Two powerful student movements are joining forces with calls for divestment, focusing on two calamities that threaten their future security: mass incarceration and climate change. Just like with the struggle against South African apartheid, where activists of yesterday held the moral position that our monies should not be used to prop up inhuman and racist systems, student activists today are calling for complete and total divestment from private prisons and fossil fuel companies.
And just like with prior student movements, such as the Free Speech Movement or the opposition to the Vietnam War, the hotbed of this student activism is focused on the University of California system (UC). The UC was among the first institutions in academia to divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa, paving the way for other universities to follow suit. On today’s moral imperatives for students, the UC recently took the first steps of divesting its direct funds from private prison companies and coal and tar sands companies. We applaud those steps. However, given the urgency of the issues, the UC regents and other public institutions must take bolder and more comprehensive actions.
As the Afrikan Black Coalition asserts, private prisons and their financiers present a clear moral dilemma. Lawsuit after lawsuit has documented private prisons’ mistreatment of prisoners, prolonging prison terms without cause because of profit motivation. Private prisons earn $122 per prisoner per day, on average, while paying inmate workers $1 to $5 a day. An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report noted that the average number of prisoners in private facilities increased from 7,771 in 1990 to 129,336 in 2009. According to a Bureau of Justice report, by 2014, 91,200 state prisoners and 30,500 federal prisoners were in custody in privately operated facilities.
This is an issue that affects our whole human family, but particularly black and Latino youth. America holds the ignominious status of having one in four black males at risk of incarceration. And black girls are now the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system. While we continue to work for changes that will give all of America’s children equal opportunities for advancement, we must end today the growth industry of private prisons.
In recognition of the moral imperative of divesting from private prisons, in December 2015, the University of California divested $25 million from the country’s largest private prison companies (Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group and G4S). However, the UC continues to invest $425 million in one of the largest financiers of CCA and GEO Group: Wells Fargo. The decision to continue investing in Wells Fargo, which has a reported $1.2 billion in investments in private prisons, conflicts with the moral stand that the UC took in December. If the UC is willing to divest from private prisons, it must also be willing to divest from any companies that are funding them.
Connected to how we deal with the most disenfranchised amongst us is the issue of climate change.
Locally and globally, from New Orleans to India, from the Philippines to all over Africa, vulnerable working-class and communities of color feel the climate crisis first and hardest. For example, scientists have pinpointed climate change as a contributing factor to the destructive nature of Hurricane Katrina, the storm that killed an estimated 1,800 people, left millions homeless and caused $100 billion in damage. Scientists know that for the planet to avoid global warming over 2 degrees Celsius, 80 percent of coal, for example, must remain unburned and in the ground. However, fossil fuel subsidies have actually increased 35 percent since 2009.
Student activists, like those with the Fossil Free UC Campaign, are organizing divestment campaigns in college campuses around the country to combat continuing investments in an industry that imperils our national security. In an escalated move this spring, UC students plan to demand full fossil fuel divestment from the University of California.
As we have seen with South Africa, it took the strategy of full and complete divestment to bring apartheid to its knees. That was the type of force needed to change such an entrenched system. And that’s the type of force and commitment we need to deploy today in order to solve the systemic problems of mass incarceration and climate change.
The struggle to end apartheid took over three decades of organizing boycotts and divestment campaigns — including 15 years of former Rep. Ron Dellums’s leadership — to pass federal divestment legislation. Today, we don’t have 30 or 15 years; our planet and the millions of lives wasted in prisons can’t wait. The solidarity among student movements working to end mass incarceration and global warming provides a powerful force for accelerating the change our world desperately needs.
Dellums was a 14-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California who served from 1971 to 1998. He also served as the 48th mayor of Oakland, Calif. from 2007 to 2011. Williams is editor-in-chief of the Afrikan Black Coalition. Hannon is campaign director of the Fossil Free UC campaign.