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Friday, December 03, 2021

Graduates protest prison labor at UF commencement ceremonies

<p>Syed Muhammad Omar holds a banner during the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences commencement ceremony on Sunday. Omar, a 27-year-old UF psychology bachelor’s graduate, said he is involved with Divest UF.</p>

Syed Muhammad Omar holds a banner during the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences commencement ceremony on Sunday. Omar, a 27-year-old UF psychology bachelor’s graduate, said he is involved with Divest UF.

Amid fellow UF graduates with decorated caps and flags of their country of origin, Juan Esteban Zapata strolled onto the O’Connell Center’s jumbotron with a white sheet.

He revealed the banner on screen that read “UF uses slave labor” in large black letters.

Zapata, 23, protested UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ use of prison labor as he graduated with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering. The West Miami native held up the large white sheet on the Sunday ceremony for the College of Engineering, which lasted from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. according to the UF Commencement schedule.

A video of Zapata walking across the stage holding up the banner was tweeted by Divest UF, a group that seeks to divest UF’s endowments from fossil fuel industries, the prison labor industry and arms and surveillance companies, according to its website.

Zapata is an organizer with Divest UF and has worked with the group since it started about a year ago, he said. The group’s Twitter bio says it started in March 2018.   

“UF contracts over 100 incarcerated workers a day,” Zapata said. “They receive no compensation... the Florida Department of Corrections pays $2 an hour per laborer.”

The students had the right to hold up signs during their own graduations, UF spokesperson Steve Orlando said. The contracts that UF has with the correctional institutions are under review by the university.

Earlier on Sunday at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences ceremony, Syed Muhammad Omar, stood up with the same sign when his name was called and again while the ceremony was paused. Zapata said he was inspired by Omar’s actions.

Omar, a 27-year-old UF psychology bachelor’s graduate, said he is also involved with Divest UF.

Jeanna Mastrodicasa, the associate vice president for operations with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said UF does not hire any incarcerated men or women directly. Instead, the university acts as a host site for correctional work programs.

“They are not our employees, so we contract the correctional institution,” Mastrodicasa said. “Some receive some pay, but they're not our employees.”

Some workers receive benefits such as reducing their sentence, Mastrodicasa said.

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The maximum number of these individuals contracted through UF at any time is about 100, Mastrodicasa said. They are largely used in IFAS for farming purposes.

After last year’s controversy when multiple black students were rushed off the stage, Zapata said he didn’t think he would be pushed off the stage for displaying the sign.

“They didn't really do anything to police me,” Zapata said. “I tried being considerate of the people behind me. So, I kept the message brief.”

Tom Perry, a 22-year old UF civil engineering bachelor’s graduate, said he didn’t think much about the banner at the ceremony, especially because it happened toward the end.

Perry said he saw the deans of the college treat Zapata as any other person walking by.

“I think you’re going to have hard time telling college students not to protest something,” Perry said.

Syed Muhammad Omar holds a banner during the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences commencement ceremony on Sunday. Omar, a 27-year-old UF psychology bachelor’s graduate, said he is involved with Divest UF.

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