PARKLAND, Fla. — Survivors of the Parkland school shooting lay down in "die ins" at two Publix supermarkets Friday to protest the chain's support for a gubernatorial candidate aligned with the National Rifle Association, as the company announced a suspension of political contributions.
The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shouted "USA, not NRA!" and caused brief delays at the checkout as customers navigated carts around them on the floor. Pro-NRA counter-protesters also showed up at one store, and two men almost came to blows before police intervened.
"A lot of people don't support who Publix is supporting," said Haylee Shepherd, a 15-year-old sophomore at Stoneman Douglas, who joined 13 fellow protesters on the floor for about 10 minutes at one of the stores. "It's going to reflect on them as a brand and people shopping there."
Publix has been criticized by the students for supporting Agriculture Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, a Republican who has called himself a "proud NRA sellout." The activists have called for a boycott of the supermarket.
Publix announced earlier this week that it would "reevaluate" its donations amid the outcry. In another statement Friday, company spokeswoman Maria Brous said the chain would halt its contributions for now as it continues that reevaluation.
Senior David Hogg, one of the most vocal student activists for gun reform and one of the founders of March for Our Lives, helped organize the protest. It came a week after 10 were killed at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, and the same day that authorities said an Indiana middle school student opened fire inside his science classroom, wounding a classmate and a teacher.
At one point, a counter protester, Bill Caracofe, stuck his middle finger an inch from Hogg's face outside the grocery store just a few miles from the school where 17 of Hogg's classmates and teachers were gunned down.
"There are millions and millions of people who don't worship everything that comes out of his mouth," said Caracofe, who joined about a dozen NRA supporters who counter-protested inside the store. He said the students' anger toward Publix should be directed at the sheriff's office and school district for failing to protect them.
Hogg said such reactions are common, saying the media has falsely portrayed him as someone who wants to seize guns. He said he supports the Second Amendment but wants tighter regulations, universal background checks and training for people who own AR-15s and similar semi-automatic rifles.
Publix has been a strong Putnam supporter. Campaign finance records show that Publix, its top executives and board members, and their family members have donated more than $750,000 altogether to Putnam or his political committee. A former top Publix executive who is related to the chairman of Putnam's committee has donated an additional $65,000.
The suspension announced Friday applies only to money from the company, which has given $413,000 to Putnam over about three years.
The supermarket chain is one of a long line of Florida corporations that has helped bankroll Putnam's candidacy. Over the last three years Putnam has also gotten substantial financial help from Walt Disney Co., Florida Power & Light and U.S. Sugar. Disney has given more than $800,000 to Putnam's political committee, including a $50,000 check it gave him earlier this month.
Publix said it supports candidates focused on building the economy.
"We regret that some of our political contributions have led to an unintentional customer divide instead of our desire to support a growing economy in Florida," the company said in a statement.