GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) is a private firm that runs more than a hundred for-profit prisons and 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.
Angling to be Florida’s major privatized-prison provider, CEO George Zoley (an FAU alumnus and longtime Trustee) offered 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 a couple of Earth First!ers, an ACLU attorney, members of Florida Immigrant Rights Coalition, various members of the media. I attended as a member of the anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist collective One Struggle. We were all excited to see students in South Florida standing up against injustice.
After several speeches, the group marched to the President’s office, chanting and waving signs. We went inside the building, up the stairs, 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. One mentioned possibly demanding Saunders’ resignation if the deal goes through.
Lanning appeared to experience intense emotional pain. He 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” turned out to be a complete farce. Scheduled strategically for March 1, the first day of Spring Break, 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.
“[The money] was given with love,” said Saunders. Perhaps she was referring to the tough love of a guard pepper-spraying, beating and raping a captive teenager? Or the love that GEO expressed in the form of a plum executive VP position for David Venturella, after he drove immigrant deportation rates higher during his stint as an ICE assistant director? Or maybe she meant the way that cutthroat profiteers loved to count the $1.16 billion they acquired last year, each dollar dripping with the tears of prisoners and their families?
GEO Group, no one needs your toxic love.
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 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, and named it “ground zero” in the fight against the system of mass incarceration that’s being called the new Jim Crow.
On April 20, the first football game will be played at the newly named stadium. But the fight continues about what its name will be.
The team I’m betting on is the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition.