Inside the University of California student campaign
My first encounter with the Afrikan Black Coalition—the largest California-wide Black youth organization, with chapters on fifteen University of California and California State University campuses—was at its January 2015 annual conference at the University of California, Irvine. I was one of forty delegates from the University of California, Berkeley, and joined more than 600 Black students from California’s public universities attending the conference. The Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend event was full of introductions, workshops, caucuses, dancing, and food. It was one of the first times in my twenty-six years of life that I had been surrounded by that many Black people, and I did not know what to do with myself. Blackness is not monolithic: in skin tone, physical build, personality, and presentation, our diversity was wonderfully evident at the conference.
Each year the conference is held on a different campus; but given the demographics of the University of California system, such a large gathering of Black students always attracts undue attention. Merely existing as a Black person can be an isolating experience, particularly when UC campuses maintain a less than 4 percent Black student body1. While we enjoyed each other’s company, we also felt under perpetual surveillance by non-Black students, campus visitors, and campus police. While grabbing In-N-Out during dinner, we were stared at; while walking the campus UC Irvine, students pointed out an increased police presence; at the hotel we felt like unwelcomed guests. This constant policing of Blackness was a reminder that our work to improve the deplorable admission and retention rates of Black students is far from complete. At UC Berkeley, my alma mater, I was one of 911 Black undergraduate students enrolled in Fall 2015 out of a total of 27,496,2 making up 3.3% of the total student population. To combat this isolation, the Afrikan Black Coalition (ABC) connects the work Black students do on campuses to the wider struggle that people of African descent experience throughout the world, not just in North America. I felt compelled to do more for fellow Black folks as I entered my final year of undergraduate education at Cal, and joined the Afrikan Black Coalition as a writer that summer.
The year 2015 marked one year since the murder of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, five years since the “accidental” murder of Aiyana Stanley-Jones in Detroit, and six years since the murder of Oscar Grant in Oakland. The budding #BlackLivesMatter campaign brought to public prominence—for the first time for many Americans—the link between mass incarceration and the brutal overpolicing of Black communities across the United States. That same year, the Afrikan Black Coalition—led by ABC Political Director Yoel Haile, a University of California, Santa Barbara, alumnus and University of California, Berkeley, Goldman School of Public Policy master’s of public policy graduate—launched a campaign to educate staff and students on the mass incarceration of Black people. As an organization fighting for Black liberation, we want to abolish the prison industrial complex. We want political prisoners released; we want private prisons gone; and, ultimately, we want to live in a world without prisons. ABC seeks the abolition of all forms of slavery in their entirety, and we believe that begins by recognizing that prisons are a form of legal slavery.
United States history proves helpful for animating this argument for prison abolition. The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified 6 December 1865 and is often celebrated as the end of American slavery. Yet the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution reads:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The caveat, “except as punishment for a crime,” suggests that the Amendment never intended slavery to end necessarily, but rather for it to merely mutate into something more easily countenanced—or ignored—by the public. In his study of the California prison industrial complex, calling this “the sedimentations of slavery,” Brady Heiner identifies California’s situation, with convict labor producing significant profit for prisons, as a functional substitute for the plantation.3 Bryan Stevenson has made this argument on a more popular level, highlighting that American slavery has evolved, with the racializing of criminality effectively becoming an extension of chattel slavery, chain gangs, and the convict leasing system that was meant to maintain cheap labor by treating Black people as less than human.
Incarceration, like enslavement, is a temporary condition that is often extended and exacerbated by housing discrimination, occupational discrimination, social stigma, and disenfranchisement after release. Private prisons and those who invest in them seek to profit from this grotesque state of affairs. They represent only a small portion of mass incarceration in the United States, but they are the portion that is the most symptomatic of the American justice system. University of Wisconsin School of Business Professor Anita Mukherjee reviewed data from private prisons in Mississippi—where California has sent inmates to ease overcrowding in its own state prisons—and found that, though they are advertised as money-saving ventures for the states that house them, “prisoners in private facilities had an increase in their sentence of 4 to 7 percent, which equaled 60 to 90 days for the average prisoner.”4 At $50 per bed occupied, sixty days adds around $3,000 per prisoner without any guarantee of fair treatment. It’s a system that must be fed constantly not just with taxpayers’ money, but with taxpayers’ bodies.
For these reasons, the Afrikan Black Coalition hopes to see a world without private prisons—and eventually all prisons—so we started where we had presence and, as students, leverage: the University of California. Based on research by Enlace, the Afrikan Black Coalition began an investigation into the connection between the University of California and private prisons.5 We focused on three of the largest private prison corporations: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), Geo Group, and G4S. Through conversations with the University of California’s Chief Investment Officer, Jadgeep Bachher, Afrikan Black Coalition members began a campaign of phone calls and emails to put pressure on the university to determine exactly how much the UC invested in the three corporations. Initially, we were stonewalled; so, we filed a public records act request to obtain the necessary information, but Bachher provided the information before we received the records in response to our official request.
As a coalition of nine UC campuses, we released a statement in November 2015 that exposed for the first time that the University of California was supporting the three largest private prison operators with $25 million in investments using student and taxpayer money. During that same month, all nine UC chapters of Afrikan Black Coalition voted unanimously to demand an end to these investments immediately. This vote was in support of an internal document, the Prison Divestment Resolution, which spelled out eight demands. The primary demand was simple: divest the $25 million sum in CCA, the Geo Group, and G4S.
After two meetings with high-ranking UC officials, Yoel Haile, Terron Wilkerson (UCSB alumnus), and I had our first meeting with the Chief Investment Officer, Jagdeep Bachher in December. We made the moral and ethical case for the UC to stop investing in private prisons based on evidence compiled by researchers across the country, including the Responsible Endowments Coalition. I shared the experiences of my older cousin, who is in his mid-thirties and has spent half of his life in prison. He made mistakes—and it is important that he be accountable for his actions—but it’s also important to recognize the way the system of mass incarceration disenfranchises him outside of prison, even after he has served his time and experienced the abuse he faced inside of prison.
In arguing that divesting from private prisons was an imperative, not an option, we were pleasantly surprised when Bachher told us that he agreed and wanted to partner with us to reach our goal. In the days that followed, we met repeatedly with University of California representatives but received no guarantee of divestment. As we waited for the CIO to follow through, we published the campaign demands on the ABC blog. As the director of communications for the campaign, I sent hundreds of emails and made dozens of phone calls to drum up press coverage on the university’s investment into private prisons to make sure that public pressure would keep the CIO and the UC true to their word. Finally, in our second and final meeting with Bachher, he informed us that the University of California would sell the shares by 31 December 2015. There could be no greater holiday gift for ABC and me than a fulfilled promise from Bachher, who had kept his word. On 17 December, we issued a press release about the unanimous vote for prison divestment. The day after that, our most triumphant win yet—prison divestment—occurred. It was an important victory for our campaign and for a simple moral truth: no one should profit from the suffering of others—but it was only a first step.
The Afrikan Black Coalition is still campaigning. We spoke at the February 2016 UC Regents Committee on Investments meeting and the March 2016 UC Regents meeting about the university divesting its shares of Wells Fargo. The University of California has publicly stated that they do not intend to sell their shares in Wells Fargo.6 Wells Fargo, however, is a major lender for private prison corporations and has a history of discriminatory lending lawsuits.7 Although Jagdeep Baccher issued an April 2016 memorandum informing UC foundations that they sold their holdings in private prisons, the Afrikan Black Coalition is still awaiting quarterly investment reports from him, as we have requested. The sum that was invested in private prisons has not been reinvested in education and companies that are owned or controlled by the formerly incarcerated, also as we requested. Finally, the Afrikan Black Coalition still seeks for the UC regents to create a Socially Responsible Investment Committee, with representatives of the Afrikan Black Coalition and UC Students Association, that actively researches whether future corporations the UC invests in are held to ethical standards.
Yet even with these unresolved concerns, I often think back to a particular moment in our first meeting with Chief Investment Officer Jagdeep Baccher. I was skeptical when he offered to partner with us. Although the University of California has not officially declared divestment from private prisons “as a matter of policy,” and $25 million of an almost $100 billion UC investment profile is small in relative terms, it is still a major organizational win. And for a student like me—Black, queer, with formerly incarcerated family members—the support from fellow Black students, staff, and a high-ranking UC official felt enormous. When I stepped onto UC Irvine’s campus over a year ago for my first conference, I had no idea that my efforts could have such an impact. We made it clear that to invest in private prisons is to invest in the enslavement and dehumanization of Black, brown, and migrant lives. Our Black existence is not disposable, our university degrees do not make us any better than incarcerated individuals, and we are making it plain that all Black Lives Matter.
3. Brady Heiner, “Excavating the Sedimentations of Slavery: The Unfinished Project of American Abolition,” Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration, Geoffrey Adelsberg, Lisa Guenther, and Scott Zeman, eds. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 13–42.
5. Enlace is an organization that calls itself “a strategic alliance of low-wage worker centers, unions, and community organizations in Mexico and in the U.S.” They were vital to the success of our campaign, and they also supported activists and students at Columbia University who successfully campaigned for their school to divest from private prisons. They were the first private university to do so.
7. “Banking on Immigrant Detention: Wells Fargo’s Ties to the Private Prison Industry,”http://public-accountability.org/2012/09/banking-on-immigrant-detention/.