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Monday, April 12, 2021

About 20 people stood for about two hours in the Gainesville City Hall building on Thursday for the opportunity to stand up for what they believe.

The group came with Divest Gainesville, an activist organization that focuses on putting pressure on politicians to ensure tax funds are used for the public and environmental good, not corporations.

They crammed into a hallway in the building’s basement at about 2 p.m. to tell Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe and City Commissioner Harvey Ward to divest, or to sell something valuable such as stocks, from companies that support fossil fuel pipelines.

Marina Smerling, a founding member of Divest Gainesville, said their mission is to push the city to pass an ordinance that would ensure public tax funds are not invested in banks, pension funds and retirement funds. Specifically, those banks that support the pipelines, private prisons and violations of indigenous sovereignty.

“Divestment, both nationwide and around the world, has taken off and isn’t coming back,” the 40-year-old said.

Justin Morris, 30, is part of the Tampa Bay Divestment Corporation in St. Petersburg, Florida, another activist group partnered with Divest Gainesville.

Morris, who wore a shirt that read, “#KeepItInTheGround,” and about five other members of the Tampa corporation, made the two-hour trip to show their solidarity.

“We’re all just activists,” Morris said. “People who care.”

The group stood for about two hours waiting to speak at the commission meeting. At 4 p.m. they were allowed in, and about 40 people sat, including governmental staff and officials, in the back room of City Hall’s basement.

William Johnston, the city’s investment officer, said there were some mistakes in the groups’ claims: The percentages invested in fossil fuels were lower than the group had said and the city has no investments in private prisons.

Ultimately, Johnston recommended not divesting because of the financial risk that could come to the city and members of the pension plan through the possible lower returns of investing in other things or industries.

Members of the committee agreed divestment from companies dealing in fossil fuels and pipelines may be a good thing, but the financial safety of people on the pension plan comes first. The commissioners said New York City announced a plan for divestment, which means more cities will likely follow.

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“We have a lot of work and a long way to go on this, but I think it’s a path worth going down,” Poe said.

Poe suggested special meetings and workshops should be planned to work on the issue of divestment, but said the committee has a legal obligation to maintain a strong pension plan.

Juan Zapata, a 21-year-old UF electrical engineering senior, and Val Sokolova, a 19-year-old UF advertising sophomore, both attended Thursday’s meeting. They said they saw the Facebook group and wanted to show support.

“I encourage everyone to just try to grow their awareness and stand up for things they believe,” Sokolova said.

Contact Robert Lewis at Follow him on Twitter at @Lewis__Robert.

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