Just yesterday afternoon, I got a phone call I’d been anticipating for months. It was Asha Rosa, one of the co-founders of Columbia Prison Divest, a campaign REC has worked with since mid-2013. She was calling to let me know that the Board of Trustees had just publicly announced their decision to divest all of Columbia’s holdings in private prison companies, and to enact a negative screen to prevent any future investments in the private prison industry.
This is the first time in history that an institution of higher education has committed to divesting its holdings the private prison industry.
When a group of Columbia students of color first marched into President Bollinger’s office in February 2014 to demand (among other things) that the University drop $10 million dollars in direct holdings in private prison companies, there were only three active university prison divestment campaigns. Today there are more than a dozen campaigns, and our power is growing, from UCLA to Wesleyan College, and from University of Minnesota to University of Central Florida.
However, this momentum is about more than even colleges’ and universities’ immediate complicity in the prison industrial complex via investments. As Columbia Prison Divest organizer Dunni Oduyemi reflects:
"We targeted the university’s investments in two private prison companies, but we hope that private prison divestment campaigns, with the abolitionist vision of a larger anti-prison movement, can help us start working towards divesting from the idea that prisons equal justice, which we believe to be fundamentally racist.”
For the national prison divestment campaign, this win could not come at a more exciting time. Just this past month, REC helped to organize a convening and two direct actions with over 200 participants and 40 organizations in Boca Raton, FL, a state whose corrupt politicians have repeatedly shown the insidiousness of the private prison lobby. And earlier this spring, REC helped coordinate a nationalPrison Divestment Week of Engagement, with 16 events around the country, ranging from multiple college teach-in series to a Twitter town hall.
Our momentum is clearly growing. Not only has the Columbia campaign gained great visibility for the coalition with powerful actions, but it has also succeeded in organizing hundreds of Columbia students to take seriously their institution’s complicity in systems of racist and classist oppression like the private prison industry and the gentrification of Harlem.
In just a month and a half, youth organizers from around the country will be gathering once again, this time in Los Angeles, for the second-ever Prison Divestment Youth Retreat. Together with grassroots partners including the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, the Afrikan Black Coalition, the Immigrant Youth Justice Coalition, and campaign convener Enlace, REC is planning this retreat to be yet another watershed moment to grow our power, and achieve even more concrete victories.
But to do this, we need your help! Please donate and share our new official fundraiser page to help us provide travel scholarships for those who need them most.
While the horrific murders that took place last week in Charleston, and the subsequent responses of the media and political figures can leave us in no doubt that white supremacy is alive and well in America today, we must also remember and learn from our many collective victories, and know that another world is possible!
Lastly, I would like to close with a statement from the entire Columbia Prison Divest Campaign:
“For us, prison divestment has been an entry point for addressing the ways in which students at elite colleges and universities are [in privileged positions] because of systems of inequality. The racist, classist images of “criminals deserving of punishment” are created in tandem with images of “hard-working college students deserving of opportunity,” and each is defined in relation to the other. Through prison divestment, we have worked to challenge these narratives and structures. We refuse to buy into the false narratives that justify our privilege at the expense of the suffering of others. We hope this victory opens doors to more campaigns, to more organizing, to more victories. This is not the end. This is a beginning.”
To our struggle,