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Do not pass go: Duke Energy protesters stage their own version of Monopoly

Duke Energy protest

Protesters Antoine James, Martin Doherty and Greenpeace organizer Hanna Mitchell on Monday's street theater.
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Protesters Antoine James, Martin Doherty and Greenpeace organizer Hanna Mitchell on Monday's street theater.

They’ve become bits of local color in uptown Charlotte: environmental advocates who mock Duke Energy by staging elaborate street theater outside its headquarters.

They were at it again Monday with a spin on Monopoly, the board game, that decried Duke’s political and financial clout in North Carolina. “Dukeopoly,” advocates from Greenpeace and Charlotte Environmental Action called it.

A campaign aide to Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Duke employee and frequent target, riled advocates last month by dismissing them as “paid professional protesters.”

But who else has nothing better to do at 11 on a Monday morning than don a top hat and monocle on Tryon Street?

Well, there’s a Ph.D.-holding writer and teacher. A seminary professor and a former art teacher. A grandmother who was a lawyer, and a guy who runs a mental health center for kids. And yes, a couple of professional organizers.

Protesters say the images a good street spectacle yields, spread through social networks, are well worth a morning’s time.

“It puts us out there in the public eye and provides strong symbolism and a strong message, so people can make up their own minds,” said Greenpeace volunteer Mario Delgado, 22, a college student and personal banker (he won’t identify the bank).

Martin Doherty, 56, who wore a “captive rate payer” sign Monday, is between jobs but for years taught art. “I’ve helped make people aware of the situation and made them consider what they took for granted,” he said.

Rick Clancy, a professor of public relations at UNC-Chapel Hill, said advocacy groups have become sophisticated at using visuals and social media to get their messages out.

“On the other hand, it might start wearing thin after awhile,” he said of the street demonstrations. “It can be effective in putting these issues on the table, but if it goes on repetitively it starts to wear on people who are not as committed.”

Duke posts security guards to keep protesters on city-owned sidewalks and media professionals to respond to their messages. Earlier this year the company launched its own “brand journalism” web site to take its own story online.

Protests come with Duke’s status as the nation’s biggest utility, the company says.

“Much of this is entertainment, to get across a point or two,” spokesman Tom Williams said. “What we’re about is solutions and finding a way forward on a lot of complex issues.”

Monday’s demonstration was aimed at Duke’s political contributions, its status as a regulated monopoly, ties to the McCrory administration, and its coal ash and support of legislation that could reopen review of ash cleanups.

Environmental educator and author Sally Kneidel, 63, first protested nuclear energy in her twenties. The native Charlottean has seen more people in her city willing to take to the streets in recent years.

With the frequent protests at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Kneidel said, “we saw what could be done.” Duke’s 2014 coal ash spill into the Dan River, she said, “made people more angry, just because it became clear Duke is not taking responsibility and their negligence let it happen.”

Duke, in response to charges it is too powerful, says it is a heavily regulated and scrutinized business. “We have a seat at the table, as others do,” Williams said.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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