Months after a violent clash between a handful of University of South Florida (USF) students and USF police following a rally on campus against Gov. Ron DeSantis’s attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs at public colleges statewide, four recent graduates and a former university employee are fighting for their freedom.
Those five protesters — Chrisley Carpio, 31, Laura Rodriguez, 23, Lauren Pineiro, 23, Jeanie Kida, 26, and Gia Davila, 22, known together as the “Tampa Five” — said the future of student protesting is in peril as they each face six to 11 years in prison if convicted of felony charges of battery on a law enforcement officer, something they maintain never took place.
If the charges stick, many critics said it could set a precedent for quelling dissension.
“I’m super confident that none of us did anything wrong,” Davila, who graduated in May, told Yahoo News. “And still I feel crippling anxiety about going to trial. … Knowing the justice system is flawed in so many ways, just because we’re innocent doesn’t necessarily mean that things will go in our favor.”
Rodriguez, who graduated last May but joined the protest in solidarity, said that despite the physical trauma of the last six months, the Tampa Five are advocating for something bigger than themselves.
“We realize that this is a bigger problem than just our day-to-day lives,” Rodriguez said.
DeSantis’s office did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.
What happened at the protest?
On March 6, members of the Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society (TBSDS), a progressive student organization, held a rally at the school to demand that the administration increase Black enrollment at the school. Black students make up about 9% of the total approximately 50,000 student population. In a city of nearly 400,000 residents where nearly 1 in 4 of Tampa’s residents is Black, members of TBSDS saw the stark disparity coupled with plans to gut DEI programming at the public university as compounding blows that would severely hamper diversity efforts and student culture at the school.
In May, DeSantis signed legislation that prohibits colleges from spending public funds on DEI programs. In the months before, he signed into law the Stop WOKE Act, which restricts how workplaces and schools can discuss race. A federal judge, however, has enjoined its enforcement and the appeals court upheld the injunction.
“There was no way we’re just going to sit quietly and watch this pass at our school,” Davila said. “This will literally redefine our school as it is and how it functions.”
TBSDS held the initial rally with about two dozen students in attendance that afternoon at the school’s Marshall Student Center, and then marched to the Patel Center for Global Solutions, which houses the president’s office, to try to get a meeting with her.
But when the president did not appear, a smaller number of students stayed to occupy the lobby of the center and chant loudly. Campus police said that they approached the group and told them that they were trespassing and had to leave, but the students refused. Some time after, in video footage posted to TBSDS Instagram, USF Chief of Police Christopher Daniel can be seen grabbing one of the protesters, Davila, by the arm, while others try to separate the two.
Then, Daniel appears to throw Davila to the group as the video becomes too difficult to view clearly. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the situation escalated into more violence as protesters and law enforcement pushed and shoved one another for about 30 minutes.
Officers said that they were hit with objects, like a camera and a water bottle, and one officer suffered minor injuries after being pushed by the group. In a statement to Tampa Bay 10, the USF police also said that protesters initiated a physical altercation.
But members of TBSDS said the officers were the aggressors.
“It was like 25 students holding signs in the lobby of a building and we were met with 15 police officers who basically cornered us in the room and started attacking students,” said Davila, who alleges that an officer groped her after she was slammed to the ground. “It was pretty terrifying.”
At the end of the confrontation, three students and a university staff member were arrested and 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 also charged with trespassing. In May, a fourth student turned herself in after being issued a warrant by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department, and is now facing charges similar to those of the rest of the group.
Members of the Tampa Five also said that three of the five had their potential sentences doubled from a minimum of three years to six years prison after they refused to write an apology to the officers, who they said they did not harm.
The USF police and the school’s local police department, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department, declined to comment.
The state’s attorney office said it does not comment on pending cases, but a spokesperson added, “Our office makes charging decisions on a case-by-case basis after thoroughly reviewing the investigation received from law enforcement.”
‘He is lucky he did not kill her’
All five protesters, who are being represented by criminal defense attorney Michelle Lambo, have pleaded not guilty. Ahead of their pretrial hearing and jury selection scheduled for December, Lambo told Yahoo News that she’s confident that her clients will prevail over the officers, who she called “rabid dogs.”
“The video evidence exonerates [them] 100%,” Lambo said. “The issue is law enforcement has failed to realize peaceful does not mean quiet. They’re loud because you have chanting and you have people with very loud voices who know how to project their voices. So it’s not quiet, but it’s nonviolent, which is what peaceful also means.”
Lambo called the chief’s behavior “disgusting,” adding, “He pushed the students, he screamed at them to get out of here. It’s really disturbing. … [Davila] got picked up by the shoulders and the officer slammed her to the ground, face first. He is lucky he did not kill her.”
More than freedom, the students are pushing to have their voices heard and return to normal life, Lambo said.
“Their liberties are at stake,” she said. “None of them prior to this incident had any arrest record at all. And now they have an arrest record, which has impacted their ability to find employment and find housing because they are charged with battery on a law enforcement officer.”
While awaiting trial, members of the Tampa Five have been anything but idle, launching a speaking tour and a corresponding GoFundMe to raise awareness of their circumstances, and ultimately what their case could mean for the rest of the country.
“The speaking tour is to raise national awareness about what DeSantis is doing in Florida and how he can really bring that nationally,” Rodriguez said. “This is a fight against DeSantis. This is a fight for diversity programs.”
Thumbnail credit: Jefferee Woo/Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Press Wire