Opinion | Column

Protests: the good, the bad, the ugly

ted talks

I’m breaking from my scheduled programming this week to talk about an issue that’s on everyone’s mind: the soda machine in The Link is broken again.

Just kidding. There’s a sit-in going on right now in the Allen Building. Everyone seems to have an opinion, so here’s mine.

First, I must give credit where credit is due. I’ve been critical of many student protests this year for being counterproductive and unnecessary. That’s not the case here.

Some might have issues with the methodology or temperament of the protestors. Come on, though—they are college students. Cut them some slack. Holding protestors to the (idealized) standard of MLK Jr. or Gandhi is just an excuse to ignore the substance of their argument.

The more I read about the alleged 2014 incident involving Executive Vice President Tallman Trask, the more it seems like he probably got away with flagrantly offensive behavior. If the claims turn out to be true, then consequences and restitution, not to mention a genuine apology, are in order.

Of course, such an apology could have avoided this whole fiasco. That was all Ms. Underwood had previously requested. Heck, Duke could have even hired an apology consultant if they didn’t think Trask would deliver. Surely someone could have seen this case’s potential to metastasize.

If someone did have such foresight, they did not act. Instead, Trask doubled down with a half-baked non-apology. I’m someone who believes deeply in forgiveness. However, forgiveness requires an authentic attempt to make amends—not an apologetic mumbling written on an index card.

It is logical that if the Duke Executive Vice President was not held accountable for this kind of behavior, such a devaluing of minority issues could be a systemic problem. Corruption of this sort is rarely confined to one or two individuals. It’s thus entirely reasonable to suspect that it runs throughout Duke Parking and Transportation Services, and possibly beyond. Testimony received from Duke workers corroborates this notion.

Even if these particular allegations turn out to be false (let us not forget that possibility), the handling of the situation suggests incompetence. It certainly warrants further investigation.

Current incident reporting procedures do appear to be biased against workers. If they are not protecting the vulnerable, then it’s important to demand better. Right now, it seems there is an impossibly high bar for evidence, which practically ensures that such grievances will go unaddressed.

On the other hand, we must balance a desire for justice with prudent skepticism. Hasty judgments in the Duke lacrosse case, UVA rape case and University of Albany bus incident have done more harm than good to the cause of progressivism. Discarding due process and resorting to mob rule is extremely dangerous, even if the cause is righteous. History provides us with ample examples of noble causes turning sour due to the capriciousness of the masses.

Demanding the immediate termination of Trask, DePinto and Cavanaugh without proper inquiry is tantamount to trial in the court of public opinion. That could start a chain reaction and ultimately turn against protestors. Following French student protests in the 1960s, students initially won major victories. Immediately after, however, the right-wing Gaullist party swept the electorate. The students’ victory was short lived. We can see this same reactionary phenomenon today looking at The University of Missouri. Following protests last year, the school has faced a dramatic drop in applicants and a $35 million budget shortfall. It doesn’t matter whether it is “right” or “wrong” to protest—the question one must ask is, “What are we going to accomplish?”

Here’s a thought experiment: consider what would happen to student protestors across the country if they were subject to the same court of public opinion. Many would likely be expelled, jailed or have their futures compromised. Thankfully, we have due process, we have freedom of speech and assembly, and we have an established tradition of supporting civil disobedience. Let’s not erode that by impulsively throwing Duke administrators to the wolves.

However, let’s recognize that these protestors are lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. They are not violent, significantly obstructing anyone’s education (unless you had classes in Allen today) or disrupting essential university functions. Their actions might be distracting or annoying to some, but they are a far cry from shutting down campus like students frequently did during the 60s.

Those who decry microaggressions and hypersensitivity should thus temper their criticism of these protestors. Micro-disruptions (and so far the disruption is micro) do not warrant expulsion, arrest or other heavy-handed sanctions. Protestors’ rights should be supported, even if one does not agree with the substance of their demands.

In turn, I hope protestors will respect the rights of other students to express dissent. For example, if conservative students were to stage a counter protest or write a critical editorial, I hope the protestors will support their right to speak as well.

All of that said, the protestors should leave the building. The longer they remain, the more disruption they cause. Eventually, they will be seriously infringing upon the rights of other students. That would be a foolish and self-defeating action. It could grievously harm their cause. Protestors should accept the amnesty that has been granted (a victory in its own right) and continue the discussion elsewhere. This would not be backing down; it would be showing strength.

I will close with a confession: my initial reaction to this protest was ambivalent. Previous incidents had left a bad taste in my mouth. Right now I am supportive, but that will not continue indefinitely. Please, if you’re a protestor or supporter—consider how you are perceived. If you want the support of the larger student body, it would be wise to save your energy for big battles like this one (and not to overstay your welcome).

Thank you for your service—now please vacate the Allen Building.

Ted Yavuzkurt is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. If you have a comment for him, he can be reached at tdy@duke.edu.