Berkeley divests from torture profiteer G4S

People power is the best way to hold corporations accountable. (Palestine Solidarity Campaign/Flickr)

The city of Berkeley, California, has adopted a resolution to divest from private prison firms, including G4S, a provider of services to Israeli jails where Palestinians are routinely tortured.

In the resolution, approved by the city council on 19 July, Berkeley will be called on to divest from private prison corporations and request that its business partners, including banking giant Wells Fargo, follow suit.

The resolution targets major players in the US’ private prison industry, including the Geo Group, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and G4S.

G4S is one of the largest corporations in the world and provides security services inside US prisons.

It also operates inside Israeli prisons, where Palestinian adults and children are interrogated, tortured and held without charge or trial.

The corporation has been a longtime target of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign for its involvement in Israel’s military occupation and incarceration systems.

G4S has lost millions of dollars in contracts with businesses, unions and universities, due to the growing boycott campaign. The United Methodist Church and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have also pulled their investments in the company.

Earlier this year, G4S announced it was leaving the Israeli market and selling its Israeli subsidiary, but the corporation has a long track record of breaking promises.

The resolution was introduced to Berkeley city council in June by members of Enlace, an alliance of low-wage worker centers, unions, and community organizations in Mexico and the US, as well as members of the Afrikan Black Coalition (ABC), which represents Black students in the University of California system.

Friends of Sabeel North America, an ecumenical Palestinian rights group, “encouraged the inclusion of G4S in the list of companies” targeted for divestment because of its dual roles in the US and Israel, according to a press release.

“This is a straightforward process that any town can pursue with a strong coalition of concerned community members,” said Rochelle Gause, the group’s national organizer.

Pressuring Wells Fargo

The city of Berkeley will have to evaluate the potential financial risks to its economy before acting, said Kriss Worthington, a member of the city council, as reported in The Daily Californian.

Worthington’s former intern, UC Berkeley senior Boomer Vicente, wrote the city council item as well as a similar 2015 resolution for the university’s student senate.

“By passing these kinds of policies, it makes a statement to corporations like Wells Fargo and other corporate investors in the prison industry that humans are not monetary profit; they should not profit off their suffering,” Vicente told The Electronic Intifada.

“Boycotting these corporate investors is our way of protesting the private prison industry and playing a role in dismantling it,” he added.

The city of Berkeley had more than $6 million invested in Wells Fargo as of March 2014.

The bank is a major investor in the private prison industry. Even though it sold off much of its stock in Geo Group holdings following targeted divestment campaigns against the company, Wells Fargo has increased its stake in CCA. At the end of June 2014, it owned 1 million shares in the company, valued at nearly $37 million according to Prison Legal News.

Vicente noted that Berkeley is the second city in the US to pass a policy item like this – after Portland, Oregon – “and the first in the nation to receive support from their local university.”

“Extraordinary win”

The Afrikan Black Coalition has been steadily campaigning against the university’s investments in the domestic and international private prison industry.

In December 2015, due to sustained pressure from ABC and aligned student groups, the Regents, the University of California’s governing body, announced it would be pulling its entire $25 million worth of investments in private prisons.

Anthony Williams, prison divestment communications director of ABC, said he was “ecstatic” about the city council’s new resolution.

“The city of Berkeley and the University of California [at] Berkeley have a more ‘liberal’ reputation, yet despite the moral implications of modern-day slavery through incarceration, the city was still invested in private prisons,” Williams, a senior at UC Berkeley, told The Electronic Intifada.

For the city’s Peace and Justice Commission to support this resolution, along with Enlace and ABC, “was an extraordinary win for incarcerated peoples at the local level,” he said.

While the city’s resolution and the UC’s divestment from private prisons were welcome victories, ABC notes that the UC system remains heavily invested in Wells Fargo.

“The $425 million that the UC has invested in Wells Fargo is a sign of complicity and is counterintuitive to selling off private prison shares,” Williams explained.

Williams noted that the passage of the city council’s resolution “will help” build pressure on the banking giant, “but we have been working on this long enough to know what more work will be required for [the University of California] to fiscally justify cutting ties” with Wells Fargo, he said.

“Oppressive institutions”

Amanda Aguilar Shank, senior campaign organizer of Enlace, told The Electronic Intifada that the group is “thrilled that the city of Berkeley has chosen to be a part of the growing national movement to divest from oppressive institutions that lead to suffering and criminalization of communities across the world.”

ABC’s pressure on the University of California to divest from the private prison corporations “has been part of building national momentum for prison divestment,” said Aguilar Shank.

Last year, Columbia became the first university to divest from private prisons.

“As cities and universities also begin to divest from prison profiteers like Wells Fargo, we will start to see a real impact on the prison industry, which we aim to eventually abolish,” Aguilar Shank added.

She said that prison divestment encourages city leaders to see how the redirecting of local resources can benefit communities instead of doing harm.

Vicente noted that along with the private prison divestment resolution, the city also passed a resolution in support of the Dignity Not Detention Act, a California bill that prevents cities and counties from operating immigrant detention facilities while allowing detainees to file civil lawsuits if their human rights are violated.

“Two similar beasts”

Despite its progressive reputation, the city of Berkeley has been unwilling to support measures that are directly connected to the global campaign for Palestinian rights.

Last year, a city commissioner was fired for proposing a resolution to divest from Israel.

Had it been adopted, the resolution would have called on the city to divest all holdings in companies “participating in ongoing violations of human rights and international law in occupied Palestinian territories.”

The commissioner, Cheryl Davila, was reinstated to her position in March.

However, the city’s move to divest from G4S for its role in US prisons is an indirect yet visible victory for the global BDS campaign – as well as the strengthening bond between Black Americans and Palestinians.

“One of the largest companies plaguing both Black folks and Palestinians is G4S,” noted Williams.

“We clearly see the close relationship between Israeli occupation of Palestine and the ongoing genocide of Black people all over the world. The myth of white supremacy and American imperialism joins Black folks and Palestinians as the targets of anti-Black and anti-indigenous settler colonial violence, a violence that we must work together to resist at all costs,” he said.

Aguilar Shank noted that the Berkeley resolution comes at the same time that the Movement for Black Lives released a policy platform that calls for “investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging and harming of Black people.”

The platform also demands divestment from US corporations which profit from Israel’s violations of Palestinians’ human rights.

Williams remarked: “Incarceration and occupation are two similar beasts, and when the city of Berkeley commits to divesting from companies that are directly tied to both the Palestinian struggle and the prison industrial complex, it is clearly a step in the right direction.”

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In Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, a mostly Latino working class neighborhood, the Chicago Public Library branch uses G4S for their security. I understand there are different companies contracted with different public libraries and the manners in which they get their contracts have yet to be revealed. But it is important to understand the relationship between private security and the detentions centers for immigrants in the US and also the limited prospects for economic security that are available to immigrants. A job at security in a public library is a totally respectable job for many people; even the ICE office in downtown Chicago uses a private security company at its entry point mostly staffed by African Americans who undoubtedly feel that they have a respectable job; not to mention the Latino ICE agents that bring people in. It also speaks to things like Trump's proposal for child care, when places like Texas where G4S operates several facilities recently tried to get detention centers listed as "daycare operators" to be eligible for federal/other public funding. What this really reveals is a systematic efforts of people like the legislators who approve things like the Occupation of Palestine to divest hard working and responsible people from their own wealth, culture and land so that they are then made susceptible to "offers" of "respectable" jobs that in the end only serve to support their personal and community disempowerment. The thing is, we can target the company all we want, but until we find some way to engage people working in these security jobs and creating with them true alternatives that do not serve to further divide our communities, we're just going to continue to be pitted against each other in a histrionic display that ultimately profits the very people we're targeting at the end of the day. And it's really that important...when the National Guard comes in to places like Milwaukee, we need those security guards and others like them.

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).