Divestment as a means to an end

May 29, 2014

"Time is running out!" was the theme of the May 14 protest at the University of California (UC) Regents meeting in Sacramento. About 40 activists from various campuses gathered under the banner of Fossil Free UC (FFUC) to demand that the state university system divest its endowment from the fossil-fuel industry and take the step of creating a task force for ethical investment. But security barred many activists from attending the meeting on the pretext of "fire safety"; in fact, there were plenty of empty seats in the meeting.

In response to this blatant attempt to silence them, FFUC activists led a "mic check" during the meeting so that the UC Regents couldn't shield themselves from the voices of students. The action is part of a growing divestment movement that one week earlier compelled Stanford University to divest from coal-mining companies.

Jake Soiffer is an activist with Fossil Free Cal (FFC) and FFUC. He spoke with Dan Russell and Geming Lai about the fossil-fuel divestment movement and its connection with broader environmental and social justice struggles.

HOW DID you get involved in environmental organizing?

I'D BEEN aware of student activism as a way of trying to achieve social change for a while, just because my dad was very involved in student activism here at UC Berkeley in the sixties, such as the fight for People's Park. He always told stories about it, which made me want to be part of my own generation's aspiration for change.

My first involvement in social justice work and advocacy was about halfway through high school when I started working with Queer Rising, a direct action group in New York City in favor of queer rights that help passed gay marriage.

I was working with the group to increase funding for homeless queer youth in the city that was being cut. It was a group that focused very much on direct action, which is what I feel strongly about. As opposed to a lot of other groups that were working on the issue that were more focused on legal advocacy and lobbying, Queer Rising was very much focused on large, visible actions involving civil disobedience and ordinary people in the streets.

Jake Soiffer (second from left) at a Fossil Free UC demonstration outside a Regents' meeting
Jake Soiffer (second from left) at a Fossil Free UC demonstration outside a Regents' meeting (Dan Riazanov | SW)

While I was involved in that, Occupy Wall Street happened two blocks from my school. It was an incredible experience to be able to go there every day after school and see the very communal structures like the "people's library," random teach-ins all day, philosophical discussions and organized groups talking about the issues in a way that I hadn't seen happen before. And there was such a focus on intersectionality at Occupy, because it was a space for people to bring all their different backgrounds and different issues together.

So intersectionality and direct action are both things I took away from that experience as being important parts of any movement. Later in high school, I got involved with 99Rise, a national organization focusing on getting money out of politics through direct action and general opposition to corporate power in government and politics. I think fighting corporate power connects a lot of our issues. I still feel that we can't win any of the other struggles--like fighting for immigrant rights and combating the prison-industrial complex and the fossil fuel industry--unless we get corporate power out of our government.

So I wasn't really involved in environmental activism in high school. Environmentalists always seemed to me not concerned enough about justice, people and how oppression works. The environmental movement seemed to be a very individualized movement in terms of getting everyone to change their light bulbs, eat organic and so on, which isn't something that really inspires me. But I always thought it's very important that we protect the environment and protect each other from environmental destruction.

So part of why I got involved with environmentalism upon coming here was that I started to become aware of environmental justice as a concept. Some of my friends involved with getting money out of politics did environmental justice work in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward and started an urban farm there. I was really inspired by what they were doing. Some of them went on to be involved with fossil fuel divestment, so I thought divestment is a place where that kind of thinking could happen.

CAN YOU tell us briefly how Fossil Free Cal started as a campaign and how it is connected to the national fossil fuel divestment movement?

TWO FOSSIL-fuel divestment campaigns started simultaneously at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara. Katie Hoffman at UC Berkeley and Emily Williams at UC Santa Barbara were both involved in environmental organizing, and they saw that divestment from fossil fuels can be a powerful force and helped start the campaign from their own campuses.

Our campaign at UC Berkeley really became powerful last spring when we passed a student resolution in favor of fossil-fuel divestment. Seven other UC campuses proceeded to pass similar resolutions, leading to the formation of the statewide FFUC to unite various divestment campaigns and strengthen student power. Our first big UC-wide action was about one year ago at the May 2013 UC Regents meeting, which was our big introduction to the UC Regents.

Our campaign has become a lot more connected nationally in the last six months or so, since the formal launching of the national Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, which now has regular conference calls and helps to organize the annual Fossil Fuel Divestment Convergence. It has been a process. Divestment campaigns, especially divestment from coal starting with Swarthmore College, have been going on for a while.

I think what helped to unify the movement was the introduction of divestment targeting the top 200 fossil-fuel companies, with the support of 350.org, and also the ambition of students to create a movement that leads itself from the grassroots instead of being led by NGOs like 350.org.

WHAT WERE some of your personal highlights in organizing with Fossil Free Cal?

I THINK the most powerful things that inspired me to continue with activism have been the connections we've made and the ways we've connected both with other divestment campaigns and other campaigns in general. Even though those aren't the most immediately powerful things in causing institutional change, they inspire me to stay with organizing.

First, in connecting with other divestment campaigns, it has been awesome to see that people across the country are doing this. When I went to Power Shift in the fall, it was really inspiring to see how many different folks there are thinking about these issues from very different backgrounds and building a national movement together.

At the recent Fossil Fuel Divestment Convergence, I was honored to speak on a panel with Marcel Jones from the Black Student Union, who's active in the prison divestment struggle, and Saliem Shahadeh from UC Davis, who's fighting for divestment from the occupation of Palestine. It was really cool to talk about the intersections of our issues and also just to learn from them because they've been doing this longer.

Also, we held a U.S.-Africa Climate Justice panel at UC Berkeley that wasn't really about divestment, but it made me want to work more on divestment and work to change how the national divestment campaign operates. The things that I remember most and learned most from are not necessarily big public actions, but are more likely to be conversations with other people working on other things.

YOU MENTIONED the recent Fossil Fuel Divestment Convergence and how there was discussion of the intersections between different struggles. You mentioned divestment from the prison-industrial complex, the occupation of Palestine, and the fossil fuel industry. What would environmental and social justice look like to you? How does divestment fit into the broader struggle for environmental and social justice?

THAT'S A big question. I think environmental justice is just a part of social justice. I don't like to talk about them too separately. My vision of that is a world that is democratic in every aspect in terms of people having both democratic and economic control over how they access resources, how their environment is managed, and how people operate in environmental settings.

I don't think we can have an industrial civilization without cutting down a couple of trees, but the point is that people who live in a community should get to decide how we negotiate that space. I think if the average people who are actually affected by environmental destruction have control over those decisions, better decisions will be made because they are actually feeling the impact of those decisions. The world I want to see is one in which people have equal opportunities and life chances. I don't think that can really happen in an era of corporate control and under an imperialist, capitalist system.

Divestment is an interesting tool because we are leveraging the power of an illegitimate institution against another illegitimate institution. The UC Regents should not exist, but we want them to make a decision that helps publicly shame an even worse institutional actor, which is the fossil-fuel industry. I think as a movement for environmental and social justice, we need to operate on all fronts. We need to leverage illegitimate power against illegitimate power, but we also need to build grassroots support to overthrow that way of thinking about power entirely.

Divestment is a piece in that puzzle. I think it's a good starting point for a broader movement in the sense that it's something that is very easy for people to get behind and to think clearly about. Calling out an enemy is the first step before you can continue attacking that enemy. And divestment is a powerful way to do that.

What inspires me about divestment more than as a way of changing the narrative around climate change, more than as a way of changing how student power works, is that it is a movement-building tactic. It's a really good way of getting people behind this new conception of how we should deal with the environment and policies around the environment. So I see it as a powerful movement-building tactic that isn't revolutionary, but can help build revolutionary potential down the line.

WHERE DO you think the divestment movement is in relation to broader student and youth organizing?

NATIONALLY, A lot of folks involved in divestment are coming from other backgrounds that aren't necessarily environmental. Our 350.org West Coast organizer was previously a labor organizer. A lot of folks who were involved in campaign finance reform in New York moved on to divestment. I think because we have a lot of people with diverse backgrounds we've been able to make some of those connections, but we need to do more to connect to working-class communities and communities of color and student struggles at community colleges.

In terms of connecting to other struggles outside of divestment, it's hard to negotiate the boundaries of when publicly supporting each other's campaigns is good for each others' campaigns, especially when it comes to issues like No to Napolitano and divesting from Israel. There are different opinions within our organization on whether FFC publicly supporting divestment from Israel will do anything for that campaign or negatively affect our own, which I think is a valid question for people to have and something we need to continue to talk about.

I think what we've realized is that more input than just signing onto public petitions is actually having people go help organize. At UC Davis, the Students for Justice in Palestine really needed help with having people talk about the technicalities behind divestment and needed some of that information-gathering support, and I know Fossil Free Davis helped them a lot with that legwork and is trying to build those connections--not necessarily by associating the two campaigns publicly, but by each supporting each other in practical ways.

I think we need to do that more at our campus in terms of connecting with other student groups and listening so we can find out from other people what they need. We need to listen and learn more than talk.

GIVEN THE political situation today in terms of growing recognition of vast levels of inequality and the urgency of climate change, what gives you hope that we can actually achieve a fundamentally democratic society?

IT'S HARD to have hope sometimes [laughter]. I have hope, but it's hard to because there's so much up against us. In the divestment movement, there's the power of the fossil-fuel industry, which has so much money stacked up against us. It's similar with the private-prison industry, which has so much money and institutional power. When politics is run entirely on money, they're going to win a lot of struggles, and that's hard to see happen when they're so good at convincing the public and twisting the issues, making use of social resentments and issues of race and sexuality to turn the working class against itself.

What gives me hope is a lot of what I've seen in the last year and, before that, Occupy--seeing so many people turn out to something that was initially seen as so radical, seeing people with very different backgrounds working together, such as the many union folks who came out and were relatively moderate politically but standing in solidarity with Occupy activists and having really important discussions with them. That's what made marches with tens of thousands of people possible.

And it's hopeful to see how many people in our generation are thinking about these things more conscientiously. A lot of people look at the student movements of the 1960s as an example of what we can do, but in some ways I think we're already doing way better--in terms of acknowledging intersectionality in a way that none of those movements did.

The antiwar movement and countercultural movements had serious problems in terms of gender and race. As great as the Black nationalist movement was, there were problems with homophobia and gender inequality that the movement perpetuated. I think we as a generation are doing away with single-issue politics, which gives me hope that if we can expand that model, then we'll do well. I think we're building some of the right models, but we need to launch them in a way that we haven't entirely yet in terms of building mass movements. But what inspires me is how people are thinking so conscientiously about how their activism should work in a way that past student movements haven't.

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