From head to toe, they are dressed in black. About ten black shirts, shoes, glasses, scarves line up and down the stairs of Norris University Center, their expressions as serious as their attire. But the eye travels to the only contrast: stark white paper stating “Prison Industrial Complex 101” and facts about mass incarceration, clutched in hands bound by a singular pale rope.
These are the organizers of Unshackle NU, a campaign that calls for Northwestern to divest from companies that profit from mass incarceration. Unshackle NU organizer Marvin Sanchez, Weinberg sophomore, defines the group’s first appearance at Norris on Jan. 20 as the beginning of their campaign.
“That demonstration was to raise awareness,” Sanchez said. “The rope was a representation to signify modern-day slavery and show how the prison industrial complex is a form of lethal oppression, and it profits off incarcerating bodies and using bodies as labor.”
Unshackle NU has an extended history. According to SESP sophomore and organizer Gwendolyn Gissendanner, Northwestern’s Black student alliance group For Members Only formed Black Lives Matter NU (BLMNU) last quarter, a political action committee protesting racial inequalities and police brutality against Black bodies.
“BLMNU is working on a few campaigns, but its current focus is Unshackle NU, and the [25-30] people logistically involved with the prison divest campaign are the volunteers for Unshackle NU,” Gissendanner said.
Unshackle NU presented their resolution to ASG on Feb. 24, after finishing a month-long campaign full of weekly educational panels. Besides prison divestment, the resolution calls for students to “have input regarding what corporations their tuition money supports,” and according to Sanchez, the creation of a committee which reviews further university investments. ASG will decide whether to pass the resolution on March 2.
“It’s amazing to be in a space where people want to see radical change and getting to know other people’s energies, feeding off it, and saying we want radical change and we want liberation. This is us working with what we have to make a change,” Sanchez said.
The Big Three
Unshackle NU takes aim at the University’s possible investments in three particular groups: the GEO Group, Inc., Corrections Corporation for America (CCA) and Group 4 Security (G4S). While it is not confirmed if Northwestern is invested in GEO or CCA, Northwestern Chief Investment Officer William H. McLean has confirmed the University has “less than a million” funds in G4S, which profits off of mass incarceration and private security forces in the United States and Palestine.
Unshackle NU and NU Divest hosted a demonstration at the Rock on Feb. 23 to protest the alleged mistreatment by G4S.
That same day, Unshackle NU and NU Divest penned a letter to NBN in solidarity, urging Northwestern to divest from G4S. The letter details how G4S spends millions lobbying for laws that keep Black Americans disenfranchised and incarcerated, administers inhuman conditions to undocumented immigrants in detention centers at the Mexico-U.S. border, and implements technology and private prisons, which “maintain Israel’s apartheid policies to illegal settlements on seized Palestinian land.” Yet Unshackle NU is ambitious in targeting the other two companies as well.
“The reason we targeted [GEO and CCA] is because the University of California, Columbia University and other elite universities were invested in those,” Sanchez said. “So we’re assuming that if other universities like Columbia are invested in those companies, then so is Northwestern.”
Around the world, other universities are following the lead of Columbia University, who became the first American university to divest from G4S and CCA in June 2015, while the University of California system sold $30 million in prison holdings in December 2015. Co-hosted by Unshackle NU, NU Divest and MechA de Northwestern, an event about G4S listed universities who divested from G4S:
Making Ideas a Reality
Over the past month, Unshackle NU has put on weekly panels made of activists, professors and formerly incarcerated people. Panel topics include everything from “Imprisoning the Undocumented” to “Queer Injustice” to“From School to Prison: The Confinement of Blackness.”
“Something [the thing] we try to focus on at our events is more of an educational aspect, so discuss what the prison industrial complex is, this is what’s going on, this is what’s happening to people, this is how people are being treated, and this is why we feel the need to not be a part of this,” Sanchez said.
Sociology and African American Studies professor Mary Pattillo spoke at one of Unshackle’s panels on the social effects of mass incarceration, including disenfranchisement and unemployment. She agreed that mass incarceration disproportionately impacts Black and Latino communities and plays a significant role in increasing racial disparities.
“The institution of the prison industrial complex has totally sapped money from education and unfortunately is the ending point for those who don’t get an education,” Pattillo said.
While Pattillo said she doesn’t know enough about the school's financial holdings to comment on the likelihood of divestment, she commended Unshackle NU for raising awareness.
“I know the prison industrial complex is not aligned with Northwestern’s values,” Pattillo said. “It’s extremely important that Unshackle NU has raised that level of consciousness among university officials so that we can take a hard look at what we’re invested in and ask that question. Without that student activism, I don't think the university would really ask that question on its own.”
Sanchez has been pleased with the impact Unshackle NU has had on the Northwestern community, gauging it as a positive response. Attendance at events has been high and the organization’s shirts and stickers have been selling well. Communication freshman Fredrick Bugyei attended the first guest speaker event on the School to Prison Pipeline and Prison Industrial Complex.
“I thought that it was pretty enlightening, and it seemed like the evidence and thought process behind [their call for divestment] really makes you think,” Bugyei said. “Even though you don't necessarily have to agree with everything being said, you do have to think about what’s being said.”
What Comes Next
While Unshackle NU hopes for a positive reaction from ASG, they do not expect that from administration.
“I do expect backlash during the next couple of months from the administration,” Sanchez said. “[If they don’t accept the resolution,] we would have to continue the campaign in order to show we’re not leaving and we want this. We’d have to go back to the drawing board and strategize new ways and events, but do something similar to what we’re doing right now.”
Whether or not the resolution passes, Pattillo said she thinks mass incarceration in the United States may be on its way out. Pattillo explained Obama lowered the disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentencings, which are considered to be White and Black drugs, respectively. One used to receive the same sentence for possession of 100 grams of powder cocaine as 1 gram of crack cocaine, but through the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the ratio decreased from 100:1 to 18:1.
Pattillo also notices that state leaders are beginning to see more costs than benefits of mass incarceration.
“State leaders are very clear that mass incarceration has ruined their budgets and they can’t afford it. I think we’ll start to see some other changes,” Patillo said. "We’re starting to see a plateau of incarceration rates, and we’ll start to think of cheaper alternatives to incarceration, so I do see all of those as good signs.”
While the future may be getting a bit better, Unshackle NU believes that the current conditions of the prison industrial complex are unacceptable, and that Northwestern should have no part in it.
“Everything we’ve done is a collective effort, Everyone’s energy and passion and their drive has been one of my favorite parts,” Sanchez said. “We want to ensure that Northwestern is working for the greater good and being complicit in mass incarceration is not for the greater good of anybody.”