UF Organizations Protest Outside O’Connell Center


Updated: 8:17 p.m.

University of Florida Dream Defenders and UF Students for a Democratic Society protested for nearly two hours on the University of Florida’s campus, Friday, December 13, 2014 in Gainesville.
University of Florida Dream Defenders and UF Students for a Democratic Society protested for nearly two hours on the University of Florida’s campus, Friday, December 13, 2014 in Gainesville.” credit=”Steve Johnson / WUFT News

University of Florida Dream Defenders and UF Students for a Democratic Society protested for nearly two hours on the University of Florida’s campus tonight as part of a larger response to the police actions in New York and Ferguson, Missouri, that resulted in the death of two black men.

Protesters met near Gator Corner Dining Center in front of Tolbert Hall on campus at 5 p.m. after the University did not cede to demands from the group to issue a statement condemning the actions of police in New York and Missouri. Around 90 people showed up in total.

The original plan was to block all entrances to the O’Connell Center, according to organizer Nailah Summers, but not enough people showed up. Organizers decided to do a “die-in” instead.

At 5:40 p.m. protesters marched from Tolbert Hall to Gate 1 of the O’Connell Center. There they chanted and laid down on the ground, partially blocking entrances to the basketball game. They were there for 11 minutes, in observation of how many times that Eric Garner told police in New York that he couldn’t breathe. The protesters used a similar time construct during their action on Monday blocking the intersection of University Ave. and 13th Street NW.

The goal was to force people to walk over them before entering the O’Connell Center, according to Summers.

When asked if event staff were diverting traffic to a different gate, a representative of the O’Connell Center said they were not making any statements about the protest.

Some event staff escorted individuals into the game. When asked if this was in response to the protest, one attendant said that they were just trying to get people in as quickly as possible, like a normal game.

At around 6 p.m., protesters moved to lay in front of the box offices specifically, so as to block people from getting their tickets.

Jen Day Shaw, the associate vice president and dean of students, said the protest does not violate UF’s Student Code of Conduct, as it is free speech.

If there was violence, or if the protesters blocked entrance to the game, that would be a violation of the code of conduct, Shaw said.

When the basketball players walked by the protesters, organizer Trenton Brooks encouraged them to “join us.”

The protest lasted about two hours total, and broke up at 7 p.m., when the basketball game was scheduled to begin.

It ended with protesters singing “We are the Boys,” a song commonly sung at UF sporting events, remade to say, “We are the black lives of Florida.”

The protest has been planned since earlier this week.

After the #BLACKLIVESMATTER March down University Avenue on Monday evening, march organizers invited interested parties to attend a meeting at the Civic Media Center to discuss future actions.

The group, which included about 60 people from the community and from organizations involved with the march, decided to plan their next action around a UF basketball game to block access to the O’Connell Center.

In conjunction with the event, the group sent a letter to the office of UF president Bernie Machen on Wednesday at 1 p.m. The letter alluded to the recent deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. It went on to say that UF’s lack of response to these events has made students feel “devalued” and “ignored.”

Event organizers gave Machen 48 hours to release a public statement that condemns the actions of the police and government in what the group attributes as race-related deaths.

According to the letter, which was signed by “The Family,” no response or one of non-compliance “will be a green light for further economically targeted, on-campus, public action to take place.”

Janine Sikes, UF spokesperson, said that UF welcomes lawful protest and gave a statement to WUFT News from Machen.

“The events in Ferguson and New York have raised critically important issues about racism in America,” Sikes said. “It is our mission as a university to support freedom of expression. We are an open and inclusive campus and we welcome the civil and peaceful discussion of issues that are important to all of us.”

Sikes said that there have been 54 protests on UF campus in the past year.

According to a photo posted to the Facebook event page, protest attendees were planning to “#ShutDownUF.”

When no response from Machen was issued in the time allotted, organizers posted to their Facebook event page asking supporters to gather at 5 p.m. to move forward.

The post reads: “UF Dream Defenders and Students for a Democratic Society delivered a letter to UF administration asking them to take a stance on police brutality. They chose to stand on the wrong side of history.”

Officer Ben Tobias, Gainesville Police Department spokesman, said that GPD has nothing to do with the protest, and that it falls under University of Florida Police Department jurisdiction.

The University of Florida Police Department was not available for comment.

About Robyn Smith

Robyn is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org

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