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Pro-Palestinian protests and the history of protests at USF

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People waving Palestinian flags standing on a sidewalk facing a road
Jessica Meszaros
Pro-Palestinian protestors near USF on May 1, 2024.

This week, we speak to WUSF reporters about their experience covering the pro-Palestinian protests on the USF campus, along with two local historians who talk about the history of protests in Tampa and at USF.

College campuses around the country are witnessing a surge of protests against the war in Gaza. Some of the demonstrations have been marred by violence as pro-Palestinian demonstrators have clashed with counter-protesters and faced off against police.

WUSF’s Nancy Guan and Meghan Bowman join Florida Matters to discuss how demonstrations at the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus unfolded over three tense days.

Last week’s demonstrations at USF’s Tampa campus included members of Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society. The group is calling for a ceasefire and divestment. They’re demanding that the university cut financial ties with Israel.

Tyler Ramirez, a USF student and a member of the group, said they’re thinking of the people in Gaza.

“You know we're here for them, we're here in solidarity for them,” said Ramirez.

Before the protests, USF warned students by email not to set up unauthorized tents on campus.

Three people were arrested during Monday’s protest.

Joseph Charry, with the local SDS group, talked with WUSF after the first round of arrests. "They want us to stop because we're strong, but we'll continue because we're strong, because we have the numbers. And we're on the right side of history.”

Jake Kamp, a senior at the university, and Zane Shapiro, a sophomore, were among a group of several people holding Israeli and U.S. flags and watching Monday’s protest.

But Kamp said he and Shapiro weren’t there for a counter-protest.

“We hold flags for the United States as well as Israel, because they are allies, and we are both Americans and we both support our allyship with Israel,” said Kamp. “We’re also both Jewish, and in terms of being out here, we’re more out here to show other Jewish students here at USF that you can be proud to be a Jew on campus. You don’t have to be scared.”

WUSF’s Nancy Guan said protestors had intended to set up an encampment on MLK Plaza at USF on Monday. “Students were very intent on staying on the plaza, even though university officials made it clear that they were to disperse by 5 p.m.,” said Guan.

On Tuesday, protesters returned, this time with home-made shields and umbrellas. Law enforcement used tear gas and arrested ten people as they broke up the demonstration.

WUSF’s Meghan Bowman said law enforcement warned protesters to leave by 5 p.m. When officers threw the first tear gas canisters towards the circle of protesters, said Bowman, “it was almost like you saw the circles jump, and all of a sudden people just dispersed. From that point, there were more thrown and then a gust of wind came, picked it up. And we had to start running.

“I will say one of the more surreal things was standing and watching this unfold, and seeing people take their graduation photos all around the plaza,” said Bowman, who was graduating from USF herself last week.

“And so we're seeing this police presence, we’re seeing these protesters. And then we're seeing people with a photographer smiling for the camera. And it was just quite a, you know, juxtaposition. I mean it was surreal.”

We invited USF President Rhea Law and Chair of the Board of Trustees Will Weatherford to speak with Florida Matters. They were not available. But in a statement, the university said it “values the right to free speech and protecting the constitutional right for individuals and groups on campus to express themselves.

“However, the expression of free speech must remain peaceful and not violate the law or USF policies. The university has been clear that violence, threats, harassment and disruptions will not be tolerated.”

The university said law enforcement officers moved in to disperse Tuesday’s protest when they determined it was no longer peaceful. “Police observed participants in person and through social media expressing their intent to use some of the items they brought on campus as weapons and to resist university staff members and law enforcement officers.”

USF Police Chief Christopher Daniel also was not available for an interview.

“The protest is now part of an active investigation. The USFPD remains vigilant in maintaining the safety, security and good of our campus and community,” a spokesperson told Florida Matters in an email.

Wednesday’s demonstration featured about 300 protesters but fewer police, said Guan. “The group was much larger this time since they had gathered off campus, there were a lot more community members. Just to keep in mind. There were, you know, elderly folks and also young children too, and strollers.”

“It became clear that it would be a peaceful protest,” she added.

A person wearing a keffiyeh speaking into a microphone to a group of people holding Palestinian flags.
Jessica Meszaros
Pro-Palestinian protesters rally at the corner of Fowler Avenue and 56th Street near the University of South Florida's Tampa campus.

It’s not the first time USF has been the backdrop for demonstrations. We revisit protests on campus and around the greater Tampa Bay region, from the Civil Rights era and Vietnam War, up until the present day with Andy Huse, curator of Florida Studies in the University of South Florida Tampa Library Special Collections, and Rodney Kite-Powell, director of the Touchton Map Library and Hillsborough County historian at the Tampa Bay History Center.

USF and Tampa’s history with protesting is a little different from other places in the south. Integration in the city was a slow process but protests leading up to it were peaceful.

Dr. Ernest Boger, USF’s first Black student, described Tampa as “cosmopolitan,” saying that growing up, it didn’t feel segregated, even though it was legally. Black people lived in multiple parts of the city and had their own establishments, versus having a section in a white establishment like in other cities. Boger was admitted to USF in 1961, becoming the school’s 2000th student, in addition to the first Black student.

With the campus opening in the 1960’s, there wasn’t a strong Black presence here.

“Without a strong Black college student presence here, you didn't have that level of more forceful desire for integration,” Kite-Powell said. “And then you didn't have that backlash that came with that from white residents.”

Kite-Powell says by the '70s, with the election of President Nixon and the war in Vietnam, students began to organize.

On Halloween in 1970, students organized a peace rally on “Crescent Hill,” protesting the Vietnam War. Crescent Hill was an area of campus designated for protesting and student demonstrations. Today, it’s a parking lot.

Students were ordered to leave the area at midnight. Although most did, 50 refused and were arrested.

In the 1980s, the first divestment campaign took place on campus. Students protested and demanded USF divest funds from the apartheid happening in South Africa. Ultimately, their protest worked, with USF pulling funds in 1987.

“Even when there was nobody here who was defending apartheid, or South Africa, it took that long for USF to take action,” Andy Huse said. “That's why I think students, if they want to be effective, they have to think long term, because this isn't something that, even under the best circumstances, is going to happen anytime soon.”

More recently in the early 2000s, protests led by faculty against the Gulf War took place.

However, in 2020, during the summer of protests, due to COVID-19, no protests took place on campus.

Both Huse and Kite-Powell said that the protests of today are similar to the protests of the past, even as far as the blame going to “outside agitators.”

“The outside agitator is a favorite thing in Tampa, going back to the 1890s when the cigar industry first came here,” Huse said. “Every time there was a strike, it was like, ‘Oh, that isn't our people. Someone came in and told them, you know, persuaded them to make this bad decision to go on strike.’”

By Wednesday, protests at USF moved right outside of campus to the corner of 56th Street and Fowler Ave. There have been no further arrests.

As the executive producer of WUSF's Florida Matters, I aim to create a show and podcast that makes all Floridians feel seen and heard. That's also my assignment as a producer for The Florida Roundup. In any role, my goal is always to amplify the voices often overlooked.
I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.