People Over Profit: The UC Divest Coalition

Design by Cass Sanchez

The words “Divest from Blackrock” are written on a blackboard, situated on an abstract dark blue background, while a hand holding chalk reaches into the frame.

This project was co-authored by FEM and UC Divest. This article was created in collaboration with UC Divest member organizations, including SJP, SLAP, Anakbayan, JVP, and MEChA.

Read the previous article in the series here

“Divest from Blackrock.” Those were the words written on the wall in chalk when, in 2018, I entered the Bunche classroom where my freshman English composition class was held. Three years before that, in 2015, USAC released a resolution condemning the University of California for failing to live up to its commitments as a signatory of the Principles for Responsible Investment — in other words, the UC was investing in companies that violated human rights in some form or another.

Controversy and concern over the finances of higher education institutions is not a new phenomenon — in 1986, the UC Regents divested billions of dollars from South African Apartheid after months of student protests. Whereas the previous article in this series discussed the history and (dis)function of endowments, this one will discuss the violent realities of UC(LA) investments, and the people opposing these practices, led by the organizing coalition UC Divest

UC Divest is an “abolitionist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonial and anti-war coalition” composed of over 20 member organizations, including Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the Student Labor Advocacy Project (SLAP) and Anakbayan. This definition comes from Angelica, a third-year student on the board of SJP and member of SLAP and UC Divest who I interviewed for this article. 

They explained that the coalition’s work is based on the maxim “work local, think global.” The group’s global mission — societal liberation from systems of oppression — is understood in a local context. UC Divest strategies focus on illuminating the connections between local struggles and global violence, and combating this violence with direct, targeted actions against the nodes connecting UC(LA) to these global structures. 

The UC Divest campaign began in late 2018 as a response to the research of a group of students into UC(LA) investments, which revealed the unmistakable connections between neoliberal austerity on campus and institutional investment in weapons and war. The campaign publicly launched in March 2020 with the release of its statements of opposition to UC profit from war and from police and military violence. 

In a separate interview, Nyusha, a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) and former member of SJP, explained that the arguments of the Divest coalition center around who creates value versus who controls it. Students and workers make UC(LA) what it is — without us, the university cannot function. However, the university’s financial decisions are in the hands of the unelected regents. In other words, the exploitation of students and workers is funding war and occupation, housing insecurity and environmental degradation, while those who allocate funds to these industries boost their own salaries.

In particular, divestment movements across the UC and universities countrywide often focus on Blackstone and Blackrock, two corporations known for their predatory and oppressive investment practices. Since the UC entrusts enormous sums of money to these firms for investment, they are frequent targets of UC Divest.

This dual focus on Blackstone and Blackrock pulls on a thread of history stretching back to the founding of the University of California, revealing a legacy of institutional gain off unprecedented suffering. The UC system was created under the land-grant system, which built some of the country’s most notable public universities on and with violently expropriated Indigenous land. 

The UC’s partnership with Blackstone, one of the largest corporate landlords, is an expansion of this institutional dependence on private property. Rather than providing relief for its students and workers facing housing insecurity, the UC is investing in the problem — and turning a tidy profit. Meanwhile, housing consolidation by corporate landlords like Blackstone drives up rents, burdening students and employees and forcing them to commute longer distances. 

Meanwhile, by entrusting portfolio management to Blackrock, one of the largest investors in weapons and war, the UC funds violence in Palestine, the Philippines and at home under our increasingly militarized law enforcement regimes. This includes restrictions on movement, apartheid and settler destruction of Palestinian land; counterinsurgency and human rights violations in the Philippines; police brutality and the prison-industrial complex in the US; and widespread, militarized occupation and surveillance in all three. State repression by Israel, the Philippines, the United States and more upholds private property, wealth accumulation, and land dispossession. 

Investment deals with Blackstone and Blackrock demonstrate UC(LA)’s perpetuation of the two mutually reinforcing structures of violence — private property and state-funded violence and dispossession — that provided for its creation. Private property must be upheld by violence, and violence finds its cause in the protection of private property. UC support of state-sanctioned imperial violence, which originated with the dispossession and genocide of California’s Indigenous populations, today wraps its tentacles around the globe. Is it any wonder the endowment keeps growing?

However, while the Divest campaign uses Blackstone and Blackrock to illustrate the violence of UC(LA) investment, the critiques of UC Divest go far beyond these two firms, or even the endowments themselves. The coalition contextualizes institutional investment in space and time, showing how current investment practices are not a departure from the school’s history, but the globalization of its violence under neoliberal financialization. 

Rather than an isolated campaign, UC Divest is a particular outgrowth of a much longer history of community activism against university finances. Unlike its predecessors, this movement is specifically in response to the neoliberalization of the university, and the globalization of its imperial reach. 

UC(LA) touts itself as a “global university,” based on its study abroad programs, international students and workers, and global partnerships. Nyusha pointed out, however, that the university is global in another sense: as a “local expression of global issues of militarism and imperialism.”

The UC relies on a sort of weaponized incompetence, tangling itself in red tape each time it is confronted with demands for divestment. As Nyusha mentioned in our interview, however, the university is not incompetent: they are intentionally failing to meet your needs while overworking and isolating students and workers to deter mobilization. 

The globalized capitalist economy in which UC is so heavily invested relies on an unbelievably flexible financial system — money moves faster than ever. The notion that UC(LA) cannot divest from war or invest in its communities is laughable. Look at how quickly they purchased institution-wide Zoom memberships when COVID-19 hit after years of telling disabled students it was impossible (p. 18). They are choosing not to divest from war. They are choosing not to invest in their communities. 

The university is blatantly showing its cards and hoping we’ll look away. The regents have divested from South African Apartheid, private prisons and fossil fuels. They have not divested from Palestinian occupation or government repression in the Philippines because, to them, it is not worthwhile. To the UC Regents, the profit made is more valuable than the lives lost. 

The ultimate goal of UC Divest is to make these sorts of financial decisions impossible, using collective power to dismantle the status quo under which we are oppressed by the very wealth we produce. 

UC Divest adopted the divestment strategy based on its success in a myriad of other liberatory movements. As Nyusha described it, one of the reasons divestment is such a successful strategy is because its dual focus on divesting from harm and reinvesting in community “strengthens the community while weakening those who harm it.”

The campaign demands that UC divest all assets invested, both directly and indirectly, in the weapons industry. Weapons divestment would not, however, stop university support of the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) or predatory housing developments, which is why the coalition goes beyond making demands of the Regents to fundamentally restructure how resources are allocated at UC, so that we no longer have to make any demands of the Regents. UC Divest is working towards a future in which the community controls resource allocation, and can make adjustments to this allocation when needs change.

The coalition is upfront about the fact that this work will take time, and is laying the foundation for a protracted effort. UC Divest understands the difficulties of mobilization in the neoliberal university, and their organizational strategies focus on meeting students and workers where they are. A project central to the organization’s mission, according to Angelica, is “helping the community understand the connections between our struggles on campus and the struggles of those around the world whose pain is funded by the UC.”

So far, the regents have ignored UC Divest’s demands — but pressure is building, pressure derived from the collective organizing of the masses. Though they may control the money, Regents and administrators know the community has more than enough latent political power to change the status quo. This is precisely why they spend so much time and money demobilizing student and worker movements. By continuing to organize with patience and effort, our collective power can strip power from the regents and return it to the people. You can find out more about UC Divest and upcoming actions here, and join the coalition through one of its member organizations here

As of publication, the full list of UC Divest member organizations is: Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at UCLA, UCSB, UCI and UCSC; Graduate Students for Justice in Palestine (GSJP); Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM); Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP); Student Labor Advocacy Project (SLAP); Worker Student Solidarity Coalition (WSSC); Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA); Asian Pacific Coalition (APC); Anakbayan (AB) at UCLA, UCI and UCSC; Samahang Pilipino; GABRIELA at UCSC; Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o/x de Aztlán (MEChA) at UCLA and UCI; UC Divest TMT; and Mauna Kea Protectors (MKP) at UCSB and UCSC.

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