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Students rally for diversity at Florida Board of Governors meeting

By Sierra Jones Frishman

Students rally against Florida House Bill 999.

Tallahassee, FL – On Tuesday, March 28, over 100 students held a rally against Florida House Bill 999, at the Skateable Art Park in the city’s Railroad Square. This bill gives the Florida Board of Governors the ability to review curriculum in higher education, review tenure of professors with the power of removal, and provides direction to each university on “removing from its programs any major of minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality.” The bill has passed several committees in the Florida House legislature, with no amendments removing these stipulations.

At the protest, led by three Florida chapters of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), student speakers demanded an end to HB 999 and called it a threat to public education. Speakers cited concerns that HB 999 would restrict access to public education for Black, Chicano and native students; threaten the academic freedom of higher education teachers; threaten the right to right to unionize by those professors; and wipe out discussions of racism, sexism, Black history and other multinational contributions to history from their curriculum.

Enya Silva from Tampa Bay SDS said of the bill, “Last year DeSantis passed the ‘Stop WOKE Act’ to limit discussions of race in K12 school and attacked AP African American history. Why did he single out that course specifically? Because he wants to erase Black history. He wants to pretend like the oppression of Black people throughout history never happened. We’ve seen the results of the Stop WOKE Act. AP African American history isn’t taught in Florida. We’ve seen the pictures of emptied bookshelves in schools throughout Florida. When he attacks Black education he attacks all education, and we all suffer the consequences.”

Emily Dorgan of Florida State University SDS noted the bill’s attacks on feminism, stating “HB 999 targets women and gender studies classes as well; courses such as women in literature and feminist ethics are under attack with this legislation. This would be taking us back to a time when women and LGBTQIA+ people were excluded from academia and would be an extreme set-back for gender equality.”

Miffordens Registre from Florida State University Black Men in Medicine said, “Right now, we are seeing these attacks on diversity begin with education. But it'll continue on into the health industry and affect health professionals. We cannot let that happen. We stand with Students for a Democratic Society and your demands!”

Three weeks before, on March 6, students at the University of South Florida protested House Bill 999 and were met with police brutality, of which students captured video footage. Footage of the event shows cops grabbing student protesters, slamming them against walls and the floor, scratching them, groping them, and putting them in chokeholds. Four protesters, now known as the Tampa 4, were arrested, and are now facing a mixture of misdemeanor and felony charges.

Laura Rodriguez, one of the Tampa 4 said, “Shame on [USF President] Rhea Law. You should step down. Shame on [USF Police Chief] Chris Daniel! You should be fired! Make no mistake that the student movement is strong and will only continue to grow in the face of political repression. We are not hiding behind closed doors, we are not sitting idle, we are standing up in the face of repression, in the face of these racist, union-busting bills, and in the face of the university-sanctioned police brutality.”

Kenya Sanchez Torres from the Tampa Bay Community Action Committee said, “We are demanding that the current Hillsborough state attorney picked by Governor Ron DeSantis drop the charges against the Tampa 4. There’s a difference in power dynamics between someone picked by the people and someone appointed by the governor. Governor-appointed State Attorney Susie Lopez is another tool in DeSantis' box to showcase his power. She is not here to protect the rights of our communities. On March 6, students were asking for basic demands to meet their needs – protesting is not a crime. Hence, we demand that Susy Lopez drop the charges.”

Monique Sampson from the Jacksonville Community Action Committee said, “This struggle lives in the memory of the 2020 Justice for George Floyd Uprising. You can bet that these politicians remember that and want us protesters to go away. But when you touch one of us, you touch all of us. We are not going anywhere!”

After SDS’s rally, students marched across the street to join a rally on the other end of Railroad Square, where they heard from other student grassroots organizations, members of Florida university student governments, women’s advocacy groups, veterans, College Democrats, NAACP and National Pan-Hellenic Council chapters, and the president of United Faculty of Florida, Andrew Gothard, and Florida public officials such as the head of the Florida Democratic Party, Nikki Fried.

The action continued further with a march in the rain from Railroad Square to the Florida Board of Governors meeting at Florida A&M University, a public, historically Black university in Florida. Ten organizers went into the meeting and held a silent sit-in demonstration, while the rest of the crowd rallied outside and chanted, “Racist, sexist, anti-gay – Ron DeSantis, go away!”

The Board of Governors, a body of 17 CEOs and experts (14 of whom are appointed by the Florida governor) who oversee the operations of the Florida State University System, later voted to approve a regulation enabling HB 999’s post-tenure review stipulation.

Alivia Kalin of University of North Florida led the crowd in a callout of the Board of Governors shortly before the meeting, as they said, “You want to ban books? To defund DEI programs? To punish teachers for teaching diversity? Shame! Don’t you dare erase religious history, deaf history, and don’t you dare erase disabled history!”

Silva also remarked, “DeSantis calls the teaching of Black history 'indoctrination.' The real indoctrination is teaching a white supremacist vision of history. Not only is it erasing the brutal history of slavery, it’s erasing the valiant efforts of abolitionists to eventually end it. It’s erasing the truth of the Jim Crow South, and all the people who lost their lives in the fight to end segregation. He wants to erase history so that we can’t see how some things haven’t really changed, and that we still live in a very racist society. But we are here to say: Black history is here to stay!”

Even in the wake of the Board of Governors’ decision, and the swift advancement of HB 999 through committee, SDS and its allies refuse to back down. As the rally’s emcee Cas Casanova from FSU SDS reminded the crowd, “every freedom we have now exists because we fought for it,” and as Jason Carles from FSU SDS remarked, “even if HB 999 becomes law, the power we have gained from our education, and the will to fight for that education, can never be taken from us.”

#TallahasseeFL #StudentsForADemocraticSociety #HB999