Cornell’s Black Students United kicks off their movement for divestment from prison and mass
incarceration-affiliated companies by dropping off a letter in President Elizabeth Garrett’s office yesterday. (Michaela Brew / Sun Sports Photography Editor)

Cornell’s Black Students United kicks off their movement for divestment from prison and mass incarceration-affiliated companies by dropping off a letter in President Elizabeth Garrett’s office yesterday. (Michaela Brew / Sun Sports Photography Editor)

November 10, 2015

Black Students United Calls for Prison Divestment

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Twelve students from Black Students United — a student-run umbrella organization representing the interests of black Cornellians — entered President Elizabeth Garrett’s office Tuesday to submit a letter outlining demands for the University to divest its endowment from interests based in prisons and mass incarceration.

The letter launches the group’s public campaign to fight Cornell’s involvement with organizations related to the “violence of the prison industry and mass incarceration,” according to BSU.

Cornell’s Black Students United kicks off their movement for divestment from prison and mass incarceration-affiliated companies by dropping off a letter in President Elizabeth Garrett’s office yesterday. (Michaela Brew / Sun Sports Photography Editor)

Cornell’s Black Students United kicks off their movement for divestment from prison and mass
incarceration-affiliated companies by dropping off a letter in President Elizabeth Garrett’s office yesterday. (Michaela Brew / Sun Sports Photography Editor)

“Black students at Cornell and those on campuses across the world have a history of holding their universities accountable,” said Amber Aspinall ’17, political action chair of BSU. “We will continue that tradition.”

In their letter, BSU outlined four major demands of the University. They insist that the University cease investments in companies that include Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group Inc. and G4S USA Secure Solution; no longer use the G4S security system in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art; issue an official University statement on Cornell’s involvement with the private prison industry and grant organizers a meeting with the University’s Investment Committee.

“We very cordially invite President Garrett, as well as the rest of the administration and any interested trustees to help build this very important dialogue on campus regarding the private prison industry and the prison industrial complex,” said Robert Johnson ’17, a BSU political action member.

Highlighting Cornell’s prior involvement with apartheid South Africa and JanSport, the letter stated concerns that Cornell’s decision to invest in organizations related to prisons and mass incarceration creates discomfort for students.

“What we want to know — and what many students, faculty and community members want to know — is where our policymakers stand on this issue and what common ground we can find to ensure that Cornell’s relationship with the criminal justice system is one that truly reflects the values and spirit of this University,” Johnson said.

The BSU movement at Cornell was inspired by a similar movement at Columbia University, where student activists successfully campaigned for the university to become the first college in the United States to divest from private prison companies, according to the letter.

“We hope you join us in extending our sincerest congratulations to the student activists at Columbia for their dedication, passion and skilled organizing,” the letter reads.

While Garrett was not on campus at the time of the letter drop, BSU activists cite her inauguration address as a positive indication that she will be open to working towards progress, according to the letter.

“Among your most salient words, however, was your call on Cornell to be ‘radical and progressive,’” the letter says. “We are prepared to answer that call. We hope that you are as well.”

BSU is requesting a response from the University by Nov. 23, and hopes that a response will increase transparency on the issue of private prison investments, according to Abraham Araya ’19, a BSU political action member.

“Private prisons turn black lives into commodities,” said Delmar Fears ’19, a freshman representative. “I don’t want to attend a university that says they support and welcome black students, while reaping the profits from a corrupt system that disproportionately disenfranchises the black community. They can’t say and do both; something has to change.”

  • George

    Delmar- you are free to withdraw from Cornell. In fact, it would probably be a good idea.

    • JayL

      First off, she is also free to stay. Just because u are ok with Cornell supporting private prisons, doesn’t mean that everyone else is. Just because you are completely satisfied with how everything at Cornell is run, doesn’t mean that everyone else is too. Second, why would her leaving be a good idea? Cause giving the school a moral compass is so detrimental to the school?

      • George

        The prison does not select prisoners. The court, in accordance with laws passed by the legislature, decides who should be incarcerated. Divesting from investments in private prisons does nothing to discourage mass incarceration. I agree that too many people (of ALL colors) are in prison. Politicians on both sides are cooperating to address that problem. On the other hand, this strikes me as bored students desperately searching for a cause to maintain their street cred. What will it be next week? Perhaps the University does not provide adequate treatment for stray animals found on campus. Perhaps the ketchup brand used in the dining hall is not acceptable. Whatever happened to academic pursuits? Maybe these “students” are getting extra credit for organizing a protest?

        • Vince

          George, prisons do not select prisoners; that I agree with you.

          However, I would like to point out the fact that prisons have a huge financial incentive to keep their prisons filled. To make sure their interest are heard, there are lobbyist and campaign funding that supports politians that would have an influence what legislations do get passed.

          By not investing in prisons, one is tackling the issue at the root cause. For if the prisons make less money they have less money to use for lobbyist and other funding of politians. I surely oversimplified how it works, but this is the general idea.

          The fact Colombia university had recently undergone a similar movement certainly validates the reasoning behind it.

          • Batista

            Take economics instead of nonsense courses. Prisons are full because of criminals getting convicted. Cornell divesting would have no impact on the profit of prisons. Time would be better spent on fighting to end fraud in Social Security disability, welfare, Medicaid etc. to free up money for the economy and create opportunity so the poor can get jobs instead of going into crime. The biggest cause of the rising poor and crime rate is the democrat creation of a permanent underclass dependent on government handouts, so that they will vote forever for people like Hillary and Obama who will give them just enough money to stay poor, ignorant and dependent, rather than pull themselves up to the middle class.

        • George wrote:

          “I agree that too many people (of ALL colors) are in prison. Politicians on both sides are cooperating to address that problem.”

          BINGO! Politicians–both Republican and Democrat are starting to realize that the war on drugs failed. I expect over the next few years you will see fewer and fewer excessively long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. If that happens, then prisons will have fewer and fewer prisoners–which will make the companies that run the prisons less profitable.

          If that is the case–and I think it is–then Cornell should divest from these companies because continued long-term investment in them would be fiscally irresponsible.

  • SixthAmendment

    While I agree with you that private prisons are a problem for a variety of reasons, divestment is not the solution. The university has a responsibility to invest its endowment in such a way that it earns the highest possible return. They depend on the investment income to keep costs for students low (and clearly they are failing at this already). I don’t think it’s practical or reasonable to examine the moral character of every company the university invests in, particularly when the university’s involvement has no effect on the performance of said company. We need to keep our investment decisions separate from our moral judgement of companies.

    • JayL

      I’m not sure whether financial decisions should be removed from ethical. I can 100% guarantee that if the school invested in something that was more extreme like internment campus (yes those still exist) or decided to invest in human testing, I’m not sure how alright student would be with that.

    • Sixth Amendment–what makes you think that it is fiscally responsible to invest in companies to run the prison system? More and more politicians are concluding that there are too many people in prison due to the failed drug laws. The trend will be for sentences to become more lenient for nonviolent drug offenses. That means the prison population will go down, which means these companies will become less profitable.

      It seems a good argument could be made that divesting from these companies is the fiscally responsible thing to do.

  • Batista

    It is a shame that Amber groups people by the color of their skin. We thought that kind of racism had no place on this campus. All these students demanding divestment by the University from this or that industry should immediately stop taking any grants or aid from the University and pay full tuition. They probably did not realize that by taking grants and financial aid they are profiting from the profits obtained by the investments. Now that they do, they will pay for their own full tuition and stop profiting from the University’s investment on prisons or oil companies right? Fat chance. Bunch of liberals that like to make meaningless statements but have no skin in the game. George is right, if you find the investments offensive leave, or at the very least stop profiting from them. It is also racist that they assume they represent the interests of all “black” Cornellians. Those of us who judge people by their merits do not lump people into groups by the color of their skin and think everyone of the same color has the same opinions.

    • DaveE

      Couldn’t agree more. Where do they think money comes from for EOP/HEOP which practically guarantees a full, free, ride?

    • Batista, see my replies to Sixth Amendment and George re the fiscal responsibility of investing in prisons.

      Your argument that protesters must give up the right to protest because the University subsidizes part of their tuition is morally repugnant. Let’s do a thought experiment. Pretend the year was 1943 and Jewish students discovered that Cornell was investing in a company that profited by doing business with German extermination camps. Suppose those Jewish students wanted to protest Cornell’s investments, but they were receiving subsidies from the University. Should they have to shut their yaps and leave the university if they don’t like it?

      Or how about poor people who are on welfare but don’t like government policies? Are they obligated to give up their First Amendment right to protest simply because the government subsidizes them? Is the first amendment solely for those who can afford it?

      There is also something else repugnant about your post. You wrote:

      “They probably did not realize that by taking grants and financial aid they are profiting from the profits obtained by the investments.”

      How do you know they are taking grants and financial aid? How do you know the financial situation of these specific protesters? Is it something you just assumed because they are black? There is a word for that kind of assumption. See if you can guess what it is.

      • Are You Serious

        The only thing morally repugnant here is that you’re comparing a group of spoiled brats complaining about first world problems to Jews who’ve actually suffered atrocities and never had the chance to speak in the first place.

        • Are You Serious–you seem to lack a basic understanding of how analogies and rhetoric work. To show the faulty logic of one situation (Situation A), one must often extrapolate to an extreme situation (Situation B) to see how the reasoning plays out. That does not mean situation A and situation B are equivalent.

          I should not have to explain the very basics of rhetoric to a Cornell student. I suspect that you are not that stupid and that you already know this, but your pathetic response is the only thing you could come up with to save face.

          • Batista

            The problem is your “logic” is fatally flawed as is typical for the radical left. They cannot understand the faults in their positions. Exterminating people is wrong. Putting criminals in jail is right. There is no moral issue of private vs. public prisons. The only reason more minorities are in jail than others is the democrats have intentionally created a poor underclass to vote for them in exchange for promises of continued handouts, so people like Hillary and Barack can become millionaires as elected official, rather than working for a living. The democrats are at best creating a permanent serf underclass of the multi-generational poor. At worst creating modern slaves. And those serf/slaves are white, black, yellow, red…

      • Batista

        Ms. Messing – If I was a Jewish student at that time I would have left regardless of whether I received money from the investment and made the reason public. That is called principles and character. As for your pathetic play of the race card I will intelligently point out your ignorance. 1. I was addressing students asking for divestment on all issues including prisons and oil companies, please try to understand the argument before you make a fool of yourself. We are all really tired of lazy liberals who can’t refute an intelligent point without claiming racism. 2. About 70% of the students don’t pay full boat,it is fair to say more that halfof the divestment protestors are reaping the fruits of the investments. To your argument of the “fiscal” reasons to divest from prisons, I saw it an see a total lack of knowledge of the financial realities. These demands for divestments of all kinds are just bored lazy students with nothing productive to do with their time. These spoiled people white, yellow, black, green, should do something meaningful, not token nonsense.

  • Lew Brown

    The photo is disturbing. They are doing the most half-assed black-power salute I have ever seen. Are they waiting and hoping to get called on? The salute needs to project power, otherwise keep your hands down. Or have the photographer snap while you are still saluting.

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  • Common Sense

    Shouldn’t the first order of diversity and inclusion call the ending of groups that are called: “Black Students United”?

    • NonSense

      No. I’m positive non-black students can join their club if they’d like. There’s no exclusion.

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