Students called on Harvard to divest from the prison industry during the first public event held by the newly formed Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign Thursday evening.
The event, hosted at the Law School’s Wasserstein Hall, featured students speakers addressing a near-capacity crowd of roughly 100. Hakeem Angulu ’20 and Jackie Wang, a graduate student in African and African American Studies and author of “Carceral Capitalism,” began the event by speaking about the history of the American prison system as well as racial disparities in conviction and incarceration rates.
Soon afterwards, organizers projected the campaign’s organizing statement onto a screen.
“The Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign seeks to sever the university’s financial ties to the prison-industrial complex by advocating for Harvard’s total divestment from all corporations whose existence depends on the capture, caging, and control of human beings,” the statement reads.
During the event, organizers also shared an audio tape recorded by Derrick Washington, an inmate at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, the largest medium security prison in the state. Washington, who said he had been convicted of murder, described his experiences in the state prison system as well as his later involvement with the Emancipation Initiative, a group that advocates for prisoners.
“Because prison is all of misery and hopelessness — and Harvard readily profits from it — in fact I see as Harvard endorsing every single prison suicide, murder, recidivist and fallen tear drop from the effects of 21st century slavery,” Washington said.
Jarrett M. Drake, a graduate student in Anthropology who co-founded the campaign, said the initiative originated last fall as part of a project for a class on incarceration. He said he developed the campaign with Design School student Samuel A. J. Matthew.
Initially, the two envisioned the project as a way to better inform school affiliates about Harvard’s investments in the “prison industrial complex.” But, after the course ended, he and Matthew decided they “wanted to do something more with the information project.” The duo eventually brought on several organizers to implement a broader initiative.
This October, Drake — along with Anneke F. Dunbar-Gronke, a third-year student at Harvard Law School, and Paul T. Clarke, a graduate student in African and African American Studies — penned a Crimson op-ed criticizing Harvard’s investments in companies associated with the prison industry.
The authors specifically pointed to Harvard’s investments in ETFs that contain stock in private prison operators CoreCivic and GEO Group; Tokio Marine Holdings Inc., an insurer in the bail bond industry; and Axon Enterprise, Inc., the manufacturer of Tasers.
Harvard’s SEC filings for the quarter ending June 30 of this year show holdings in these firms of approximately $67,000. The filings disclose a total $420 million in holdings.
Organizers said they have not directly contacted the Corporation about prison divestment.
Over the years, University administrators have consistently opposed student proposals to change Harvard’s investment strategy — especially when it comes to divesting from fossil fuels, a common undergraduate rallying cry in recent years.
Responding to a question on prison divestment in an interview Tuesday, University President Lawrence S. Bacow said that investment decisions should not be used as political tool.
“We’ve stated many times, my predecessors have stated this going back to Derek Bok’s days 40 years ago, that the University should not use the endowment to achieve political ends or particular policy ends,” he said. “There are other ways the university tries to influence public policy through our scholarship, through our research, but we don’t think that the endowment is an appropriate way to do that.”
Bacow’s response parallels the position of previous Harvard presidents on divestment movements. In 2013, President Drew G. Faust wrote in a statement on fossil fuel divestment that Harvard’s endowment is “not an instrument to impel social or political change.”
In an interview during the event, Dunbar-Gronke said she believed the University’s investments in prisons are intrinsically political.
“We would like for a depoliticized endowment, and that would mean divesting from a system that is inherently politicized by the fact that it disproportionately affects black, brown, and poor people, and undocumented people, and we as students are in a unique position to hold the University accountable.”
Dunbar-Gronke also said she thinks Harvard’s investments run contrary to the University’s efforts to address its ties to slavery.
“Harvard has expressed remorse for its institution in slavery, but that we are currently still investing in a legacy of slavery, so cannot be fully contrite until we stop investing in it,” she said.
After presentations by speakers Thursday, participants broke off into smaller, off-the-record group discussions.