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10 arrested after tear gas is used to disperse USF pro-Palestinian protesters

Officers lined up, wearing shields and face masks
Meghan Bowman
Law enforcement officers line up as a group of pro-Palestinian protesters gathered at the University of South Florida Tampa campus for a second straight day on April 30, 2024.

An estimated 100 protesters gathered for a second straight day. After they erected tents and officials "determined the protest was no longer peaceful," participants were warned it was an unlawful assembly.

Ten people were arrested, including one with a concealed firearm, after law enforcement used tear gas Tuesday afternoon to disperse pro-Palestinian protesters on the University of South Florida's Tampa campus, officials said.

USF officials had given the demonstrators a 5 p.m. deadline to leave after determining "the protest was no longer peaceful." Law enforcement began moving in shortly after.

The estimated 100 protesters had gathered about 10 a.m. at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza to demand USF cut ties with and divest from companies supporting Israel. They stood in a circle interlocking arms and chanting slogans like “Free Palestine” and “Disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest.”

Some people on the outer edge of the circle held makeshift wooden shields and umbrellas. Tents were observed being erected inside the gathering.

"As the day progressed, 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," according to a statement from the university. "As a result, USF police determined that the protest was no longer peaceful, and participants must leave the area."

Around 4:45 p.m., WUSF reporters Meghan Bowman and Ari Herrera said law enforcement outnumbering the protesters lined up on both sides of the protestors. For several hours before then, small clusters of officers had been standing across the plaza from the protest.

A plume of tear gas on a grassy area
Meghan Bowman
Law enforcement officers released tear gas to disperse a group of pro-Palestinian protesters who gathered at the University of South Florida Tampa campus for a second straight day on April 30, 2024.

The officers, included members of the Florida Highway Patrol, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (including SWAT professionals), University of South Florida Police Department, Tampa Police Department. Many protected themselves with shields and gas masks.

Around 5:15 p.m., an officer using a bullhorn repeatedly warned the protesters that they would be arrested for what was called an unlawful assembly. They were ordered to disperse.

The first tear gas canister was thrown around 5:20 p.m., and the protesters ran from the scene. Law enforcement officers on foot and bicycles chased them through the campus.

Students observing the protests and members of the media also began to run when the tear gas was released.

In a news release, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said 10 people were arrested. The release said the sheriff's office identified protestors and assisted USF police in arresting them.

Late Tuesday night, USF President Rhea Law and Board of Trustee Chair Will Weatherford sent a statement to the university community via email.

In part, it read:

"The safety and well-being of our students, faculty, staff, and all members of the university community is our highest priority.

"We value free speech and protecting the constitutional right for individuals and groups on campus to gather and express themselves. This includes protests and demonstrations that we have experienced many times on our campuses without incident. Free expression is an expected and important part of the public discourse of a university, and we’re proud to say it is among the core values that define our institution. However, these activities have to remain peaceful and cannot cross a line that violates the law or USF policies. To be clear, we will not tolerate violent, disruptive or aggressive acts by protestors."

The letter went on to state that the decision to move on the protestors, who she said included students and individuals not affiliated with USF, "was not taken lightly," and that police moved in after they determined the protest was no longer peaceful.

It also said that it was "of great concern that one of the individuals taken into custody was found to be carrying a concealed firearm."

It's not clear at this time if that person was a student or not.

Law and Weatherford added: "The university has a responsibility to maintain a safe environment on campus, including enforcing violations of Florida law and USF policies, especially after repeated warnings. Should there be additional protests on campus this week, we expect everyone to act in a peaceful manner and in a way that allows our community to prepare for final exams and commencement without disruption."

Around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, a message was sent via the AlertUSF system asking people to avoid the area of Cooper Hall due to a reported bomb threat.

USF and Tampa Police personnel conducted a sweep of the building, and shortly after 11:30 p.m., an all-clear message was sent by the university.

It was unknown if the threat was related to the protests.

Tuesday's protest came a day after three people were arrested were arrested on the Tampa campus.

There has been a wave of similar campus demonstrations across the country and the state — including at the University of Florida, University of Central Florida, University of North Florida and Florida State University — calling for higher education institutions to cut ties with Israel, or divest from companies supporting the military conflict in Gaza between Hamas and Israel.

USF officials sent an email to students Sunday night informing them that tents could not be set up without university approval. The email also outlined that demonstrations were not allowed to take place near academic buildings such as the Marshall Student Center, information commons or libraries as students are studying for final exams.

Violating those policies, the email said, would result in an "immediate interim suspension of a student organization and potentially additional sanctions for groups or individuals through the student conduct process."

On Monday, police arrested three people, including a WUSF employee who is a member of its administrative support staff. Maria Hollenback, 29, faces a felony charge of battery on a law enforcement officer and a misdemeanor count of trespassing. Student Sebastian Martinez, 18, was charged with a misdemeanor count of resisting an officer without violence and a misdemeanor count of trespassing. Simon Rowe, 23, was charged with a misdemeanor count of trespassing.

Nine students were arrested at the University of Florida in Gainesville Monday following a protest. At least seven were current or former UF students, according to university records. One is facing a felony charge.

And five people were arrested at Florida State University Tuesday after several tents were erected on a central area on the Tallahassee campus.

An FSU spokesman said two of the five arrested were confirmed as students, adding that the five were arrested after refusing to follow "multiple requests and warnings to comply with a lawful order."

This is a developing story. Stay with WUSF for updates.

WUSF staff writers Meghan Bowman, Ari Herrera, Gabriella Paul, Nancy Guan and Mark Schreiner contributed to this report.

As WUSF’s digital news producer, I strive to serve others by sharing stories on our online platforms.
I wasn't always a morning person. After spending years as a nighttime sports copy editor and page designer, I made the move to digital editing in 2000. Turns out, it was one of the best moves I've ever made.