Jun 22, 2023 - Politics

Conflicting narratives shroud "Tampa Five" case

Chrisley Carpio, Laura Rodriguez, Lauren Pineiro and their lawyer Michelle Lambo outside of Tampa’s 13th Judicial Circuit Court. Photo courtesy of Dave Decker.

Before the protesters clamored outside Tampa's 13th Judicial Circuit Court, before she needed to get a lawyer or knew where to find the sheriff's office, Lauren Pineiro was just a college student.

  • She came to Tampa from her hometown of 17,000 residents because the city seemed big enough to make her feel small.

Driving the news: Pineiro was one of five protesters arrested in connection with a March 6 diversity rally organized by the Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at the University of South Florida.

  • Gia Davila, Jeanie Kida, Chrisley Carpio, Laura Rodriguez and Pineiro are charged with battery against a law enforcement officer — which carries up to five years in prison — resisting arrest without violence and disrupting a school or campus function.
  • They pleaded not guilty in May.

Flashback: Pineiro was among a group of protesters who marched into the Patel Center to demand a meeting with USF president Rhea Law. They pleaded with her to oppose Gov. Ron DeSantis' legislative effort to ban diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on college campuses.

  • Police intervened, instructing the protesters to leave. When they refused, the officers began grabbing students and ushering them outside, according to footage of the incident Axios reviewed.
  • An officer grabbed Pineiro's forearm with one hand and her wrist with the other, shifting his weight toward his heels. Protesters hugged her waist from behind to separate them.
  • The tug of war with her arm lasted around a minute before the officer relented. "Stop," she cried. "You're hurting me." Police arrested four students during the demonstration. Pineiro wasn't one of them.

Between the lines: Officers gave conflicting reports of what led to a clash with protesters. One said USF police chief Chris Daniel placed his hand on a student's upper back to escort her out; another said he told the student she was under arrest.

  • Videos, however, show Daniel yanking student Victoria Hinckley's arm as she tries to explain the protesters' demands. USF later acknowledged some officers had not yet received small-unit crowd control training.

Zoom in: Pineiro was sitting in class when she received the email. It had been one month since the incident, and the message informed her the state attorney intended to charge her for her role in the protest.

  • Law enforcement issued a warrant, and, on May 3, Pineiro drove to the sheriff's office, turned herself in and posted bail.
  • Three days later, she walked across the graduation stage, dressed in the university's green and gold, and took a photo with the president, who had refused to meet with her two months earlier.

The intrigue: Michelle Lambo, the five's defense attorney, said that law enforcement's behavior toward her clients mirrors how officers treated another Tampa protester she represented in the summer of 2020.

  • "In both instances, law enforcement initiated the violence and then exaggerated the narrative," Lambo told Axios. Prosecutors ultimately dropped the felony charges against the 2020 protester.
  • "It's all extremely concerning because you have a narrative written by numerous officers, regurgitating identical language," she added. "And you can review videos and see that it's completely inaccurate."

The other side: The state attorney's office declined to comment on the case.

  • USF released an official report on the incident that sided with the officers' narrative and squarely placed the blame on the protesters — not for the content of the protest but for how it was conducted.

Zoom out: Pineiro said the charges against her and the other protesters demonstrate a broader pattern of political repression under DeSantis.

  • Eleven people, including Florida's Democratic Party chair, were arrested outside Tallahassee's City Hall during a protest against the state's abortion restrictions in April.
  • The governor's office did not respond to Axios' request for comment.

What's next: The five will appear at a press conference Thursday morning at Tampa's Centennial Park. Their next court hearing is set for July 12.

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