The admission of white supremacist, former Ku Klux Klansman and neo-Nazi David Duke into a debate at a historically black university ended with several arrests, campus police using pepper spray on protesting students and a shamefully unsubstantial U.S. Senate debate. 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 the crowd, sending protesters running for cover. Several people were detained as they tried to make their way inside.
Six people, including one Dillard student, were arrested for obstructing traffic after blocking cars — including a police cruiser transporting Duke — from passing the school's front gate. (Charges were dropped Nov. 4.)
Students were anxious, scared and frustrated with other protesters 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 allowing him to be there.
The debate — closed to the public and the press — was produced by WVUE-TV and Raycom Media, which commissioned a poll determining candidate eligibility. Duke squeaked into the running at a barely eligible 5 percent support, 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 wrote on Twitter Nov. 2. "Any protests become part of reality show masquerading as news #WakeUp."
In an open letter, a group calling itself 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)," 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."
According to the group, Kimbrough and the Dillard administration didn't respond.
In an Nov. 3 interview with Jarvis DeBerry of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, Kimbrough said he had considered dropping out of hosting the debate but was told not to by legal counsel, who warned of "bad press" and possible lawsuits.
Following the debate, Dillard spokesman David M. Grubb said the university "honored [its] commitment as host. ... Ultimately, and unfortunately, the selection of the next senator from our state became a secondary issue as the focus centered on the University's response to protests on the campus." Grubb said Dillard did not discourage protests and it "shared a dual responsibility of providing a safe space for those protesters and for the orderly management of the event."
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") and rallied using 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."
Protests outside the auditorium grew louder as the 7 p.m. start time for the debate neared. Police forced the doors closed; protesters tried to pry them open. The university's Vice President of Student Success 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.
As Dillard University Police Department (DUPD) officers clashed at the auditorium entrance, they pepper-sprayed people holding the door, sending the gas-like spray into the crowd. Legal observers and TV news camera operators attending the protest also were hit by the spray. Protesters huddled together to rinse people's eyes with water. After another clash, with more pepper spray, protesters handed out small bottles of milk to treat faces. (In a statement, the New Orleans Police Department clarified it does not use or carry pepper spray, as per the federal consent decree.)
As the protest became "less peaceful," according to Grubb, "as a last resort, DUPD made the decision to use pepper spray to stop the advancement of the crowd. After a second attempt to enter the building, officers again utilized pepper spray as a deterrent."
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 at him: "You don't have to do it!"