Nearly two years ago, Tallman Trask III, executive vice president at Duke University, struck (at a low rate of speed) a female parking attendant with his Porsche before a football game. Trask, you’ll be shocked to learn, is old and white. The parking attendant, Shelvia Underwood, is young and black.
That incident probably wouldn’t merit comment, except that Trask allegedly called Underwood the N-word before driving away.
On February 29 and March 1, The Duke Chronicle published a two-part series alleging widespread racism and hostility in Duke’s Parking and Transportation Services Department. Two weeks later, Underwood filed suit against Trask for battery, negligence, civil conspiracy, and obstruction of justice.
That’s the backdrop for the recent wave of campus tumult. On Friday, nine students entered Duke’s Allen Building and refused to leave until their demandswhich include the termination of Trask and two other PTS higher-ups, as well as an outside investigation into the departmentwere met. Outside, a coalition of students and some current and former PTS employees camped out in tents in solidarity. They stayed all weekend, about one hundred strong at their peak.
On Sunday evening came a small victory: Duke officials agreed to grant amnesty to those insideessentially, to not suspend or expel them. They also announced that the Allen Buildinghome to President Richard Brodhead’s officewould be closed on Monday.
Spirits seemed high outside Allen on Monday afternoon. The sun was out. Lawn chairs and a dozen tents were scattered across the lawn. A protester played a jaunty flute tune, accompanied by some percussion and a guy on acoustic guitar. Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson, a former Duke student, dug into a big bag of pretzels and told the INDY that she was there for moral support.
Inside, the occupiers were negotiating with Duke officials about how to move forward. Around noon, another victory for the protesters: Trask issued a public apology for the Underwood incident.
“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,” Trask said.
Presumably, Duke officials figured this would be enough to clear the kids out of Allen so that school businessincluding classescould resume. Nope. The students wanted more of their concerns addressed, among them a $15-an-hour minimum wage for all Duke employees.
“[The Trask incident] is just the tip of the iceberg of a much broader problem of institutional racism and a culture of harassment and exploitation of our majority black and brown service workers,” says Bennett Carpenter, a graduate student. “Questions of economic inequality are so deeply intertwined with racism.”
Eventually, the talks stalled, with Duke officials saying they would only negotiate after the occupiers stopped occupying. The occupiers remained. Late Monday evening, Duke announced that Allen would once again be closed Tuesday.