Students from FSU, FAMU and TCC gathered at the Ruby Diamond Auditorium to protest DeSantis administration policies on higher education on Feb. 23, 2023. Credit: Briana Michel
College students of Tallahassee’s two universities and community college ditched class Thursday afternoon in an outrage against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ contentious higher education agenda, from attacks on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives to a rejection of an AP African American Studies course and the invasion of medical privacy of LGBTQ+ students.
The mass walkout in the state capital took place in solidarity with numerous other universities and colleges throughout the state that were protesting against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “targeted attacks on their educational freedoms,” according to an Instagram post.
Protestors wielded signs that stated, “We shall win by love,” “Education not erasure,” and “You messed with the wrong generation.”
There was a kaleidoscope of colors at the doors of the Florida State University’s Ruby Diamond Auditorium, but many students were adorned in mostly black clothing. The group spanned the area surrounding the Westcott Fountain, chanting “We are somebody.”
The protests were a culmination of students, faculty, parents and general supporters who rallied for about an hour.
The effort was called the “Stand for Freedom” statewide movement.
Here is a smattering of the protesters’ concerns as they gathered on the bricks of FSU’s campus.
Star Williams, 22, an interdisciplinary social science major at FSU, wore a “Black Trans Lives Matter” t-shirt, and led the protestors in a chant stating, “I believe we will win.”
Williams says he has always had a passion for advocacy and that his efforts have been able to blossom in a collegiate academic space.
“By not only being in classes that expose me to our actual history, that I have not been able to learn within our own public education system, but to understand how can I advocate for an equitable life when it comes to Black, brown, indigenous, POC (people of color), disabled, neurodiverse groups that basically, Ron DeSantis is saying doesn’t exist.”
Williams says he’s experienced oppression and marginalization from an early age and says DEI programs helped him channel passions, gifts and God-given talents into making everyone feel welcome.
Bruce Strouble, Ph.D., senior manager of Equitable Climate Resilience at Groundwork USA and Florida A&M University professor, said the governor’s attacks have created a sense of urgency.
“The states programs have created more uncertainty on top of an already unstable situation,” Strouble said. “We’re already underfunded and at a disadvantage, and for the state to take more aggressive actions and to start to ramp up rhetoric and these kind of unclear legislation about what kind of instruction is allowed, allowing students to record us in the classroom and then not knowing what we can and cannot say, it’s just made things very tense.”
African American AP course
The walkout also doubled as a “teach-in” for the participants, many of whom took part in the protest for the first time. Strouble detailed the guidelines of the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program in comparison to the ideals college students across the state are seeking today.
Strouble said there appears to be this understanding from the Legislature and the governor that, simply being a professor and speaking to students about African American history is equipping them with “radical ideas.” He said he didn’t think he radicalized the protestors, but affirmed his observations that the students were already upset.
“If they don’t want you all to be radical, maybe they need to change their behavior.”
Enye Franklin, who uses they/them pronouns, and a handful of other students from Tallahassee Community College, joined the protest at FSU. For Franklin, they were worried about the state’s rejection of the AP African American course and spoke on the importance of learning Black history in the United States.
“I’m actually taking an African American history class now, and it’s so informative to know that people like me and people of my culture and people of color went through that. And even though they went through that and they fought, we’re still here today, still fighting, because DeSantis and people like DeSantis want to still suppress us in some kind of way or form,” Franklin told the Phoenix.
“These classes are very important, not only for me, as people-of-color, but also for non-people of color, to learn about what actually happened, and in a way, you’re taking away our education and also taking away are rights to be ourselves,” they added.
Lawmaker walks out too
Rep. Anna V. Eskamani, a Democrat who represents part of Orange County, said she walked out of an ongoing higher education committee meeting in the Capitol to “stand in solidarity” with students. Eskamani offered a brief anecdote of her journey as a minority student in Florida who took AP courses.
“And as a daughter of immigrants, if it wasn’t for programs like Bright Futures (scholarships), if it wasn’t for AP classes, I wouldn’t be here right now. I never would have had the same opportunity as my more wealthy peers to go to a college, to get a job and to run for office one day,” said Eskamani. “Every culture war is a class war,” she concluded.
Eskamani brought up some of the recent legislative attacks on faculty tenure.
“Our professors — they are being censored just like us. They’re being intimidated to not teach classes that talk about race, that talk about gender,” Eskamani said. “Going after tenure, that is all about eliminating the professors that have had the most security to be free, to not be censored.”
The protest was partially propelled by news that the DeSantis administration recently requested information about the number of students receiving gender affirming care at Florida’s universities, the Phoenix previously reported.
Yasha Foster, a music education major at Florida State University, said that the requesting of information on transgender care was one of the reasons they attended the walkout.
“As a person who is non-binary and as well as a person of color, I would rather not have all of my medical records displayed,” Foster said.
Other concerns regarding the LGBTQ+ community were on the minds of protesters, such as the 2022 legislation that banned certain topics regarding gender identity and sexual orientation in K-12 classrooms, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” or “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law.
Foster continued: “With education, especially in Florida, its been put into a cookie cutter of whoever is in the majority of power. For example cisgender, heterosexual men, white men, are able to cookie cutter what we are able to learn about in our education but not get into the nitty gritty – like Martha P. Johnson… but it’s really hard to talk about these things with students if we have legislators blocking that ability to have those conversations. It may not be appropriate to talk about those things at certain age levels, but at the same time we have to have those conversations.”
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