Dozens of activists met at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan to demonstrate against financial institutions connected to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through for-profit prison companies.
The protesters engaged in a “rolling picket” on August 27, rallying at branches of HSBC, Vanguard, BlackRock, and Prudential in order to pressure the companies to divest from CoreCivic and GEO Group, which imprison immigrants for ICE.
“The widespread human rights abuses wrought by ICE and private prisons have got to end,” declared Ali Jaffery, an organizer with the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, a local activist network which led the effort.
ICE relies on at least 130 detention facilities across the United States. While the agency claims that only 18 percent of its adult prisoners are held in facilities owned by private companies, that figure obscures the reality.
Sixty-six percent of adult detainees are held in prisons under so-called “intergovernmental service agreements,” or contracts between ICE and local government agencies. The facilities may be private, but because ICE is not contracting their use directly from a for-profit prison company, the agency does not count it as such.
The Migration Policy Institute, an immigration research and advocacy organization, estimates that 62 percent of the agency’s detainees are held in private facilities. The Institute also identifies CoreCivic and GEO Group as the largest operators of these for-profit prisons.
Through further scrutiny of CoreCivic and GEO Group, activists identified the companies’ financiers as potential vulnerabilities in ICE’s operations.
A report from In the Public Interest, which researches public-private ownership, listed HSBC among the major creditors of GEO Group, underwriting nearly $33 million in bonds for the private prison company. Stock details revealed that Vanguard, BlackRock, and Prudential are some of the largest shareholders in CoreCivic and GEO Group, at a combined value of more than $1 billion.
“CoreCivic is a publicly traded company with a high percentage of outstanding shares held by passive index funds that are managed by companies like the ones referenced,” said Brandon Bissell, the company’s public affairs manager, of its relationship with the financial institutions targeted by activists.
Financiers are less forthcoming about their business with for-profit prisons.
“We don’t comment on our customer relationships, even to confirm or deny that there is a relationship,” replied Robert Sherman, U.S. head of media relations at HSBC, when asked about CoreCivic and GEO Group.
Carolyn Wegemann, a part of Vanguard’s public relations department, also declined to address specifics regarding the mutual fund’s connection to ICE via private prisons, instead suggesting, “This troubling issue needs to be solved by our elected officials.”
“Over the years, mutual funds have been called upon to take actions against a wide range of companies,” she continued. “We believe it would be exceedingly difficult to manage our funds effectively and efficiently while seeking to address the many social, political, and environmental concerns of our 20 million clients and the broader global community.”
On August 27th, NYC activists participated in a rolling picket against HSBC, State Street, and BlackRock as part of the #ShutdownICEProfiteers campaign.
— Ali (@aijaffery) August 30, 2019
Regardless of Vanguard’s insistence on a division between the financial and the political, activists chose to target the mutual fund, along with HSBC, BlackRock, and Prudential.
After meeting at Bryant Park, the demonstrators marched to local branches of the financial institutions, chanting along the way, then rallying outside or, in some cases, inside the businesses’ lobbies.
“As we marched, we were greeted with occasional applause and folks joining in our chants,” recalled Jaffery. “We entered each building’s lobby and read off a written statement demanding that these companies divest from ICE and then read a list of the names of migrants who have died in ICE custody this year.”
In the days following the demonstration, some of the financiers, such as HSBC, denied that any disruption to business had taken place, but activists have already seen some proof of their impact.
“A small scouting team went to several HSBC branches in Manhattan to hand out flyers and were informed by workers at these branches that HSBC had their staff attend meetings about MACC’s campaign to shutdown ICE profiteers,” according to Jaffery. “Clearly, they are paying attention to us.”
A similar campaign led by MACC in July illustrated their potential: Less than one month after a demonstration shut down at least three PNC branches in Manhattan, the bank announced that it would divest from the entire private prison industry.
“We will continue to ratchet up the pressure, spread the word, and encourage others to mount their own protests against these institutions across the country until our demands are met,” declared Jaffery.
As MACC has previously demonstrated, the financiers may turn out to be less committed than they admit.
HSBC denied that the activists had any influence on their business, but Sherman, the head of media relations, also mentioned that the bank was “pulling back” from the for-profit prison sector. He would not say why, but the shift is not happening in a political vacuum.
GEO Group, BlackRock, Prudential, and ICE each declined or refused to comment for this story.