Laura Rodriguez sometimes jokes with her roommate about who will get custody of her cat, Booth, if she gets sentenced to prison. Her roommate? Her mom?
She’s only half-kidding.
Rodriguez and four other protesters arrested during a March 6 demonstration at the University of South Florida find themselves in limbo. The “Tampa 5,” as they’ve come to be known, await a December trial date and the possibility of criminal convictions, unsure of how to plan for their futures.
With job and housing searches clouded by open felony charges, four of them have embarked on a national tour at the invitation of student groups outside Florida to share their story and gather support.
“It’s just very frustrating because it feels like there’s a time limit on everything I do,” said Rodriguez, 23, one of two USF alumna in the group. Two others were students at the time; another was a university employee.
Their ordeal began on a sunny Monday afternoon when they marched into a USF building and demanded to speak with university President Rhea Law about state efforts to cut diversity programs. Soon, they became involved in a scuffle with campus police.
Rodriguez was arrested, along with Gia Davila, Chrisley Carpio, Lauren Pineiro and Jeanie Kida — all members of Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society, a progressive activist group. Though Kida has declined to be interviewed or pictured with the other arrestees, the Tampa 5 moniker has stuck, a creation of the group’s national office.
“It was kind of funny because I think some people thought that we came up with the name ourselves,” said Davila, 22, an art major who now works a service industry job. “We’re like, ‘We were in jail. We were attempting to get in touch, like, can you tell my supervisor? Can you call my mom?’”
In the months since their arrests, the five have attracted attention locally and in many corners of the country.
An activist group put up a lighted “Tampa 5″ sign on a bridge near the USF campus. Hillsborough County NAACP President Yvette Lewis spoke in support at a demonstration. U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost, an Orlando Democrat, took pictures with them. To raise money for their defense, a student in Denver shaved his head and a group in Minnesota hosted a bake sale. Teen Vogue published a feature on the group in July. Their tour will take them to 20 cities.
Their story is part of the roiling political debate that began in January when Gov. Ron DeSantis launched plans to overhaul higher education in the state.
Pineiro, 24, a sociology major who grew up in South Florida, said the arrests have redoubled the group’s resolve to take a stand.
“I think this whole event kind of changed the trajectory of all of our lives,” she said.
“You’re going to jail”
On the day of the incident, 25 members of Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society chanted and marched across campus toward the USF president’s office to demand a meeting. They wanted to ask what Law was doing to protect marginalized students in the face of state directives to curb diversity, equity and inclusion programs.
Campus police met them in the lobby.
Protesters said officers initiated the altercation and hit, shoved and groped them while placing them in handcuffs. Cellphone videos of the incident shared by protesters show that it appears to have begun when university police Chief Chris Daniel started to hold the arm of a protester.
A university investigation concluded university police were not at fault and appropriately responded to protesters.
The university said Daniel “attempted to escort one of the participants out the front door by the arm, consistent with his training,” when other protesters tried to intervene and pull that student back.
This led to the confrontation becoming physical, the report said, with protesters “putting their hands on (University Police Department) officers and throwing a UPD officer to the ground.”
That day, Rodriguez, Davila, Carpio and Kida were arrested and banned from campus, other than to attend classes. Charges included trespassing, felony battery and disruption of an educational institution.
The four were placed in separate police vehicles and taken to Orient Road Jail. Davila recalled asking the officer in the front seat to give back her phone.
“I was like, ‘I need my phone. I need to call my work. I have work at 4, is this going to be done by 4?’” she said. “She was like, ‘You’re not going to work, you’re going to jail.’ I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ Like, it was so absurd.”
Three weeks later, more charges were added for Pineiro.
Carpio and Rodriguez heard that news at a mall food court while they were shopping for cowboy hats to wear at a Taylor Swift concert.
Carpio, a 31-year-old USF employee who worked in finance and admissions, remembers feeling like her stomach dropped.
The protesters were told the charges would be dismissed if they wrote a letter apologizing to the officers. They refused, insisting they did not commit battery.
USF’s internal report recommended additional training for officers and other university employees in dealing with demonstrators and the use of body cameras for further accountability. It found the officers had done nothing wrong.
Carpio was fired from her university job.
The case was passed to Hillsborough County State Attorney Susan Lopez, whose office declined to comment on a pending case. The USF Police Department also declined to comment, saying the matter is in the state attorney’s hands.
Lewis, the NAACP president, recently called Lopez on the protesters’ behalf.
“Was it necessary to go that far and to do what they had to do at USF?” Lewis said in an interview. “I don’t know that it was.”
On the road
Even as the protesters were being driven to jail, videos of the confrontation circulated on social media. Saja Hussein, Pineiro’s high school friend, recalls being shocked to see them.
She remembered her friend as a homebody, the sort of person to send handwritten letters, read a billion books a year and watch obscure movies.
“It’s been such a tough thing to see them be in this public spotlight and kind of be villainized as this like violent student protester when that’s literally not who (she is),” Hussein said.
Trish LaCharite, the mother of Carpio’s fiance, said she felt ill seeing the images.
“Chrisley is all about other people and making sure everything is equitable,” LaCharite said. “Even if it’s not directly impacting her, she’s out there fighting for people. … These are not violent women. They were women who were standing up for a cause. They know rules, they know laws.”
Others across the country caught the videos too.
In Minnesota, Celia Nimz, with a Students for a Democratic Society chapter there, remembered seeing them while working at a high school.
“I was enraged,” Nimz said. “The Tampa 5 wasn’t doing anything wrong. … I find them to be a great inspiration for student activists.”
Groups across the country began fundraising, collecting over $1,600 the first night. The Minnesota group held their bake sale. In Denver, they threw a concert.
The Tampa 5 tour started in late September with stops in six cities, including Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and Appleton, Wisconsin. Kida is not taking part in the tour.
In mid-October, they move on to the East Coast for appearances in cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. After more stops on the West Coast, the tour wraps with appearances in Austin, Texas; Dallas; Tucson, Arizona; and Denver.
Not every member of the group makes all the trips, so audiences sometimes see one or two of them representing the rest. Kida is not taking part in the tour.
In Minneapolis, almost 100 came to the event, where they made speeches, Carpio said.
Paul Nelson, a student at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, offered to shave his head for $500. He followed through, raising more than $655 for the Tampa 5. The national chapter of Students for a Democratic Society raised over $1,600 for bail. A separate GoFundMe effort has raised over $11,500, with the funds backing the speaking tour.
“Our sister chapter in Tampa is kind of on the front line against political repression attacks on education from the right,” Nelson said. “We have some similar campaigns here, but, you know, we’re fighting against tuition hikes. We’re not really fighting to keep Black history.”
The days after the arrests were a blur. The Tampa 5 were friends before, but they see each other at least weekly now for meetings with lawyers and coordinating their next steps.
Sometimes, Carpio said, the only time she feels normal is when she’s organizing something surrounding their trial dates.
Davila and Pineiro — the two students — didn’t know if they would graduate until 8 p.m. the night before the May commencement ceremony at USF’s Yuengling Center.
“I’m really proud of how I ended school,” Davila said. “I was able to finish my thesis work with like a wall of paintings and photographs that I was really proud of that I put like a lot of work into. I really didn’t want this whole experience to ruin my time at USF and my time as a student because I really did love getting to study art.”
She said her professors advocated for her being able to show her portfolio.
“The school was really cracking down on this hard and it felt really isolating,” Davila said. “But my teachers were like, ‘No, we’re going to make sure that you are here, that you show your thesis work’ because I had been working towards it for like the entire semester.”
Pineiro graduated with a 4.0 GPA in sociology and a minor in women’s and gender studies.
“I’ve met a lot of really incredible people,” she said of her time at USF. “I had some good classes, some great professors, but there is obviously a lot of trauma there.”
Like other students with a 4.0, she was called to share the commencement stage with Law, the USF president.
But her memories have been jaded.
“The school has not stood by students,” Pineiro said. “They’ve stood by the cops and, all of this, it’s very disheartening to see because the school likes to say that it’s for diversity, it’s for the students. But I think this shows that we’re not really their highest priority.”
They received trespass letters from the USF Police Department saying their “behavior was a matter of concern.”
“It is really difficult to be treated like a criminal,” Davila said. “And having people look at you differently and treat you differently. You know it happens to so many people, and you can understand that. But going through it yourself and watching some of your closest friends go through it is really heartbreaking.”
Davila, who considers herself a person who likes to plan things out, said she expected to have a more stable job by now. Rodriguez, who was let go from her job as a substitute teacher, said her career dreams have been put on hold. Carpio found work at a call center after USF fired her.
When Carpio was asked at a disciplinary hearing about why she continued to participate in student protests, she said she questioned why more faculty and staff weren’t involved.
“I told them, like, ‘I’m ashamed that all of you managers won’t stand up for the school. You’re the people who are supposed to, and you won’t do anything,’” she recalled. “I think people have it backwards. Or the USF administration has it backwards.”
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.