By ERWIN FREED

On Tuesday, Feb. 9, in the early afternoon, five activists were arrested by University of South Florida (USF) police during a demonstration against proposed anti-protest laws in the state. Members of the group were charged with trespassing on the campus, despite being students who are paying to attend the university. The arrestees include members of Students for Democratic Society (SDS), Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), and Tampa Bay Community Action Center (TBCAC).

The target of Tuesday’s protest was Florida’s House Bill 1, which the Tampa Bay Times reports includes provisions to “create tougher penalties for crimes that already exist simply because a person was part of a crowd, take a more aggressive approach to budgeting local police departments and create new criminal statutes against ‘mob intimidation’ and cyber-harassment.” That bill is part of an ongoing nationwide campaign against civil liberties and right to protest, sparked by capitalist reaction to the No DAPL occupation, Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and emerging strike wave beginning with the 2018 “Red for Ed” movement.

In a statement released on social media, the Tampa Bay SDS pointed out the hypocrisy of campus administrators and police in the crackdown. Unmasked hate groups have been allowed on campus to yell slurs and other homophobic and racist propaganda unmolested. Kaitlin Bennett, a far-right activist known as the “Gun Girl,” spoke on the USF campus last October to a crowd of hundreds.

The university cited COVID precautions as the reason for shutting down Tuesday’s demonstration, but protesters were socially distanced and wearing masks. However, the crowd around Bennett was tightly packed together, and the speaker’s mask could be seen slipping off her nose as she spoke. In any case, masked outdoor protests have not been linked to increased spread of the coronavirus.

Arresting the civil rights protestors is an escalation of the existing anti-free speech activities of the USF administration. The school revoked SDS’s status as a student group last year due to their work fighting on-campus racism and budget cuts. The reason cited was violation of COVID safety protocol, but that is a transparent lie meant to chill democratic rights at the university. State and university officials regularly concoct scenarios to levy trumped-up charges against left-wing and working-class activists. Denver PSL members are facing criminal accusations of kidnapping police officers in Aurora, Col., despite the act that the assertion is ridiculous on its face.

Socialist Resurgence stands with the arrested activists and demands that all charges be dropped now! Reinstate the status of SDS on campus! No anti-protest laws in Florida or anywhere!

Top photo: Screenshot of the arrests taken from video taken by USF student Hailey Ostwalt, who was later arrested herself. (Heather Ostwalt via Tampa Bay Times)