Protesters hit with pepper spray at Dillard as David Duke enters Senate debate

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Students and supporters protesting against David Duke at Dillard University Nov. 2.
  • Students and supporters protesting against David Duke at Dillard University Nov. 2.

With the admission of white supremacist, former Ku Klux Klansman and neo-Nazi David Duke into a final debate in Louisiana's crowded race for U.S. Senate, protesters at Dillard University demanded Duke be removed from campus and for the university to condemn his campaign.

But as protests continued outside the doors of the Georges Auditorium, police pepper sprayed into the crowd, sending protesters running for cover, and several people were detained as they tried to make their way inside.

Students were anxious, scared, and frustrated with other protestors and fellow students, but none was defeated. Passing a microphone to students and supporters throughout the night, each speaker celebrated the history of the university, the civil rights advocates who came before them, and their goals for social and racial justice long after Duke's appearance. But all criticized the university's administration for even allowing him to be there.

The debate — closed to the public and the press — was produced by WVUE-TV and Raycom Media, which performed a poll determining candidate eligibility. Duke squeaked into the running at a barely eligible 5 percent, though the poll's margin of error was 4 percent. Most statewide polls have had him at 3 percent.

Dillard President Walter Kimbrough was skeptical of the poll. "Pretty clear polling rigged as (Donald) Trump would say for ratings," Kimbrough said on Twitter. "Any protests become part of reality show masquerading as news #WakeUp."

Nevertheless, the debate would go on at the university. Dillard's administration released a statement announcing it would ensure a safe campus for the debate, and that it would not interfere with endorsing or not endorsing the candidates. Dillard students were outraged. The private, historically black university, they argued, should prevent people like Duke from participating in events on its campus.

Campus organization Socially Engaged Dillard University Students demanded the university withdraw from the debate. "His presence on our campus is not welcome, and overtly subjects the entire student body to safety risks and social ridicule," the group's statement read. "This is simply outrageous."

"We cannot and will not allow this disrespect and continuance of racism and oppression on a campus we call ours (the black community), where we are educated to respect ourselves and our disciplines, and to which we pay a hefty tuition and fees," the statement continued. "Arguments that Dillard 'must' honor its commitment to WVUE and Raycom Media, are, respectfully, specious."

The group also pointed out the irony in the administration's assurance for Duke's safety using armed police "against us, the Dillard University student body."

The group demanded that all non-permitted vehicles be parked off campus, a lottery process to allow 150 students to sit in the audience, a statement from the university condemning David Duke, permission to perform an on-campus protest, and to direct all payments from WVUE and Raycom to "events planned by students in response to the impact of racism on politics."

"We are here to stand behind us, to stand behind our ancestors, our alumni, for people who fought for this, for us to have this right," one speaker said. "That's why we're here. And the KKK fought against it."

According to the group, Kimbrough and Dillard administration didn't respond.
Malcolm Suber, center, leading a march at Dillard.
  • Malcolm Suber, center, leading a march at Dillard.

Around 5 p.m. outside Dillard's gates, Dillard students and supporters from Take 'Em Down NOLA, among other community groups, made signs ("Duke Off," "Students United Against Racism") rallied through a megaphone as cars in traffic honked their horns in support. Veteran organizer and activist Malcolm Suber led a call-and-response chant of "Kimbrough says get back, we say fight back." Suber said Kimbrough should've held a press conference to denounce Duke and announce that Dillard wouldn't host the debate.

"People tear up contracts every day," he later said. "If he was a self-respecting black man he would've torn up contracts," He also called Kimbrough a "sell out" and an "Uncle Tom" who was "selling out our interests for a few pieces of silver."

Before the growing group of protesters made its way to the auditorium, activist Pat Bryant encouraged students. "I'm glad you're standing up," he said. "You must stay tight ... This is the beginning. Time and time again the administration will leave you out ... Agitate the president. He doesn't want you out here. Agitate his face, agitate the faculty who go along with this bull."
Protestors crowd against the doors of Dillard's Georges Auditorium, where the debate was held.
  • Protestors crowd against the doors of Dillard's Georges Auditorium, where the debate was held.

The march ended outside Georges Auditorium, where protests grew louder as the debate neared around 7 p.m. Police forced the doors closed; protestors tried to pry it open. University Vice President Roland Bullard Jr. stepped outside to ask them to stop. "I have no issue with people protesting," he said, pleading with people to back away from the door.

Tevon Blair, President of Dillard Student Government, which hosted a separate debate watch party, also asked whether the protest was effective, and whether the protesters even knew the other candidates in the race.

Protesters didn't let up — as officers clashed at the auditorium entrance, they pepper-sprayed the door frame and walls, sending the gas-like spray into the crowd. Legal observers and TV news camera operators attending the protest also were hit by the spray. Protestors huddled together to rinse people's eyes using bottles of water. After another clash, with more pepper spray, protestors handed out small bottles of milk to treat peoples' faces. (In a statement, the New Orleans Police Department clarified it didn't use or carry pepper spray.)

Dillard student Faith Flugence, addressing the crowd from a mic, said "the administration can't be proud of us for being out here today, and that's a problem."

At the end of the debate, the crowd moved to another door, hoping to see the candidates leaving the building. As it pressed up against another door, with more police, a 28-year veteran officer had stepped outside to ask the crowd to get quiet.

"This is not the first time I'm dealing with David Duke," he said, getting choked up. "I didn't like it, but I had to do it." The crowd roared after him: "You don't have to do it!"

As cars left the campus following the debate, several protesters locked arms and lay on the ground near the campus gate to prevent them from leaving.

Following the debate, Kimbrough emailed Dillard students and blamed outside "instigators" for the events leading to violence, and promised a students-only town hall to discuss the protest and what happened.


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