Close to Home: Sonoma County’s responsibility to divest from private prisons

The Press Democrat | Elden McFarland

What goes around, comes around. Thirty-five years ago, photos of white police officers using bullwhips and dogs on black citizens of apartheid South Africa shocked the conscience of the world. Now the internment camps on our southern border shock the conscience of our nation and test our commitment to our founding ideals of liberty and justice for all.

Citizens of the world responded to the brutal tactics of the apartheid regime with a boycott and divestment campaign that brought the racist government to its knees and resulted in an end to the apartheid system.

Sonoma County played a small part in that campaign when, in 1985, the Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to prohibit investment of county funds in companies operating in South Africa. A few months later, they followed this action with another 5-0 vote to prohibit procurement by the county of any product made in South Africa.

Now we have a proposal to stop funding internment camps for undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers by disinvesting from companies with ties to those facilities.

In 1985, the county’s treasurer, Don Merz, at first made the same argument about divestment being made now by Treasurer Erick Roeser: that the requirements to safeguard the principal, maintain liquidity and maximize return on county funds prevented him from carrying out these steps. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that the county could continue to meet those requirements with more socially responsible investments.

There are so many options available to political entities that they can choose how to invest their money and still have security, liquidity and maximum return. This has actually become quite mainstream, and many entities choose to focus on more responsible use of the people’s money in ways that build community.

Yes, Supervisor Ernie Carpenter sponsored the anti-apartheid measures, and one would expect his support. But Supervisors Nick Esposti, Janet Nicholas and Jim Harberson were all registered Republicans, and Supervisor Helen Rudee certainly was no flaming radical. Merz came around, as did the Department of General Services. It was just the right thing to do.

We have choices. Let’s choose to support something better than squalid prison camps.

Elden McFarland of Healdsburg was a principal organizer of the effort to disinvest Sonoma County funds from South Africa in 1985.

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