TAMPA — Across the street from the campus they’ve been trespassed from, three of the four protesters arrested earlier this week by University of South Florida police said Thursday that officers had mistreated them and called on the school to drop all charges.
The arrests occurred on Monday after members of Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society marched to USF’s Patel Center, where president Rhea Law has her office, and demanded she meet with them. The group wanted USF to defy plans by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers to gut diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives along with critical race and gender studies courses.
At a news conference Thursday near the campus entrance on Fowler Avenue, the group called on Law and the Hillsborough County state attorney’s office to drop charges against protesters Gia Davila, Laura Rodriguez, Jeanie Kida and Chrisley Carpio. The four were charged with assault or battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting an officer without violence and disrupting an educational institution. Davila, who was arrested inside the Patel Center, was additionally charged with trespassing.
The group also called on USF to drop its suspensions of students Kida and Davila. In addition, they demanded that Law condemn police officers’ behavior on Monday and that she fire Lt. Chris Daniel, chief of the University Police Department, calling the agency’s description of the event false.
In a statement Monday, department spokesperson Michael Lavalle said the protesters had caused a “loud disturbance.”
He said some protesters “became aggressive and initiated physical altercations with police,” and that one officer was pushed to the ground and suffered minor injuries. He said others were also shoved and hit with objects by protesters, “including what officers believe was a video camera and a water bottle, and threw an unidentified liquid at officers.”
Lavalle said Thursday the department stands by its previous statement and had nothing to add.
“I believe it’s appropriate to further look into the matter, and we will review the actions of all involved,” Law said in a statement.
She said USF supports the right to free speech, but added that Monday’s protest was not peaceful. The demonstrators were “disrupting normal business activities” and were given multiple warnings to leave, she said. When officers “tried to lead them out of the building,” she said, “the group actively resisted.”
The protesters alleged officers hit them, shoved them to the ground and against walls and placed some in chokeholds. They said those arrested were not read their rights and were placed in a police vehicle for three hours awaiting charges before being transported to Orient Road Jail.
Victoria Hinckley, a student with the group, said the incident turned physical when members were speaking with officers who had met them in the Patel Center’s lobby and Daniel unexpectedly grabbed her arm forcefully. Other protesters tried to pull her back, she said, then more officers got involved.
Nine community organizations, six USF student organizations, a student organization in Boston and a USF student government senator spoke or shared statements in support of the group.
“Shame on USF leadership and shame on USF police force for putting y’all in this situation,” Elton Lassiter, an organizer with Florida Rising said.
Protesting is not a crime, he said, also blaming DeSantis. “He is making us fight for every aspect of our lives,” Lassiter said.
The group is also calling on Law to restart its search for a chief diversity officer at USF. That effort was suspended last month amid uncertainty over pending legislation. A university spokesperson later said all candidates had withdrawn from the search.
Carpio, a USF employee who has been placed on administrative leave because of her arrest, said in an interview that she was disappointed with the police department’s response.
“We might be scared,” she said, “but we don’t have anything to be afraid of. We didn’t do anything wrong.”
Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.