The University of California Must Divest From Private Prisons

University of California logo behind barbed wire(Image: University of California logo; Edited; JR / TO)

The University of California (UC) system, like other universities across the country, has become a battleground in the struggle against neoliberalism. Over the past few years, the UC administration has repeatedly cited budget problems to justify slashing workers’ benefits and doing away with (or “condensing”) many programs, including ethnic studies. At the same time, UC has expanded its ties to large corporations, many of them directly linked to the economic and physical repression of poor communities and communities of color.

Black and Brown students remain underrepresented at UC schools, with African-American students representing only about 3 percent of the student body at the system’s flagship campus at Berkeley. Organizing in this environment has been challenging, but drawing energy from anti-racism struggles around the country, some significant gains have been made. Following a successful campaign pressuring UC to divest from private prison corporations, Black students and community members have identified Wells Fargo as the next target.

Yoel Haile, political director of the Afrikan Black Coalition (ABC) and a graduate student at UC Berkeley, talked to Josh Wilner about the call for UC to divest from Wells Fargo because of the bank’s ties to the private prison industry and its history of racist lending practices.

Josh Wilner: The Afrikan Black Coalition is self-described as “a statewide Black youth organization based in California.” Why was the coalition formed and what has its role been in struggle on UC campuses?

Yoel Haile: ABC started out as a conference for UC Black student unions in 2003. Students from all over the state wanted to get together at least one weekend a year to fellowship and learn from each other, and figure out what our common challenges are and what we can work on together.

It stayed a conference until about two-and-a-half years ago, when a couple of folks decided to turn it into a full-fledged organization. So for the last few years, we have worked very hard to turn an annual conference into a fully structured Black youth organization.

Obviously, we’re starting with the campuses as a place to organize young Black people. We started out with the nine UC campuses. At the annual conference this past weekend, we inducted seven state university campuses. So we’re now a 16 campus-strong coalition. As it stands now, we have over 20 volunteers on staff.

Last Fall, ABC secured an important victory, getting the University of California to sell its shares in private prison corporations. How were you able to put that kind of pressure on the university and how cooperative was the administration?

Our success was in large part due to us having the precise data—that the UC had $25 million invested in Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the GEO Group, and G4S. We engaged the UC’s chief investment officer, Jagdeep Singh Bachher, and the office of the president, and presented the ethical problems with the University of California investing in private prisons.

We also pointed out that the university doesn’t have enough Black students because it is putting money up for those same people to go to jail. We presented both the financial case and the ethical case to the chief investment officer. To his credit, he was cooperative and understood the problem. We made it clear from the beginning that if the university did not divest, they would have to deal with us. It didn’t take very much action on our part.

The timing was particularly important. In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement, the university was smart enough to know that they couldn’t justify investments in private prisons. They knew the level of frustration and organization we came to the table with, and they made the decision on that basis.

The ABC press release from January 11 singles out Wells Fargo bank as the next target of the UC divestment campaign. It gave the bank until February 20 to sell all shares and terminate business relations with private prison corporations. What brought Wells Fargo to your attention? Can you talk about the specifics of the company’s links to private prison contractors?

Wells Fargo was brought to our attention first because it has a long history of predatory lending in Black and Latino communities. When the housing meltdown happened in 2007-08, they were one of the main banks implicated in predatory lending practices that caused many Black and Latino people to lose their homes. They sold those people bad mortgages on purpose.

They’ve been sued by many cities. They have already settled out of court for $175 million once and are being sued by the cities of Los Angeles and Oakland for discriminatory and predatory lending.

We also found out through their Securities and Exchange Commission filings that they extend a $900 million line of credit to CCA and underwrite GEO’s $300 million corporate debt. So, in total, they facilitate the private prison industry’s access to $1.2 billion of capital.

On top of that, they own shares in private prisons. They’re part of the “million shares club,” which is a list of companies who own a million or more shares in private prisons. They’re not the biggest shareholder, but that money allows private prisons to maintain and expand their business.

One of the objectives of this campaign is to get rid of private prisons (within the larger objective of prison abolition), and one of the ways we can attack them is to make it impossible for them to operate financially. Both of the Democratic presidential candidates have said they will outlaw private prisons. We’ll see if that really happens, but that was one of things that convinced the chief investment officer to divest.

Following that logic, if private prisons are outlawed, they will go out of business, and if that happens, they will not be a sustainable investment option for the UC.

Has the bank responded to your demands?

No, they have not responded, and as was stated in that press release, we will now be pressuring the university to divest from Wells Fargo.

There is a meeting on February 26 for the Committee on Investments, which is a group of nine or ten regents who make the financial and investment decisions for the UC. We’re on the agenda for that meeting and will be engaging them.

Is the broader community involved in the campaign? Immigrants rights groups such as Just Cause have called for a boycott of Wells Fargo for its links to private immigrant detention facilities and for discriminatory lending practices, in the lead-up to the economic crash of 2008 and through to the present day. Where else is the energy behind this movement coming from?

The movement against Wells Fargo is growing fast. The city of Portland has a Socially Responsible Investment Committee designated by the City Counsel, and it just unanimously voted in a recommendation to divest from Wells Fargo. The city currently has about $40 million invested.

ABC is a Black youth organization, not just a student organization. Ultimately, we believe our mission is rooted in the community. Our identity as students is a temporary classification, but our identity as young Black people is permanent. Everything we do, everything we are, and everything we say is rooted in that. So we have been in touch with different community groups to support the campaign.

How can students and the community help?

The two best ways to help at this point would be to sign our petition and participate in the mobilization for the March 20 Regents meeting. We will be putting up a Facebook event with instructions on how to help with that.

Does the campaign have strong faculty support?

Yes. we haven’t had to really ramp up the campaign yet. We issued a statement for divestment, and, within a week, the divestment happened. We are starting to rebuild the movement back up to focus on Wells Fargo, so we haven’t gotten many signatures yet, but everywhere we go and talk to people, we get support. There is a wide breadth of support out there.

Has the UC leadership or any specific school administration addressed the campaign?

We’ll get their official statement and get a sense of their views and feelings at the Committee for Investments meeting. Part of this engagement is to find out where they stand. However, they have expressed concerns about applying the criteria we have suggested for Wells Fargo to all companies the university invests in.

They are worried that, one way or another, all corporations are connected to some kind of human rights violation, and that if this criteria is applied across the board, there will be no companies to invest in at the end.

Our answer is that if that’s what has to happen, then that’s what has to happen. The contradictions are too glaring for an educational institution to be invested in companies that engage in criminal profiteering. We are trying to change the political and economic thinking that says one must engage in human rights violations to be able to make money.

They have raised that concern informally, and this is a decision they will have to grapple with. They are appointed and tasked by the governor to deal with those types of decisions. So we’ll see what happens.

We invite support from everyone. We encourage folks to speak and support at the March 23 Regents meeting at UC San Francisco-Mission Bay. Keep checking out our website. We’ll be posting about our upcoming events and actions.