Behind the students of activist group Students for a Democratic Society

Grae Barron, Reporter

With the onslaught of bills targeting university students, faculty and staff, protests are happening rain or shine all around Florida. Here at the University of North Florida, students often protest with signs, start walkouts and chant slogans for student rights. 

Under a scorching sun, they stood with signs at President Moez Limayem’s inauguration. In the pouring rain, they marched to the Student Union of Florida A&M’s campus, chanting against legislation. In the middle of classes, they marched to UNF’s own Student Union in support of a statewide walkout. 

Armed with words of inspiration and anger, these students have led several movements in recent months as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration proposed bill after bill targeting students’ rights. 

But who are these students? 

Calvin Pell, a member of Students for a Democratic Society, holds a homemade sign in front of Lazzara Hall where University of North Florida President Moez Limayem would later be inaugurated.
(Justin Nedrow)

Students for a Democratic Society is a student activist group established in the 1960s with nationwide chapters. Founded in the midst of the Vietnam War, SDS was against the violence of the war and stood up for civil rights. Now, the organization continues the fight for civil rights for marginalized communities.

Lissie Morales, the president of SDS’s University of North Florida chapter, explained that the main priority of SDS has always been to fight for the rights of students and it is even more important now.

“SDS is basically a progressive, multi-issue, student-led activist organization that fights for the liberation of all people,” they said. “As a national organization, one of the movements we’ve been progressing is the student movement when it comes to protecting DEI and protecting and supporting the ICWA.”

Lissie Morales, SDS’s president, speaks to the crowd through a megaphone on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2023. (Justin Nedrow)

Morales said that police brutality and the housing crisis are top priorities for the activist group right now as they continue to be what they call major problems in the United States. Narrowing down to the Sunshine State alone, SDS is focusing on mainly education issues. 

“We focus on a lot of different issues here, but on the forefront, it is the defense against HB 999 and then just LGBTQ rights,” Morales said. 

With HB 999 in the works in the Florida legislature, SDS has attended and encouraged multiple protests and movements against it. Recently, the group traveled to Tallahassee to meet with other chapters of SDS and other activist groups for a march to where the Board of Governors was meeting on the issue. 

Alivia Kalin, another member of UNF’s SDS, said that although it was pouring rain, she felt as though the message was clear. The rally was one of the largest held by student groups in recent years and brought together students from all over the state of Florida.

“We had this really amazing rally of people speaking and chanting, and it was a very incredible and inspiring experience,” she said. “We had cars honking in showing solidarity, somebody was [leaning] out the window chanting.”

Protesters stood in the rain, continuing chants and speeches regardless of the weather. (Carter Mudgett)

SDS has worked diligently as more bills are being proposed targeting students’ rights, but that doesn’t come without a cost. Morales explained that activist burnout is a real issue and taking a stand all the time takes its toll. 

“The current reality I face is doing the unhealthy method of just pushing through it because we still have to survive another few weeks until the legislative session is over,” they said. “You are literally taking on everyone’s fight on your own and being a trailblazer so self-care is so needed.”

With the end of the legislative session in sight, SDS is looking to push awareness of these issues to the student body. Morales explained that the future is uncertain, but the group will continue to fight for student’s rights. 


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