Four people were arrested after a physical altercation Monday at the University of South Florida during a protest against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal to ban diversity programs at state universities.
Protesters say officers with the University Police Department used excessive force while the department said in a statement that students started the clash.
About 25 members of Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society, a campus activist group, were protesting the governor’s stances against diversity, equity and inclusion departments shortly after 12:30 p.m. Monday. The group marched from the Marshall Student Center to the Patel Center for Global Solutions, chanting that they demanded a meeting with USF President Rhea Law to ask what she was doing to protect marginalized students.
Campus security approached the group, telling them not to use amplified sound. The protesters said they complied and stopped using their megaphone. The officers told them they could not be in the street and accompanied the group to the Patel Center.
When the protesters reached the Patel Center, where Law’s office is located, they said they were met in the lobby by more officers, who told them they were trespassing and needed to leave. The group, which had dwindled in size by then, stayed and continued to chant, saying they wouldn’t leave until they met with Law.
Over the next 20-30 minutes, the scene escalated, with videos taken by students showing protesters and officers tussling, grabbing, shouting and falling to the floor. Four protesters were arrested: Gia Davila, a 21-year-old USF student; Laura Rodriguez, a 23-year-old USF alumna; Jeanie Kida, a 26-year-old USF student; and Chrisley Carpio, a 31-year-old USF employee.
USF police spokesperson Michael Lavalle said the four were arrested after the protesters “began causing a loud disturbance” and the group ignored officers’ requests to leave.
”Despite the attempts of officers to peacefully deescalate the situation and escort the protesters out of the building, several of the individuals then became aggressive and initiated physical altercations with police,” Lavalle said.
Lavalle said one officer was pushed to the ground and suffered minor injuries, while other officers were also “shoved by protesters.” He claimed “protesters hit police with objects, including what officers believe was a video camera and a water bottle, and threw an unidentified liquid at officers.”
The four arrested were charged with assault or battery of law enforcement; resisting an officer without violence to his or her person and a penalty for disruption of an educational institution. Davila, who was arrested indoors, was additionally charged with trespassing.
Protesters strongly disagreed with how police described the confrontation.
“We have so many videos we were recording,” Taylor Cook, an organizer with the group, said. “There was no battery on law enforcement.”
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Yuki Shao, a junior at the protest, said the situation escalated quickly.
“We were like, we are students we pay to be here,” Shao said. “All of a sudden I saw my friend being grabbed super aggressively by one of these officers. He was like twice her size and has the armor and like has a gun. So we were scared and trying to pull her back.”
Cook and Shao said if anything, some tried to pull friends away from officers but did not see resistance from those being detained or violence toward officers. From there, protesters say the situation escalated further.
Davila, who led chants, was arrested inside. Three protesters said they saw one officer sit on her as they arrested her. Videos shared with the Tampa Bay Times show officers sitting over two students who are face down to be detained.
Protesters began to leave the building, they said, when Kida was pushed to the ground and arrested though they said Kida was complying with officers. Three protesters said they saw an officer kick Kida’s head. They said officers continued to be physically aggressive even outside the building, gripping the wrists of students trying to intervene and pushing some out of the way.
Victoria Hinckley, another organizer with the group, said they had previously emailed and called Law’s office asking for a meeting, but got no response before deciding to demand one in person.
“It sends a pretty clear message what it is the university truly values,” Hinckley said. “We were there protesting trying to save diversity and that was the response we got.... It’s all the more reason to speak up louder.”
Shao also said she was stunned by the response. “The police are supposed to protect us and feel safe,” she said. “I’ve never felt more not safe.”
Another protest against DeSantis’ higher education proposals is scheduled for Tuesday after the USF board of trustees meeting. It is being organized by the student group Stand for Freedom, which also plans a sit-in at the meeting and has speakers lined up to comment.
The four protesters arrested Monday were taken to Hillsborough County’s Orient Road Jail where they were being held on bail.
Times staff writer Matt Cohen contributed to this report. Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.