Updated 4/02/13: VICTORY! On April 2, GEO withdrew from its deal for naming rights to Florida Atlantic University’s football stadium. The outcry by students and others forced this concession. But we can never trust such a ruthless enemy to let go of any opportunity to profit; no doubt, the fight will continue. The following article gives the background and sense of climate on the campus as the situation evolved.
GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) is a private firm that runs more than a hundred for-profit prisons, youth and immigrant detention facilities, in which captives are beaten and raped. One judge called one of their juvenile jails in Mississippi “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions.”
The GEO Group runs three facilities in Florida, and wants to expand. A potential new $75 million, 1,500-bed ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) center in Broward County still may be pursued, in spite of a battle that residents of the Town of Southwest Ranches believed was resolved against it.
Angling to be Florida’s major privatize prison provider, CEO George Zoley (an FAU alumnus and longtime Trustee) offered the prestigious Florida Atlantic University $6 million to name the school’s new sports stadium. Nothing erases one’s bloodthirsty perpetuation of (and profiting off of) a racist, abusive, corrupt and oppressive system better than a nice gift to a beloved sports team. The university president, Mary Jane Saunders, accepted the tainted money with simpering gratitude, calling it “delightful.” “We’re very, very proud to be partnered with them,” she added, in case her position wasn’t clear the first time.
A number of students didn’t like the idea of their school being used as a billboard for atrocities, and formed the Stop OwlCatraz Coalition. About 50 of them had a protest on February 25, joined by others including members of Earth First!, FL Immigrant Rights Coalition, One Struggle, an ACLU attorney, and various members of the media.
After several speeches, the group marched to the President’s office, chanting and waving signs. We went inside the building and into the vestibule, which contained a security desk and several guards. A protester asked to see President Saunders. Someone said they would see if she’s available.
Surprise: she wasn’t.
The students, and everyone else, sat down on the floor.
“We’ll wait,” they said.
It didn’t take long.
Not even 10 minutes later, it was announced that President Saunders was available after all, and would speak to three students in her office.
This led to lengthy and confrontational negotiations: Could all of them go in, three at a time? Could the discussion be recorded by a member of the press? If agreed-upon terms are violated, we’ll walk out, they declared.
A liaison, Dr. Kevin Lanning, tried to pacify the students. “We’re all in this together. We all care about making the university a better place,” he said, or some kind of bullshit re-framing blather close enough to that.
The students didn’t fall for it.
“We’re *not* in this together,” one retorted. They pointed out that the students paid to attend, and that they didn’t want their degrees tainted by an association with human rights violations.
Lanning grimaced and folded his hands together. Eventually he scurried into the quiet inner offices.
Discussion continued among the protesters about various proposals, how they would present their demands and what concessions they might be willing to make.
Finally, Saunders simply came out into the vestibule. Behind a polished façade of designer suit and soft, smooth voice, she agreed to have an open meeting with the students, during which she would address all their concerns. The students smiled: round one had been won.
Predictably enough, though, the “Town Hall Meeting” scheduled strategically for March 1, the first day of Spring Break, was a complete farce. The Stop Owlcatraz Coalition was still able to mobilize 250 people to attend. But the university violated several of the agreed-upon terms of discussion, and offered no more than palliative PR clichés and assurances that the GEO Group is a “responsible” and “highly regulated” corporation, and that any “rumors” of wrongdoing should be resolved through the justice system.
Final word: the money was “a done deal.” FAU intends to keep it, and to name the stadium after its donor.
The administration is currently in control, but the power of righteously angry, politically aware students should not be underestimated. The students are handling intense international media attention with aplomb, exposing those who made this decision as the heartless greedy sociopaths they are. Even Stephen Colbert mocked the FAU administration for taking the money. The Nation declared Stop Owlcatraz one of the Top Ten most important student mobilizations in the current period,(6) and named it “ground zero” in the fight against the system of mass incarceration that’s being called the new Jim Crow.
The Stop Owlcatraz Coalition will continue to be on top of this situation and expand its fight.
To support and join them: