Dozens of students appeared outside of the Joe Van Gogh on Duke West Campus early this afternoon to protest the termination of two of the coffee shop’s employees. Both baristas were asked to resign after Duke’s vice president for student affairs, Larry Moneta, complained that they were playing an explicit rap song.
Moneta told Britni Brown, a black woman and a barista at the coffee shop, that the song that was playing, “Get Paid” by Young Dolph, was offensive and inappropriate. Brown immediately, turned off the
Outside Joe Van Gogh Wednesday, students held signs, chanted, and danced to the song that got both employees fired. A number of Joe Van Gogh employees participated in the protest themselves, and even those who were working greeted protesters with ice water and vegan muffins, Moneta’s usual order at the establishment. Brown attended the demonstration and briefly thanked participants for offering their support. She also explained that she would not return to Joe Van Gogh even if management offered her a job again.
Duke University and Joe Van Gogh initially put the onus on each other for why the employees were let go over a relatively negligible offense. The coffee shop alleged that its contractual obligations to the university essentially left it powerless after Robert Coffey, the executive director of dining services, called on Joe Van Gogh to fire Simmons and Brown. Both the university and Joe Van Gogh have since released statements apologizing for their roles in the controversy.
After backlash, Moneta offered his perspective on the incident in an email to the Duke Chronicle. He explained, “I expressed my objections to the staff with whom I’ve always had a cordial relationship. I insisted on paying for my purchase and left the store. I then contacted the director of Duke Dining to express my concerns and that was the end of my involvement.”
Protesters weren’t satisfied with that response. They walked into Moneta’s office and blasted “Get Paid” outside of his door. Moneta briefly allowed the demonstrators into his office, where they called on him to issue a public apology and to use his power at the university to condemn the firing of Brown and Simmons since he alleges that that was not his intention.
Activists have raised concerns that Simmons, a white man, may have been fired alongside Brown in an attempt to quell accusation of racism against the company. One protester, a current Joe Van Gogh employee who requested to remain anonymous, says that she had already left a nearby location after she encountered racial prejudice of her own.
“I took it up with my immediate managers, and they themselves were not apologetic in any way. They didn’t take it to HR,” she says. “They wanted to keep it under wraps, so they moved me to [another department] instead.”
She returned to the coffee chain out of necessity, she says, but she intends to look for a new job following the recent developments.
The unnamed employee also insisted that Brown and Simmons were the last people she thought would ever be fired.
“They were both my two favorite employees to work with because they both did hard work, they covered other people’s shifts if they didn’t come in, [and] they had no disciplinary records for anything,” she says.
An audio recording that the INDY obtained of the employees’ resignation meeting supports that claim. As both baristas were being fired, they were told by a human resources officer that she and other managers would be happy to be positive references for them.
Jessica Covil, a Ph.D. candidate in Duke’s English department, says she believes this controversy is just the latest in a long list of indiscretions by Moneta over the course of his career. Covil recently wrote an open letter to Moneta criticizing an email he sent to the student body. The email asked students to “reflect on your own experiences as survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders” of sexual assault in a university survey, which she criticized for being poorly worded and offensive to many survivors.
“My hope is that Larry Moneta does not keep his job on this campus,” Covil says. “I don’t think he has any place at an institution given his history.”
Kristin Caynor, a student at Duke Divinity School, says she is frustrated that no one is standing up for the employees whose livelihoods are now permanently affected.
“It’s infuriating to me that people can lose their livelihoods and no one will accept blame,” she says, adding, “Not only will nobody take responsibility for it, but also nobody on either side is actually willing to advocate for the people that lost their jobs.”