Lawrence is not as forward-thinking as we think. Actions like the demonstrations on College Avenue demanding protection for our students of color, the Sampson House protests seeking sexual policy reform, among others, have uncovered realities significantly different from those on the Admissions brochures. Lawrence, we all realized, is a long way from being an institution that works for us.
However, as much as the mentioned challenges are imminent and changes necessary, we are neglecting other important issues that are not always so close to home. I am specifically referring to two large-scale atrocities that exist beyond the confinements of “our Bubble” but well within our society. Those issues being the complex Prison Industrial Complex in the US and the Occupation of Palestinian lands.
As different as those issues are, and as removed as they might seem to be, I believed them to be areas where Lawrentians can enable positive change. As “global citizens” we are more capable than ever to impact communities beyond our direct reach. Divestment from companies which aid in the oppression of various people of color is exactly the kind of change that Lawrentians can push forward.
But what exactly does any of this mean, anyway? What in the world is “divestment?”
When speaking of divestment, I am specifically referring to two social movements that, although separate, are conjoined in their immediacy and importance. Both movements challenge institutional oppression by demanding ends to economic ties that disadvantage their respective population.
The first, and more known one, is aimed at deterring companies from collaborating with Israel in its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. This divestment, is associated with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) that has taken place worldwide. It calls for an end to the Israeli occupation of Arab lands, dismantling the Wall that is separating Palestine, recognizing full equality for Palestinian Arabs inside of Israel and to allow exiled Palestinians to return home.
The second of these divestment movements, targets the Prison Industrial Complex. Prison divestment mirrors many techniques of the BDS movement. However, this campaign seeks to disconnect universities and other groups from economic ties to private prisons or similar businesses. While this campaign still remains to be solidified, schools like Columbia University have already led the way and divested from companies that enhance the subjugation of people of color within the U.S.
It is important to note that either type of divestment campaign leads to divisive and controversial dialogue. Various communities, especially universities, have become increasingly split over the dialog on such campaigns.
Critics of the Israeli divestment movement often label it as anti-Semitic, as it targets Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. I understand that anti-Semitism should be a valid concern, particularly on this campus where identity is often attacked. Even I will admit to perpetrating micro-aggressions on Jewish students. But a divestment movement is neither the root nor an escalation of anti-Semitism. It is my belief that divestment from Israel only targets the country’s institutional actions. Israel is ultimately an independent country, and as one its actions are solely its responsibility. At the height of the Apartheid movement, South Africa faced similar outside pressures to those that groups like universities are putting on Israel today.
Similarly, critics also discredit divestment as offering simplistic solutions to very complex problems. In the case of prison divestment, it might seem difficult to call our university into question for ties to prisons that might not exist. However, the main problem is that universities are often more tied to prisons than we think. Columbia actually owned about 220,000 shares of security companies like G4S and Corrections Corporations of America (CCA) which were sold following divestment. This victory for prison divestment points at the success that such a campaign can have, despite initial doubt that a university can hurt the for-profit prison industry.
It goes without saying that our campus has faced great challenges this year. But as we end the year, and as we consider the possibilities for students to come, we must remember that we have more power to utilize—to take a brave stance and to tackle two of the most scary and startling issues of our time can make Lawrence a leading institution for change, something that we have consistently failed to be. Brown, Black and Immigrant peoples might not necessarily be oppressed in the same ways, but that oppression equally holds us down. I think it is our time to do something about it.