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In Support of Prison Divestment

By Steve S. Li
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

If the contemporary moment tells us anything, it is that the ongoing pursuit of justice requires as many hands and as many voices working together as possible. Solidarity benefits from numbers and volume. Every sign on the street, every institutional message of support, every dollar donated, and, yes, every dollar divested from unethical companies counts.

Here’s why we believe — against our earlier, rightly criticized precedent — that Harvard should divest from the prison industrial complex and particularly private prison management companies.

Let’s begin with the hard facts: Private prisons and the prison-industrial complex more broadly — a useful working definition can be found here — are at the core of the ongoing perversion of the justice system to control, exploit, and abuse Black people. Like the police — itself partially a historical outgrowth of slave patrols — they are a modern-day manifestation of the legacy of slavery, interwoven into the fabric of the American economy, society, and racist self-image. Private prisons and prison profiteering need to stop. And divestment is the best way for the University to contribute to that ongoing struggle.

The University’s typical response — that divestment makes the endowment dangerously political — just doesn’t cut it. Frankly, it’s disingenuous. First, the University has divested, if reluctantly, from morally problematic interests in the past. Its refusal to divest from immoral industries today is itself a political stance.

But second, investment practices are always political, for the simple reason that actions have consequences for other people and their well-being. No amount of institutional deflection, investment banking mediation, or market morality theory can eschew the basic truth that if an individual or institution puts resources towards an effort, it is supporting that effort and responsible for the moral consequences of its pursuit.

In reality, the University’s decision not to divest from the prison-industrial complex seems more likely motivated by a fear of losing control to student activists. The administration must wonder: Where does it stop? Once the tactic of divestment takes hold, every cause could adopt a strategy of calling for Harvard to divest.

We understand that concern. In our previous editorial, we wrote that private prisons did not meet our bar for supporting divestment. Faced with a number of divestment campaigns, we found it difficult to decide which was deserving of endorsement as opposed to any other. Where was the moral line? And was it really our place to decide? We were missing the point. And so is the University.

The question is not where to stop, but rather where to begin.

Now, more than ever, it is important to be open to changing one’s mind, redirecting an institution’s course, or deciding that statements of solidarity really do matter. If, for Harvard, prison divestment might seem financially insignificant — an $18,000 sum, according to the University, though disputed by the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign — but carry a big institutional cost, then it’s looking at things the wrong way.

The ongoing struggle for social justice requires rethinking the relative scale of our activism. That $18,000 will not buy Harvard a majority share in the Black Lives Matter movement, nor will it buy justice for the incarcerated people who are abused, exploited, and dehumanized in prisons. Rather, it will contribute in a small way to a broader social movement — one in which Harvard is one voice calling out for critical change, encouraging other institutions to take similar steps (though many already have), and normalizing an institutional commitment to justice.

Public opinion on issues of racial justice is shifting rapidly. Take police violence. In 2014, more than half of those polled saw the killings of unarmed Black men in New York and Ferguson as isolated incidents. Now, more than two-thirds of Americans see the killings of George Floyd and others as part of an endemic pattern and only 29 percent still believe these are isolated incidents.

Harvard has the opportunity to turn the inevitably political status of its portfolio from a source of criticism to a tool for fueling the current social and political momentum toward racial justice. By divesting from the prison-industrial complex, Harvard can help convince more Americans and more American institutions that these issues are real, systemic, and worth combating with real, economic choices.

But ultimately, there’s no high moral praise in these acts. Even this editorial is painfully late. And credit for it goes to the activists — in particular, HPDC — and the internal dissenters who called out the institutional timidity and shortsightedness that have until now prevented this editorial board and this University from taking meaningful steps when they might have been bold and forthright in the service of a just cause.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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