Q&A: Student protesters explain tactics, disappointment with administrators

Saturday’s student protest of President Price’s speech to alumni has generated conversations across campus. The Chronicle sat down with senior Bryce Cracknell, junior Trey Walk and sophomore Gino Nuzzolillo, three of the students involved in organizing, to hear more about how the protest came to be and their plans moving forward. So far, of the students who protested, roughly 21 have received a letter from the Office of Student Conduct. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TC: What has happened in the past 48 hours since we last spoke?

Bryce Cracknell: After Saturday, I think most people took Sunday off to relax and regroup and then we had a meeting since and our coalition has grown to about 100 strong. 

Gino Nuzzolillo: It's tripled in size.

BC: We've been getting a lot of statements of support from student leaders and student organizations in addition to grad student organizations, messages of support from faculty and then from alums as well. In terms of the support that we've gotten from individuals who are standing in solidarity and who are working with us, it's been amazing. We've only heard from administrators through the student conduct process, which is rather ridiculous and ultimately disappointing. 

We sent the president and other administrators a letter today basically asking for good faith to be able to again work on these issues and organize around them and basically bring forth the contradictions and ironies of all this. This is a great literary irony that the University is punishing us the same way they punished the students 50 years ago during the exact same time in which we are celebrating their activism. It's almost hilarious. 

With all this happening and then the student conduct process going, while the energy has been high and people have been doing work, for many students—because we have freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors—for many of the folks who haven't done this before, having student conduct send you a letter is somewhat traumatizing. That, coupled with having some old white people yell ridiculous things at your face. In terms of adults who have reached out to us, whose job is to care for us, they just haven't, and so we've been holding each other up. And then the statements of solidarity from other folks are keeping us going. 

GN: I think we are particularly concerned that the University knows that by sending these conduct letters out that they will be concerning the students and that they will be exacerbating any preexisting mental health conditions and, like Bryce said, traumatizing and starting new ones, especially after Saturday's issues. I think that among the many things that we share in common with the administration, the number one thing is that we all want to see this University be better and be more accommodating and make changes. We're not sure why they're not taking that approach too and reaching out to us in good faith rather than initiating a conduct process. 

TC: But didn't you all expect that going in, that there would be consequences for your actions?

GN: I think we expected it, I think it was probably a possibility given what folks went through in 2016 in the Allen Building. I think we just maybe expected better from the administration. 

Trey Walk: It wasn't a fun activity to experience what we experienced, but all of us went up there, and all of us have been doing this work, and other students have been joining in since, because we really do deeply believe in what we're trying to do and the power of what we're doing. We really really really want to emphasize that this isn't about Saturday; this is about the document that we've crafted and the vision that we've laid out for Duke and the energy around that. We really want the focus to be on that, rather than the conduct process, and so it would just be very disappointing for things to get stuck on this rather than us being able to move forward if the administration was willing to work with us.  

TC: But that was part of the strategy to some extent, to highlight and disrupt this event. And you received the leaflets warning of the consequences from the administration. The power of civil disobedience comes from facing the consequences, so was that not considered going into it or do you all not want consequences now because you think it's unfair for some reason?

BC: Consequences were expected and that was, of course, weighed going in. What was not expected was for us to feel like we were back in the 1960s, to have people shouting racial epithets at us, people telling us that we don't belong here, that we don't deserve a Duke degree. That "f you" was unexpected. What also wasn't expected was for student conduct to be the first people to reach out. 

While we knew that there would be consequences, we weighed all of those going in, so we're still going to talk about [the consequences] because they're still ridiculous given the circumstances of that weekend and what it entailed and what that weekend was for: memorializing the memory of student activism on this campus and the number of events that they wanted us to be on panels for. They wanted us to sit on their panels to talk about that, but when we actually perform it and when we actually do it and when we actually live out our truth, they have problems.  

TC: Did you bring your concerns up with them ahead of time when they asked you to be on the panels? Did you say, ‘I don't think this is a good thing?’  

BC: Yeah, actually.

GN: In other words, you can't continue to talk about activism and celebrate activism and not expect activism. And—to add to what Bryce said—yes, we knew the University has procedures that it has to follow, but I think what we still want the administration to do is to see that this is an opportunity for dialogue and for policymaking that benefits the whole of this University, and to focus on working with us on those demands rather than taking this to be—and I say this tentatively—a reactionary approach that's not forward-thinking.  

TW: Yeah, I want to add that we're disappointed ... I think it's frustrating that there's so many of us and there's been so much conversation around what happened and the administration has yet to engage with us directly. What's really frustrating more than anything else is that we are really wanting to move forward and continue to work on these issues, so it's just frustrating that they aren't even engaging with us directly.  

TC: One of the critiques we've heard from members of the Class of ‘68 we’ve talked to in the days following the protests was that they had four demands and you all have 12. They felt that the message kind of got lost and it’s not going to be as easy to pursue 12 at once: they were able to take more actions because they had a limited focus. How would you respond to that critique?

GN: I’m not exactly sure on my facts here, but I know that the 1969 Allen building occupiers had close to, if not a similar number of demands to us, when they occupied the Allen building. So this strategy of having multiple demands is not necessarily an inherently bad one. 

I think there definitely can be debate over the political feasibility of incorporating certain demands, but I think the principle of the issue is that we were intentional about trying to choose at least one demand from each of the issue areas we had included in the manifesto, and showing that we care about the student body as a whole ... was as important to us that that was represented in the demands as the feasibility and the actionability and the political strategy of having 12 demands.

TW: I think in general protests happen in response to incidents, and I think that’s what people are accustomed to—like a specific homophobic slur or someone says the n-word and people protest in response to that, but the point of this is that this isn’t in response to one specific thing, but it’s the response to years and years and patterns and systemic injustices in the document. 

TC: You all had mentioned onstage and also here tonight that there are a lot of different voices and types of people being represented. We can’t help but notice that you are all three cis men. Can you explain why that is?

TW: That’s a really good point, and we have definitely talked about that. Part of that is just that it’s an inconvenience of this interview, we have had other people talking to press and doing communication, so [junior] Mumbi Kanyogo, [junior] Sydney Roberts, and [sophomore] Leah Abrams have all been working really closely with us. There are also a lot of really other amazing people who are pretty strong with the group who went up on stage and were helping craft the document, so I want to name them; those are [senior] Colleen [Sharp], [junior] Hadeel [Abdelhy], and [senior] Razan [Idris] and a few others. I think the reason that we’ve been speaking a lot is that we’re the three who kind of got folks in the room originally, but we definitely are delegating leadership and and people are taking on their own tasks, and and I think that that’s a fair question to ask. 

Editor's Note: Both Roberts and Abrams are on The Chronicle's staff. Roberts is co-chair of The Chronicle's independent Editorial Board and Abrams is an opinion page managing editor.

Adam Beyer | Digital Content Director

Adam Beyer is a senior public policy major and is The Chronicle's Digital Strategy Team director.


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