ECU struggled to find right message about protest, band

Third in a timeline series

By Sunshine Yang, with PNN staff

The “band protest.” That is how most people remember the on-field happenings of Oct. 1, 2016. But there actually were three band protests.

Publication1Nineteen Marching Pirates took a knee to call attention to social justice issues. Two held aloft the American flag as a counter-protest. And others spoke out to themselves. Taylor Lowe was one of them. He recalled that when the booing erupted from the Dowdy-Ficklen stands, “I was thinking, ‘This is because of these [protesters]’.”

Yet the shared experience of being booed and worse that day drew bandmates closer.

“We got a lot of new friendships through it … and realizing that no matter where we stood, we had to all perform again,” band member Dylan Allen said. “We had to find a way to bond; we had to find a way to get closer and get through it.”

ECU, too, had to find a way to get through it, and trouble within the band itself was the last thing administrators needed. They already had more than enough dismay and disappointment pouring in.

The first of ECU’s statements—Chancellor Cecil Staton’s affirmation of free speech a few hours after the protest—did little to soothe the angry public. And another National Anthem protest at the upcoming homecoming game against Navy would not do.

ECU needed a new, second statement. It had to be clear on this point: No more protests by any Marching Pirate.

It took two days to get that. And when the new statement came, it doused some fires but sparked off new ones.

Try again at the messaging

Thirty-two minutes into Sunday, Oct. 2, Joseph Rhodes emailed the bad news to ECU’s chancellor. “I will not give another dime to ECU,” the Pirate Club member and Alumni Association donor wrote, “as long as these band members are allowed to still be part of our band.”

At 7:23 Sunday night, the chancellor got this alert from this chief of staff, Jim Hopf: “The Chair of the ECU Foundation … has expressed concern about the game incident as well as our [Oct. 1] response, to the point of saying that he may quit the Foundation board.”

Those are just two of the dozens of emailed intentions to stop donating money and time to ECU and its athletics. Whether it was brinksmanship or fact, the emailed threats got the attention of university officials, who met Sunday and Monday to find a way through the storm.

As part of that effort, Dr. Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for Student Affairs, held a critical two-and-a-half hour meeting with the marching band Sunday night.

At 9:25 p.m., she reported a breakthrough. “They will not kneel at remaining games … nor have any other visible demonstration,” she wrote in an email. “With the right questioning, the students did all the work. I did not ‘make’ or ask them … they got there by themselves based on their dialogue.”

The band’s director, Dr. William Staub, would work on a statement on that, Hardy added.

Yet on Monday afternoon, when the draft of the statement arrived in his inbox, Staton found it wanting. “I’m sorry,” the chancellor emailed, “but I don’t think this is helpful. It will only increase the furor. All it will say to our detractors is that we are sorry you feel the way you do about what we did.”

He sent it back for toughening. That came at 3:34 p.m., when Mary Schulken, then ECU’s communications chief, reported that Provost Ron Mitchelson, “his group and I worked to add language that reinforces that this will not be tolerated by Marching Pirates going forward.”

ECU had its second—and tough—statement.

Change of heart?

Monday afternoon was busy. Staton met with the Marching Pirates, and updated University of North Carolina officials and ECU trustees. Statement No. 2—signed by the directors of the band and School of Music, and the dean of the college that houses the school—was distributed to the public.

The reaction, the emails show, was positive. The anger had been staunched. But a new fire was now burning.

It showed up at the Monday meeting with the band.

Although Staub’s name was on Statement No. 2, Marching Pirates did not believe the words it held were entirely his.

Lowe, the band member, said he believes that Staub “felt forced” to put his name to the new statement. “If it’s hurting the university’s income from the donors who [were] at the game, and if Staub rejects [the statement], he’ll probably get rid of them,” Lowe said.

Band members interviewed by PNN said they felt the Marching Pirates had been thrown under the bus by ECU administrators, who earlier had gave them the OK to protest.

“I think it’s certainly reasonable that they would be offended by” the new statement, Mitchelson, the provost, told PNN. “You’re going from ‘we protect your freedom,’ to ‘no you can’t do that again,’ and without any context.”

The news media noticed too. “Could we get official clarification on yesterday’s statement … and how it seems to conflict with the chancellor’s statement from Saturday,” a WITN-TV journalist emailed ECU’s Schulken on Tuesday. Later, a News & Observer reporter emailed a similar request.

ECU’s Black Student Union also noticed. In the statement it issued Tuesday, it praised “the 19” and the chancellor’s initial statement of support, and roundly rejected the tough Statement No. 2. “We strongly urge the narrative to shift from the ‘what’ and focus on the ‘why” that has led to these [protests],” the BSU said.

Administrators had come to another inflection point. The narrative was about to shift again, but not to the “why,” the social justice issues, that motivated “the 19” to take a knee.

Band’s safety comes to the fore

By Wednesday morning, Schulken had drafted a four-line statement as the chancellor’s response to the media inquiries. Like Statement No. 2, the short response also recognized “students’ right to free speech, petition and assembly.” But it tied free speech to time, place and manner restrictions for “preserving order and public safety.”

By 12:51 p.m., the band’s safety had become the issue. “It is becoming clear that a certain percentage of the band is concerned for their safety while they are wearing a Marching Pirates uniform,” Dr. Chris Ulffers, the music school director, emailed to ECU officials.

“I think we need to have a serious conversation whether or not, due to their FEAR, the band marches (or even attends) the game next [week],” he wrote, adding a meeting that afternoon with the band would “determine “their level of concern for their personal safety and their willingness to march.”

By Thursday, the emails show, two things became clear to ECU administrators: the university needed yet another statement to douse the new fires started by Statement No. 2. And Marching Pirates indeed were concerned but not cowed.

There is little about ECU’s third statement in the emails PNN reviewed. It was released Oct. 6 on ECU’s website and under the chancellor’s name, and it essentially tried to blend statements 1 and 2.

As Hopf, the chief of staff, explained it in a written response, the purpose of Statement No. 3 was “to clarify any uncertainty surrounding the prevision statements,” and ECU’s acknowledgement of “free speech rights … [and] maintaining campus order, and student safety and welfare.”

The emails show a growing concern for band members. At their Wednesday night meeting, “many of them admitted to being fearful as a result of the violence that ensured after Saturday’s game and the intimidation that they continue to face on a daily basis,” Dr. Chris Buddo, dean of the School of Fine Arts and Communication, wrote in an email to ECU administrators the next day.

“However, they also made clear that they do not want to bow to the violence and intimidation,” he wrote. “As for Chris (Ulffers), Bill (Staub) and I, we believe that the situation is simply too volatile.

“Given that the university has been monitoring social media, including an amazing amount of hateful negativity regarding the Marching Pirates … including much criticism and racial ugliness regarding the members specifically, we believe that any participation by the band comes at the risk of serious injury to one or more of the members and to the fans.”

Buddo offered two options: let the band play but with lots of security present, or not let the band play “because of the violence perpetrated against them at the last game.”

As it turns out, administrators did not need to pick an option.

Hurricane Matthew made landfall in Eastern North Carolina on Oct. 8. The storm ravaged the area and the university was closed for the following week. When the flood waters receded and ECU reopened, few people still thought of the kneeling band members.

Matthew had swept away the attention that had been focused so intently on them.

Yang produced this story for her spring 2017 class, In-Depth Reporting: Capstone.