By Adelaide Petrov-Yoo, Kinnady Jones, and Shea Leibow
It’s time to take on the companies that make a killing off of killing. From 2001 to 2021, U.S. military spending surpassed $14 trillion - with half of that, $7 trillion, going to private military contractors. The United States has incurred deep debt and is planning to cut even deeper into funding for social services - however, the military budget continues to increase year by year, as do accounts of civilian killings, cities destroyed, and communities that have not been able to recover from U.S. war and militarism.
As communities globally continue to suffer from war and militarism, there is one group who continues to benefit - war profiteers. Weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman produce deadlier weapons each year that inflict horrific violence globally, and charge outrageous prices that come out of U.S. taxpayers’ pockets. For these companies, the more military violence, fighting, and occupation there is, the better for their bottom line. That’s why, here at CODEPINK, we are taking on these companies through the Divest from the War Machine campaign. Through divesting our community institutions from weapons manufacturers, we are able to weaken public support for these harmful companies, demonstrate that there is a growing movement that does not accept the militarized status quo, and push for a future where communities are invested in instead.
Read on to learn more about which companies are profiting off of militarized violence in Palestine, Yemen, and Somalia. Then, check out a resource on why we use divestment as our movement tactic of choice, and what divestment has accomplished globally in the last 50 years.
History of Divestment as a Movement Tactic
Divestment has been used as a tool to resist oppression throughout history. Read on to learn about the history of divestment, and how it can inspire and give us the courage to continue pushing forward with our own campaigns to divest from harm and reinvest in communities.
Resource created by Kinnady Jones, spring 2023 Divest from the War Machine intern
Divesting from South African Apartheid
South African apartheid, a system of institutionalized racist segregation imposed by the minority white settler population, was codified into law in 1948. The apartheid system was built on already-existing restrictive policies against Black South Africans and denied Black South Africans the right to vote; segregated schools and public spaces; forbade interracial marriage; and severely restricted the locations where Black South Africans could live, which was enforced through mass-scale evictions.
The Movement to Divest
By the 1980s, there were over 200 U.S. companies including Coca-Cola, Goodyear, IBM, General Electric, and Xerox conducting business in apartheid South Africa. Many of these companies forced Black South African employees to read and write in English, making them forget their native languages.
- Only 100,000 Black South Africans were hired and working for these U.S. companies; that was only 2% of the Black South African of population at the time.
Black workers in the U.S. and around the world working at companies doing business in South Africa began to bring attention to the apartheid regime and the impact of their businesses.
- Their demand was for the companies they worked for to end their involvement and divest their finances from South Africa, as long as apartheid continued.
This movement began at Polaroid, when Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams, two Black employees, discovered that the company contracted with the apartheid government to produce the photos used in the infamous, racist passbooks.
- The Polaroid Revolutionary Workers’ Movement, founded by Hunter and Williams, succeeded in pushing Polaroid to divest in 1977.
The strategy of worker-initiated divestment spread and more corporations began to divest from South Africa:
- Coca-Cola, the second-biggest U.S. employer of South Africans at the time, divested from South Africa in 1986, selling all of its holdings in South Africa to a multiracial group of investors, with 60% going to Black South Africans.
- Coca-Cola's departure turned up the pressure on other corporations with large presences in South Africa; companies including General Motors and Barclays followed and divested soon after. At the end of 1986, the historic Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act became law in the U.S., sanctioning South Africa on the basis of apartheid.
Divesting from Privatized Mass Incarceration
The U.S. criminal [in]justice system was founded through and continues to uphold white supremacist ideologies, including through breaking up communities, profiting off of severely underpaid labor, and denying opportunities to individuals with charges on their record. The U.S. historically and currently imprisons low-income people of color, usually Black men, to create a profitable and deeply exploitative labor market. The villainization of communities of color is instrumentalized to justify mass incarceration. In their lifetime, one in three Black men in their 20s from poor urban areas will experience incarceration, and one in ten Latinx men in their 20s from poor urban areas will experience incarceration.
The Movement to Divest
Columbia University became the first higher education institution to divest fully from the private prison industry in 2015. How did they do it?
- Asha Rosa, a Black undergraduate student, and Columbia Prison Divest Club member, started the Columbia University divestment campaign in 2013.
- This was following Columbia students' discovery that the university had a pot of $8 million they were investing in corporations, including the private prison and detention company Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and British-based G4S.
- Columbia Prison Divest Club revealed this information publicly, built a strong and prolonged campaign of strategic pressure demanding the university divest its funds from private prison and detention contractors and eventually forced Columbia University to divest from CAA.
- Columbia University became the first university in the U.S. to sell its shares in G4S and CCA and ban future investments in any private prison corporations.
Following Columbia's successful divestment campaign, Yale University students started their own divestment campaign in 2015.
- As of October 2021, Yale has divested from private prison contractors CoreCivic and GEO Group.
Divesting from Israeli Apartheid
In response to Israel's occupation, colonization, and destruction of Palestinian land, upholding an apartheid society, and denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes, a powerful global movement calling for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) has formed. Inspired by the movement to divest from South African apartheid, the BDS call - issued in 2005 by more than 170 Palestinian-led organizations - calls for a global boycott, divestment, and sanctioning of Israel until it complies with international law and ends its occupation (read BDS' demands here).
The Movement to Divest
- The first call for a boycott of Israel was issued by the League of Arab States in 1948, which has maintained a boycott of Israeli companies and goods ever since.
- The foundation of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS)movement built on that legacy, calling for a boycott of "Israeli sporting, cultural, and academic institutions," as well as "Israeli international companies engaged in violations of Palestinian human rights" - today, these companies include Puma, HP, AXA, Siemens, SodaStream, Ahava, and Sabra.
The BDS movement's pressure has brought about concrete wins:
- In July of 2021, Ben & Jerry's announced that they would stop selling their ice cream in Israeli settlements on stolen Palestinian land.
- Ahava, an Israeli skincare company produced using resources from the Dead Sea, closed most of its London stores and relocated its factory outside of the Occupied West Bank due to intense pressure.
- Other companies that have recently shut down their operations in Israel include Veolia, Electronic Arts (EA), Dropbox, Corning, and G4S (as of June 2nd, 2023!).
Divesting from Fossil Fuels
The movement to divest from the fossil fuel industry has picked up steam as the impacts of climate change have become worse and more widely accepted. The climate impacts of extracting and burning fossil fuels are accelerating climate change at a catastrophic level; studies have shown that at least 80% of all known fossil fuels need to stay in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change that will force people out of their homelands, destroy crops, and beyond. The divestment movement has arisen as a powerful force to combat the fossil fuel industry that is driving climate change.
The Movement to Divest
The movement to divest institutions from fossil fuels has been rapidly growing since 2012 when Bill McKibben launched 350. org. The movement to divest, which has strong student leadership, has pushed around 1,591 institutions to pledge to divest from fossil fuels
- The pooled amount of money these institutions will divest comes at 40.51 trillion to be pulled from the fossil fuel industry. (For updated figures, visit this divestment database).
- The institutions that have pledged to divest include faith organizations (the majority), followed by educational institutions, philanthropic foundations, pensions, governmental funds, and for-profit companies. Some heavy-hitting institutions that have divested due to movement pressure include Harvard University, Norway's Sovereign-Wealth Fund, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
The movements against South African apartheid, mass incarceration, Israeli apartheid, and the fossil fuel industry are all united in their approach: using divestment to pull power, legitimacy, and money from harmful actors in order to build a better future. We build on this powerful legacy of divestment in our campaign to divest our communities from war and militarism: please join us at divestfromwarmachine.org as we build a just, demilitarized future together!
- U.S. Department of Defense 2019 annual report on civilian casualties in connection with US military operations (read with scrutiny)
- U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency tool to track major arms sales from US government to foreign governments
- The Defense Post information about AGM-114 Hellfire (US-made missiles commonly used abroad)
- Air and Space Forces Magazine information about GBU-69 (US-made missiles commonly used abroad)
Citations for Weapons sales and attacks: The Israeli occupation of Palestine
- View weapons sales from 2012-2021:
- DSCA (Dec. 2012)
- DSCA (Jan. 2014)
- DSCA (Jul. 2014)
- DSCA (May 2015)
- DSCA (Jul. 2016)
- DSCA (Apr. 2017)
- DSCA (Feb. 2019)
- DSCA (Mar. 2020)
- DSCA (Jul. 2021)
- DAWN 2022 report on August 5, 2022 airstrikes
- Middle East Eye report on October 18, 2022 shutdown of a military checkpoint
- Amnesty report on March 16, 2023 razing of Palestinian homes
- Citations for Military strikes and American-made weapons used: The Saudi Arabia-led war on Yemen
- Amnesty International report on August 15, 2016 airstrike
- CNN report #1 and report #2 on October 2016 airstrike (CW: graphic images)
- Amnesty report on August 25, 2017 airstrike
- Washington Post report and CNN report on August 9, 2018 airstrike
- Amnesty International report on June 28, 2019 airstrike
- Amnesty International report on January 21, 2022 airstrike
- Citations for Military strikes and American-made weapons used: Somalia
- Amnesty International 2019 Investigation of 5 attacks with civilian casualties in Somalia
- Amnesty International Apr. 2020 2020 Investigation of 3 attacks with civilian casualties in Somalia
- Al Jazeera Apr. 2020 Al Jazeera coverage of February 2, 2022 attack in Somalia
- Airwars 2022 data on US airstrikes in Somalia
- Airwars report on a Sept. 9, 2022 attack in Lower Shabelle, Somalia
Citations for History of Divestment as a Movement Tactic:
- BDS Movement: US Tech Companies Begin to Shut Down Israel Operations
- Chana Teeger: “Both Sides of the Story”: History Education in Post-Apartheid South Africa
- Daniel Apfel: Exploring Divestment as a Strategy for Change: An Evaluation of the History, Success, and Challenges of Fossil Fuel Divestment
- Divest Ed: Why We Do It
- Divestment Database
- Kairos Response: Examples of Successful Divestment and Boycott Actions
- Linnenluecke et al: Divestment from fossil fuel companies: Confluence between policy and strategic viewpoints
- Paul Lansing and Sarosh Kuruvill: Business Divestment in South Africa: In Who's Best Interest? on JSTOR
- Robert D. Bullard: Environmental Justice in the 21st Century: Race Still Matters
- Rock Newsletter: COLUMBIA, FIRST U.S. UNIVERSITY TO DIVEST FROM PRISON
- Saree Makdisi: The Israel Divestment Campaign and the Question of Palestine in America
- Shibley Telhami: What do Americans think of the BDS movement, aimed at Israel?
- Yale Climate Connections: Big numbers – dollars and institutions – behind divestments from fossil fuels
- Yale Daily News: Prison divestment talks proceed
- Yale's Ethical Investor: CCIR Statement Regarding Investment in Private Prison Companies: CoreCivic and GEO Group
Divest from the War Machine encourages individual investors and our nation’s financial institutions to take action to reduce violent global conflicts and slow the hyper-militarization of our world by divesting from the U.S. War Machine. Divestment from the War Machine means divesting (removing invested assets) from companies that derive their profits from U.S. military interventions, the global arms trade, and the militarization of our streets. Click here for the list of weapons manufacturers and military contractors from which we are divesting.
Sign on here to pledge to work to divest from weapons companies and invest in ethical, life-affirming solutions - and sign on here to organize a campaign locally to divest from companies that make a killing off of killing.