Students and Durham residents gathered Friday evening in front of Delta Sigma Phi’s section to protest an annual prison-themed party held by the fraternity and Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.
Approximately 25 protestors marched from the West Campus bus stop to the bench in front of Delta Sigma Phi section and held a “teach in,” in which they discussed the party, mass incarceration in the U.S. and other topics. Fifty to 75 onlookers gathered on the main West Campus Quadrangle in front of the protest.
After chanting slogans and reading a statement, the protestors allowed onlookers to ask questions, resulting in a contentious back-and-forth. Protestors and onlookers eventually began shouting at each other before the event ended.
“Our fellow classmates find it appropriate to so callously ‘party’ around a theme that has brought pain, suffering and violence into the lives of so many,” the protestors wrote in a statement distributed to onlookers and read out during the event. “Their acts normalize a system that enacts brutality and violence against low-income communities and communities of color—right here, down the road, in Durham.”
The protestors, who declined to comment, called for the abolishment of the prison system in the United States. They argued that local, state and federal prisons in the U.S. facilitate the mass incarceration of people of color.
Protestors also criticized Delta Sigma Phi and Kappa Kappa Gamma for organizing the event and called for the abolishment of Greek life on campus. One protester held a “rush KKKG” sign.
“We call to abolish prisons and abolish Greek life because they both serve to uphold a social order founded on white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy and capitalist accumulation of power and wealth,” the protestors wrote in their statement.
Junior Max Nides, president of Delta Sigma Phi, and senior Kate Eastwood, president of Kappa Kappa Gamma, declined to comment.
After reading their statement, the protestors opened the floor for comments from the onlookers. Several students said that although they agreed that the issues raised by the protestors were important, they took issue with points the protestors’ statement or tone.
“I’m a white guy who agrees with about 80 percent of what you are saying,” junior Spenser Easterbrook said. “I agree that there are a lot of problems with the criminal justice system. How do you advocate for a position of abolishing prisons? How can you possibly have a society that functions if it doesn’t punish people who break laws or violate the rights of other people?”
The protestors responded with a call for “restorative justice” in place of the current prison system, and pointed out that the onlookers became quiet when Easterbrook began to speak even though they were talking when the protestors were reading their statement. The protestors argued that this occurred because Easterbrook was white.
Following the event, Easterbrook reiterated that he generally agreed with the protestors, but said that he was disappointed that he did not get to respond after his point was discussed by the protestors.
“I think that they have very good points, a lot of them that I agree with, but I don’t think the prison system is inherently invaluable as long these systematic injustices can be eliminated, which I think is possible,” he said. “Obviously they set the rules of this event, and that’s okay, but I thought I had something to say that was valuable and I wish it could have been not a side conversation.”
Others argued that abolishing prisons was infeasible and that the party was similar to a game of “cops and robbers” rather than an offensive event. The protestors responded by arguing that the party facilitated mass incarceration by trivializing it.
“If you show it over and over again, it gets desensitized. It’s not a joke that you can normalize, you’re making a joke about something that’s not normal,” a protester said. Referencing Tamir Rice, a 12-year old boy killed by police in Cleveland, she added, “Some kids don't play cops and robbers because some kids get shot.”
Some of the protestors discussed the Durham County Jail Investigation team and said that they pushing for a community investigation into the alleged brutality occurring in Durham County Jail.
At one point, in response to a question, a protester compared the mass incarceration of “black and brown people” in the United States to the Holocaust, a statement which drew a reaction from the onlooking crowd.
“Maybe there isn’t going to be a genocide of 11 million people in Germany and Poland right now in 2016, but brutality happens in other ways,” a protester, who described herself as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, said. “If you look at what’s happening in prisons, the same kind of experiments that were enacted upon Jewish bodies in Germany and Poland in the 1940s, the same kind of medical experiments, are happening right now. Our products are tested on prisoners’ bodies.”
Sue Wasiolek, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, appeared at the event and said although while she did not want to comment on the substance of the protest, the protestors had a right to hold a peaceful event and that she would be talking with students.
By the end of the event, several Duke University Police Department officers had arrived. Some onlookers thanked the officers for their service.
Several onlookers said that they saw the protest as fitting into broader events at Duke.
“It’s part of a whole chain of things happening at Duke but sometimes they are getting angry at things that have little relevance,” junior Luis Rodriguez said.
The protestors emphasized that they were holding the event as much to educate the onlookers as to bring about change on the issues that they were raising.
“We threw this for ya’ll. It’s not an attack,” a protester said. “This was to call-in, to teach-in. We came to help people to learn, to have a conversation.”
Amrith Ramkumar, Samantha Neal and Neelesh Moorthy contributed reporting.
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