Duke students refuse to end four-day sit-in until all demands are answered
After two years and two failed investigations, Duke University students are demanding that a criminal investigation into Executive Vice President Tallman Trask’s alleged run-in with a parking attendant be reopened.
On Aug. 30, 2014, before a Duke football game, Trask reportedly hit a traffic control officer who was hired under a contractual agreement with the school to work sporting events. The officer, Shelvia Underwood, claims she was ordered to block traffic from flowing into a parking lot accessible only with a university-issued parking pass.
Underwood, who had stopped Trask in order to speak with a pedestrian, claims she turned around and saw his car moving towards her. Trask proceeded to hit underwood with his car but he insists it was an accident.
When she told Trask the road was closed, however, he responded by shouting, “This road is not closed,” and banging on the steering wheel rather than presenting his two parking passes. Underwood alleges that Trask shouted a racial profanity as he drove off but he continues to deny any such occurrence.
Both campus police and Duke’s institutional equity office conducted separate investigations into the matter, but both concluded that there was insufficient evidence to back Underwood’s allegations.
Trask has since admitted that he did hit Underwood with his car but continues to insist it was an accident, and wrote a personal apology to Underwood after the incident.
“I very much regret the incident before the Elon football game. I should have been more patient and I apologize,” he wrote to her shortly after.
At the time of its investigation, the university wrote in a statement that Underwood “chose not to pursue her police complaint,” effectively dropping her allegations.
But now, two years after the fact, Underwood has sued Trask for allegedly spewing a racial profanity at her as he drove away. As a result, Duke students occupied an administrative building on campus that houses the president’s office and refuse to leave until a list of their demands is fulfilled. The students claim that Trask intentionally hit Underwood with his car and are calling his actions “racist behavior.”
Students took over administrative offices Friday evening and are still refusing to leave at the time of this publication.
Protesters are asking the administration to grovel to several of their demands, including the immediate termination of Trask, that he pay for Underwood’s medical bills and issue a public apology, an outside investigation into Underwood’s case approved by a board of students, and a $15 minimum wage for all Duke workers.
Students also demanded that they be granted immunity from looming trespassing charges, which the university initially rejected but later complied with, saying it would help “move to towards a peaceful resolution.”
“Let’s remember the only reason they’re talking to us is because we’re loud, we’re unified, we’re visible—and we’re going to stay that way,” one student said to a crowd of protesters Sunday, the third night of their sit-in.
Monday morning, Trask broke his silence and issued a public apology, bending to the protesters demands.
“I want to say a word to the Duke community about my interaction with Shelvia Underwood in August 2014, which has been a subject of much recent discussion,” he wrote. “While the details of what happened are a matter of disagreement and subject of civil litigation, I recognize that my conduct fell short of the civility and respectful conduct each member of this community owes to every other. I express my apology to Ms. Underwood and to this community and re-commit myself to ensuring that these values are upheld for all.”
Having already succumbed to two of their demands, the university then announced Monday that it would no longer cooperate with students until they voluntarily leave the premises.
“Closing the Allen Building while these negotiations go on has presented a significant disruption to students, faculty, staff and visitors, and cannot continue indefinitely. As a result, the university will only continue negotiations after the nine students voluntarily leave the Allen Building,” administrators wrote in a statement.
Protesters, who go by the name of “Duke Students & Workers in Solidarity,” then issued a lengthy response on Facebook, calling the administration’s statement “dishonest”
“This statement is dishonest. They have negotiated on the original seven demands for less than a full day, and only two of seven demands were discussed. Last night’s amnesty was only a concession in response to community pressure; it was not granted because they desired to engage in honest and thoughtful negotiations,” they wrote.
Protesters went on to blame the university for the disruption caused by the sit-in, saying it was the school’s decision to cancel classes and shut down administrative offices.
“The decision to close the Allen Building was made by Duke. At no time did DSWS request, suggest, or demand that the Allen Building be shut down for any purpose or reason. DSWS continues to reiterate that closing down the Allen building is unnecessary. Faculty and administrators can easily access their offices and meeting spaces. There is no reason for classes to cancelled or even moved to another location,” they said.
The protests lasted through Monday night into Tuesday morning and show no signs of ending soon. In fact, The Duke Chronicle reports that several other students have joined the sit-in and are camping in tents outside of the president’s office.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski