Police, Protesters Clash at Duke-Hicks Debate
The much-ballyhooed debate over affirmative action came to the Cal State Northridge campus Wednesday, all but overshadowed by a melee outside involving rock-throwing demonstrators who were confronted by nearly 200 riot police.
Inside the Student Union, calm and civility reigned as ex-Klansman David Duke and civil rights activist Joe Hicks faced off.
But outside, campus police and helmeted LAPD officers in riot gear used tear gas, batons and rubber bullets to force back a crowd of more than 1,000, clearing a path for the former Klan grand wizard. Six people were arrested when a band of protesters who identified themselves as Bay Area students assailed Duke as he left the 2:30 p.m. debate with Hicks, police said. Some heads were bloodied, but there were no serious injuries.
The scene during the 90-minute debate had been much different.
A sellout crowd of more than 700 people, mostly minority Cal State Northridge students, listened politely as Duke repeatedly denounced affirmative action policies and Hicks defended them.
Duke, a former Louisiana legislator, characterized affirmative action as discrimination against whites--which he said is just “as morally wrong” as discrimination against minorities.
Hicks, executive director of a Los Angeles advocacy group that works to calm inter-ethnic tensions, countered that “preference is something still enjoyed by America’s majority population. . . . Discrimination is a part of American life today.”
Two banks of television cameras recorded the debate, testament to the intense media interest in Duke’s appearance. A statewide controversy erupted this month when a bitterly divided Student Senate voted to invite Duke to speak.
Early Wednesday afternoon, a man who attempted to unfurl a pro-Proposition 209 banner was physically attacked by critics who mistook him as a supporter of Duke. A 16-year-old Palmdale student was cheered when she grabbed a mike and urged others to ignore attempts to incite violence.
Later, as the debate ended, a group of students who said they were from UC Berkeley and other Bay Area schools gathered outside the Student Union. Their demonstrations turned raucous and some arrests were made. Police said three of those arrested were from the Los Angeles area and two others were not from Southern California. It could not be learned where the sixth person arrested is from.
The demonstrators intruded on the debate only briefly, when some began shouting and pounding on the windows of the auditorium. Minutes later, helmet-clad police could be seen marching across the Student Union lawn toward the protesters.
The crowd of demonstrators and onlookers blended elements of 1960s-era political protest and business as usual. The mood on the campus was clearly pro-affirmative action, yet most students appeared unruffled by all the activity.
It was hard to predict what impact the event would have on the November initiative. Proposition 209 would ban state and local governments’ affirmative action programs for women and minorities.
On the one hand, many 209 opponents have been all too happy to see Duke’s name associated with the initiative, and advertisements have appeared linking him to 209. On the other hand, Duke’s behavior during the debate impressed some.
Angie Ramos left the event more certain that she supports affirmative action, but with a grudging sense of admiration for Duke.
“The dude’s got guts,” she said. “He says what he thinks and he doesn’t pull the punches like a lot of politicians do. I don’t agree with him, but to stand up here and say what he said . . . that takes some guts.”
Supporters of the initiative called Duke’s participation a “dirty political trick” that would unfairly taint 209 as racist in the minds of voters.
Some minority students and civil rights groups criticized the Student Senate as well, for giving Duke a platform from which to spread his racist views.
“By importing this bigot from Louisiana, the Student Association of Cal State Northridge has . . . invested the mantle of legitimacy upon a person more at home with the white sheet of the KKK and the swastika of the Nazi party,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Weisenthal Center said in a statement Wednesday.
Student leaders said they had invited Duke only after high-profile 209 proponents had turned them down and that they thought his appearance would energize debate over the issue.
Pro-209 forces went out of their way to distance themselves from Duke, staging an off-campus rally Wednesday at the Van Nuys Recreation Center, a few miles from the campus.
And at a Wednesday bill signing ceremony in Sacramento, Gov. Pete Wilson, a leading 209 proponent, called Duke a “sick racist” and said he “was totally without any authorization from anyone connected with the pro-209 campaign. To the contrary, we have utter contempt for him.”
At a time when both sides of the 209 campaign have been struggling for money and voter interest, the debate thrust the issue of affirmative action into the limelight--if not in quite the way the campaigns would have liked.
In their remarks Wednesday, Duke relied largely on anecdote, Hicks on history.
Telegenic and poised, Duke steered clear of his most controversial stances for most of his speech, hammering at the notion that affirmative action is nothing more than racism in reverse.
“Affirmative action does discriminate. There no question about that. It discriminates against white people,” he said. “It is not about equal opportunity or equal chance.”
He insisted that affirmative action promoted unqualified minorities at the expense of whites--who he warned would be outnumbered and outvoted as the country comes to resemble the audience he was addressing.
Complaining that Wilson had for years sanctioned affirmative action, Duke declared: “He reminds me of the town harlot who suddenly finds religion.”
Hicks challenged Duke’s portrayal of whites as victims, saying that history has conferred advantages on whites that statistics show have not been erased.
“Study after study has shown,” he said, that whites are more likely to be hired than similarly qualified blacks, and earn more money for similar jobs.
Hicks lambasted Duke’s reliance on anecdotes. “When you put them under the microscope and try to find the facts, they evaporate,” he said.
As for Duke’s complaints of reverse discrimination, Hicks said: “That is the cry of every unqualified white guy who gets aced out of a job.”
Reminding Duke of the racially mixed heritage of many Americans, Hicks at one point quipped, “David, check that family tree.”
The audience in the tightly secured hall was clearly in Hicks’ corner. They cheered so often during his opening remarks that the moderator warned them that they were cutting into his time.
But they were polite as well to Duke, who clearly recognized this as a rare opportunity to sell a national audience on his image as a clean-cut representative of new conservative politics. “The media caricature is quite different,” he told reporters after the debate. “People had a chance to see the real me.”
CSUN President Blenda Wilson blamed the rowdiness on outsiders.
“Everyone should be aware that the altercations took place outside,” she said. “None of them were [Northridge] students or staff.”
“My sense is that the preparations were adequate and necessary,” she said of the beefed-up campus security.
She did not attend the debate, she said, because “I was not interested in hearing Mr. Duke. . . . I don’t find him an admirable being.”
Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Julie Tamaki, Beth Shuster, John M. Glionna, Jose Cardenas, Eric Slater, Doug Smith and Martha L. Willman contributed to this story.
Battle of Ideas and Causes
* PROTESTERS: Volatile mix at campus leads to violence. Page B1
* POLITICAL THEATER: Everyone wanted to get in on the act. Page B1
* QUOTABLE: Revealing the essence of each man’s message. Page B3