Portland halts investment in Caterpillar

Israeli forces use a Caterpillar vehicle to destroy a Palestinian home in occupied east Jerusalem, May 2013.

Sliman Khader APA images

The city of Portland, Oregon, has voted to temporarily halt its investments in all corporate securities after a broad coalition of activists urged the city to drop financial relationships with companies involved in human rights violations.

Palestine solidarity activists, together with environmental groups and prison divestment organizations, demanded the city council add Caterpillar and Wells Fargo to a list of corporations that violate a socially responsible investment (SRI) policy adopted by the city in 2014.

In their unanimous vote on 21 December, the city council determined that investments in all corporate securities – including those two companies – will be suspended for at least four months.

Portland’s investments in Caterpillar and Wells Fargo “raised concerns around environmental desecration, weapons production, abusive labor practices, human rights abuses and corporate governance,” stated Enlace, an alliance of low-wage worker centers, unions, and community organizations in Mexico and the US that helped organize with other local groups.

Caterpillar and its fleet of militarized bulldozers have become synonymous with Israel’s destruction and desecration of Palestinian land and homes. The company has been a longtime target of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Banking giant Wells Fargo is a major investor in the private prison industry and is one of more than a dozen financial institutions that are bankrolling the Dakota Access Pipeline – where Caterpillar equipment is being used to destroy indigenous land in North Dakota.

“This victory is great. We got Wells Fargo and Caterpillar out of our city’s investment portfolio for right now,” said Maxine Fookson of Occupation-Free Portland, a Palestine activism group that worked with Enlace, the Portland Prison Divestment Campaign and environmental justice group 350pdx.org to pressure city lawmakers.

Palestine front and center

During a public hearing on the expanded SRI policy on 30 November, human rights campaigners filled the city council chambers and the overflow room.

Activists presented evidence of human rights violations committed by Caterpillar in Palestine and Wells Fargo in the US.

At the hearing, “the issue of what Caterpillar was doing in Palestine was front and center in the city council. It was the topic of the day,” Fookson told The Electronic Intifada.

The Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace also urged the city council to include Caterpillar on the do-not-buy list.

Meanwhile, speakers affiliated with Israel advocacy organizations claimed that including Caterpillar for its abuses of Palestinian rights was divisive and singles out Israel, while others alleged that activists who support the measure are anti-Semitic and that Jewish supporters of BDS are “fringe Jews,” according to Fookson.

However, Commissioner Steve Novick, who introduced the amendment to include the two companies in the SRI policy, said that while he understood the concerns of some Jewish organizations, he rejected the claim that activists who advocate putting Caterpillar on the do-not-buy list are anti-Semitic.

“In fact, as has been noted, a fair number of them are Jewish,” he said.

He added that as someone who identifies as Jewish, he said he was “disturbed” that Jewish boycott supporters, including members of Jewish Voice for Peace, were called “fringe Jews” by the Israel advocates.

“The opposition did not win this one,” Fookson remarked. “They got called out on [attempts at] stifling speech.”

Fookson noted that it was important to press for a halt in investment, even if it is only temporary.

“Had we said we were only going to go for a permanent divestment, the votes wouldn’t have been there,” she explained.

“We chiseled away. Our victories aren’t going to be these big huge steps – we chisel away at it.”

Back to work

Building strong coalitions is key to successful city divestment campaigns, activists say.

In July 2016, Palestine solidarity campaigners, members of Enlace and the Afrikan Black Coalition of UC Berkeley successfully pressured the city of Berkeley, California, to divest its holdings from Wells Fargo and private prison corporations, including G4S.

G4S provides security services at US prisons, as well as inside Israeli prisons, where Palestinian adults and children are routinely interrogated, tortured and held without charge or trial.

G4S announced in December it was dumping most of its Israeli businesses following sustained international boycott pressure.

After Portland’s historic decision, “it will be important for Caterpillar and other corporations to have discussions in their board rooms about their corporate conduct, and decide to make the change to not sell products and services to human rights abusers,” said Palestinian American lawyer Hala Gores.

For now, activists will “savor the victory – and then get back to work,” Fookson said.

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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).