations for the hit-and-run victim and a $15 minimum wage for all campus workers. 

The Chronicle reported yesterday (April 5) that one occupying student, Amy Wang, "is leaving to go to a national poetry slam contest in Texas" and "plans to rejoin those inside the Allen Building if they are still there when she returns Sunday." One of the other occupying students, Cindy Li, confirmed to Colorlines that there are eight remaining occupiers as of press time. 

A fluctuating number of supporters has gathered outside Allen over the past six days, setting up tents in the nearby quad. According to our email correspondence with Anastasia Karklina, a doctoral student and media liason with Duke Students & Workers in Solidarity—the group represents the students occupying Allen Building and the broader coalition of supporters)—there were up to 100 protesters outside Allen Building at the peak of the protest. 

According to the Chronicle’s ongoing updates about the occupation, university administrators ceased negotiations with students Monday (April 4), saying they’ll only continue if the occupying students vacate. Some of those students told the Chronicle and Colorlines that they will continue the occupation indefinitely. 

"We’re working with [administrators] on how to include workers in the negotiation process," Mina Ezikpe, one of the occupiers, said in an e-mail sent to Colorlines yesterday. "We are at a standstill until administration is willing to concede that workers can be at the table."

In the same email, occupier Dipro Bhowmik told Colorlines that the students will not face negative repercussions from their protest. "After widespread support from the Duke community as well as outside pressure, we have been granted full legal and disciplinary amnesty from the administration."

University community members and supporters from beyond Duke have tweeted in support of the sit-in using the hashtag #DismantleDukePlantation

"Duke is a modern-day plantation. I will say that to you, I will say that to whomever I talk to," Adkins said in a telephone interview yesterday. "You got your ‘field’ people, you got your ‘house’ people and that’s the way that it is."

Adkins continued the plantation analogy in her discussion of the Black employees of the human resources department who handle workplace discrimination complaints: "These Black people that work in human resources or institutional equity, they are there but they are not there to assist us. They are there to keep us in line and say, ‘I don’t see this as discrimination, racism or retaliation.’"

Both Adkins and Karklina noted retaliatory practices that keep many Duke employees from speaking out in support of the occupation or against the university. 

Colorlines emailed and called Duke’s Office of News and Communications yesterday. While someone identifying themsleves only as "Duke News" responded via email that they would pass on our inquiries to Steve Hartsoe (identified as a senior editor in the aforementioned office), they did not answer specific questions about how the university is addressing occupiers’ demands and campus racism by press time.

Keith Lawrence, executive director of News and Communications, emailed the following statement from the university last night: 

The Allen Building will be closed for regular business on Wednesday, April 6, with limited access for Duke employees who work in the building. For their purposes, the building will be accessible from 6 a.m. – 8 p.m. through the side door on the ground-level adjacent to the parking lot. No visitors will be permitted. The administration suite on the second floor will remain closed. Classes scheduled for the Allen Building will continue to be relocated. Please check today.duke.edu for further updates.

Check out a few tweets from the protests, retweeted by Duke Students & Workers in Solidarity: 


The last tweet shows Rev. William Barber II, president of the NAACP’s North Carolina chapter, being denied entry to meet with occupiers. Barber is one of several local officials, including Durham city councilwoman Jillian Johnson, who offered support for the protesters. Duke scholars Mark Anthony Neal and Robert Korstad have also expressed their support.

(H/t The Duke Chronicle, Newsone, The News & Observer)