MIAMI — On April 13, Free FIU — a coalition of professors, faculty, and students at Florida International University — organized a walkout to protest House Bill 999 and its counterpart Senate Bill 266, which are both advancing in Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature. FIU is the largest public university in Miami-Dade County, with more than 50,000 students. The new law seeks to ban programs teaching the view that “systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.” It could impact certain academic disciplines in every state college, including queer studies and critical race theory, potentially affecting or altogether eliminating some majors and minors.

Lilian Dickson, an Art History major, was one of the 400 students who left class that day. “I would like people to know that art plays an integral role in the mobilization of individuals,” Dickson told Hyperallergic. The protest coincided with other college and high school walkouts in the state. Dickson, who helped organize the walkout at FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique Campus, wanted to advocate for others to have the freedom to choose what they learn and which groups they join.

Stickers and pins designed by Oscar Alvarez were distributed around the FIU campus to protest bills passed. (photo by Jacob-Alexander C., courtesy Free FIU)

“The class I just finished is called Art and Politics, so we talked about movements across the board, not just one side or the other. We talked about fascism and we also talked about left-wing politics and how art is affected by all forms of politics,” Dickson continued. “I was sitting in that class thinking, ‘This is important curricula, but not something that could be offered under the new proposed legislation.'”

Alejandro González, an undergraduate art student at FIU, said the political climate is getting more tense on campus. “Things have changed. There is a sense of tiredness and stress. As far as I’m aware, professors need to get their syllabi reviewed for ‘wokeness,’” he said. “There is a sense of wanting to watch your back as an art student, almost like you don’t want to do anything ‘too woke.’ There are a lot of anxieties these days.”

FIU has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s inquiry seeking clarity on the expectations for professors around the new legislative proposals. Florida House Bill 999, which is still being revised, prohibits entire fields of study, including race and gender studies, as well as spending on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) in universities. The bill also allows tenure for professors to be reviewed at any time. Senate Bill 266, which contains provisions similar to HB 999, addresses some of the most controversial education-related issues of this year’s legislative session, including making changes related to academic programs and courses that can be offered at universities and colleges.

González, who comes from Venezuela, says he hoped to encounter a more accepting community in the United States, but he found LGBTQ+ individuals are often targeted on the FIU campus.

“Earlier in the semester, we had an incident with a neo-Nazi group setting up a table on campus, and of course, it’s free speech, so all is legal. Or we will get religious groups with megaphones saying gay people are an abomination,” he told Hyperallergic. “Things like this happen every semester.” 

Protest signs used at the FIU walkout (photo by Lily Dickson, courtesy Free FIU)

Such a tense political climate might give the wrong idea that everyone in Florida is silent and complicit, that the state is “the wild west,” and that nobody is doing anything to contest the legislation. But students continue to take action.  

“I met so many people who say, ‘Florida is terrible now, let’s just move from Florida,’ instead of staying in Florida and fight for those freedoms,” said Rachel Gordon. A video artist and Florida native who is completing her BFA at FIU with an Animation major, Gordon is a member of the Pride Student Union and vice president of the Geek Culture Club. Last week, Pride Club members had a sit-in with the board of directors at FIU, wanting to know whose side they were on and whether the group would be banned or defunded in the future. Gordon says she is now even more motivated as an artist for her work to mean something.

On Friday, April 21, Gordon and González mounted a one-day exhibition titled Special Collections at the Glenn Hubert Library as a project for a Video Installation class they took together. González set up a 22-channel installation inside the computer room titled “Athenaeum Fever.” The piece was a response to the “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop W.O.K.E” policies and book bans, serving as a metaphor for the damage these policies are causing by portraying them as a virus compromising the integrity of the library as a space of knowledge and expansion of the mind. 

The students got permission from the staff based on proposals they sent earlier in the semester. Gordon, who previously participated in the walkout, displayed a video installation of an interrogation scene that played on loop inside the study room. Peers who heard the video entered the room to watch the piece, which was recorded on a 360-degree Go-Pro camera and emulated surveillance. Titled The Suspects, the video “satirizes the idea of government control over education,” Gordon explained. 

That day, students who walked into the library and saw the work seemed unfazed, according to González, who thinks the bills targeting marginalized groups will not pay off in the long run.

“I doubt that most of my generation, and possibly millennials, will ever forgive or forget these measures,” he said.

Carolina Ana writes about art, grief, motherhood, and her relationship to the internet. You can subscribe to her newsletter for more thoughts on these things, or follow her on Twitter.