Black University of Florida students celebrating their graduation on Saturday by dancing across the commencement stage, or striking poses in a tradition known as "strolling," were manhandled by a university marshal who was trying to rush them along, students said Monday.
Dozens of videos quickly surfaced on social media after Saturday’s graduation ceremony showing a man in University of Florida academic garb shoving graduating black students toward the other side of the stage. Many students derided the academic’s behavior as racist.
Christopher Garcia-Wilde, a member of the university’s Class of 2018, said he was sitting with friends in a back row watching the graduates walk on the stage to pick up their diplomas.
A marshal pushes University of Florida student Oliver Telusma off stage during graduation ceremonies on Saturday. Zachariah Chou
“A lot of the students before us — disproportionately black students — who decided to stroll or to dance to celebrate their accomplishment of graduating were pushed or manhandled by one of the marshals,” Garcia-Wilde said. “As we watched it happen, we were talking amongst ourselves in the back row about what an ugly scene it was.”
One video is a recording of a Jumbotron showing a black student trying to cheer or wave his hands until a man in University of Florida academic dress grabs him and tries to push him to the other side of the stage.
Another video posted on Twitter shows the same man trying to forcibly escort graduates who are taking their time walking across the stage. In a Facebook video, two black students are seen dancing across the stage until the marshal appears from the side and tries to remove them, drawing loud boos from the crowd.
Garcia-Wilde said any graduate who took too long was rushed across the stage by the marshal, but his actions “were more aggressive towards black students.”
"I definitely think the marshal was racist and demonstrated that behavior," Garcia-Wilde said. "He showed himself."
University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs issued an apology on stage after the ceremony, saying that the school is proud of the nearly 10,000 students graduating in spring 2018. Apologizing for being “inappropriately aggressive in rushing students across the stage,” Fuchs said, “I want our students to know that we have changed that practice and we want each one of you to know that we celebrate you.”
Margot Winnick, the University of Florida director of communications, told NBC News that the president called each of the affected students to apologize.
The president’s apology, however, did not convince Garcia-Wilde, who called it “superficial” and said recurring racist instances have flown under the radar at the University of Florida. Garcia-Wilde said he saw Fuchs “smiling and laughing” as the marshal roughly marched the students off stage. The undergraduate campus is predominantly white and Hispanic, with blacks making up 6.4 percent of the student body.
“The president has not committed to changing policy or implementing anything that would prevent this from happening next year,” Garcia-Wilde told NBC News.
Garcia-Wilde accused the school of institutional racism. “Every time there’s an incident — whether there’s a noose on campus, or [white supremacist] Richard Spencer coming, or a student’s black history poster taken off of her dorm room — the university releases an apology, but they don’t create any change that sustainably prevents those discriminatory actions from repeating,” he said.
“It was really sad because this is going to be our final memory of the university of Florida and I’ll always remember turning around and seeing my friends being wrestled and pushed across the stage,” Garcia-Wilde said.