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.
“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.”