16 members of ASUCI gathered to vote in November 2012 on a divestment resolution that urged the University of California to divest, or remove their investments, from companies that directly profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Companies such as General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar and Raytheon made the list of culprits who directly profit from this exchange of money.
With a unanimous vote, the divestment bill was the first of its kind to pass in the entire UC system. Note that the resolution simply urges the university to take action, but ultimately the administration holds the final call in the matter. The unanimous urging wasn’t strong enough, and the university made a statement a few days after stating they will not grant the motion to divest from the listed corporations.
But before a white flag is waved and roars of disappointment and bitterness circulate through coffee shop discussions, an important question should be considered: If passed, would divestment even make a difference?
Let’s first look at divestment with a financial lens; divestment attempts to hit companies through the few oh-so-powerful slips of green paper that line our wallets. Which in theory sounds great, the one thing not lacking in corporate America is greed.
By disinvesting in the companies, the university would essentially give up their share of stock in the company and would no longer pay for their stocks. But this overlooks an important flaw — the flow of money is endless. If UCI doesn’t provide the money for the stocks, the company will happily move on to the interested investor. UCI giving up their share would be an act of morality, but simply symbolic. The share will simply move hands to a company who could care less about the under-the-table cash flow and instead focuses on the transparent green numbers they expect to see on their Stocks app at the end of the day.
The argument here is not about intention — a group of UCI students decided they wanted to change the world and did what they found necessary.
That in and of itself deserves recognition and respect. But realistically, was divestment the best way of achieving the change?
So what if UCI doesn’t invest in General Electric?
An enraged General Electric will probably shut off all the fridges they produced until UCI re-invests in their company.
Or the CEO, Jeffrey Immilet, may catch a brief glimpse at the change of shareholders in the hundreds of papers he views on a daily basis, experience a short wave of disappointment, and move on to the next investor who is willing to overlook their spending habits.
Financially, divestment won’t do more than change around some number on a sheet of paper.
But that doesn’t demerit divestment completely. If executed properly, the divestment movement could have changed the way students view their global role as UCI Anteaters.
Advocates of divestment will argue that it’s not about whether or not divestment makes a financial difference, because even the smallest of actions is still an action in the right direction. Okay, so I’ll give them some credit for that, but that assumes divestment is making some other difference in the community, since it isn’t financially. That means something in the campaign should be.
For divestment to truly achieve something beyond the miniscule financial impact, advocates must ask themselves: how has divestment changed our community? Has it increased awareness on the issue of human rights violations worldwide? Changing numbers on a piece of paper is merely symbolic, and symbolic gestures may warrant a feel-good pat-on-the-back, but at the end of the day the divestment campaign needs to provide something more than a story that will line our history books in the future. If urging the UC system to divest from these companies doesn’t elicit awareness, what was the point of the divestment campaign in the first place? Judging from the lack of campaigns for human rights awareness after the passing, the divestment push at UCI didn’t accomplish anything more than trying to move around some cash to elicit an unlikely moral domino of divestment in a handful companies.
The members who pride themselves in the passing of the legislation had the perfect opportunity to kick-start an awareness campaign on an issue they felt strongly enough to unanimously vote on. The potential to turn divestment around into something that could create actual change disappeared with the divestment.
At the end of the day, divestment is simply a mirage.
Divestment doesn’t have the potential to change a situation, but people, more importantly UCI students, do. One opportunity to make a difference has already slipped away, and it would be a shame to see another follow in its footsteps.
Aliza Asad is a first-year international studies major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org