- Written by Peter Miller Peter Miller
- Published: 11 April 2017 11 April 2017
Amanda Aguilar Shank, Enlace, 503-660-8744
Rod Such, Occupation-Free Portland, 971-322-4237
Responding to Pressure from Social Justice Activists, Portland City Council Halts All Investments in Private Corporations
On Wednesday 4/5/2017 the Portland, Oregon, City Council voted 5 to 0 to adopt a new City Investment Policy that ends all future investments in corporate securities. The decision followed three hours of public testimony that was overwhelmingly in support of Socially Responsible Investing.
“We celebrate this victory as it moves the City out of the business of investing in corporations that behave in ways that are so fundamentally opposed to the values we hold as a community,” said Hyung Nam, member of the former Portland Socially Responsible Investments Committee (SRIC).
The April 5 vote was the culmination of a process that started in December 2014 with a decision by the City Council to enact a Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) screen and appoint a seven-person SRIC. The charge for the SRIC was to hear public testimony, review research, and develop an annual report with recommendations to the City Council for companies to be added to the City’s Do-Not-Buy list. These companies would be ineligible for investment based on multiple violations of the City’s SRI criteria.
In October 2016, the SRIC issued its first report to the City Council. The report found that nine companies violated multiple SRI criteria. In November 2016, the City Council received the SRIC report and heard extensive citizen testimony concerning primarily two of the companies on the list--Caterpillar and Wells Fargo. In December 2016, the City Council opted to take a three-month pause in all corporate investments and tasked the City Treasurer with reassessing Portland’s investment policy and commitment to a SRI lens for all City corporate investments.
At the April 5, 2017 hearing, the City Council heard the City Treasurer’s proposal, which proposed eliminating the citizen SRI Committee and using the proprietary Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) investment-screening tool, MSCI, as the sole way to evaluate a company’s SRI eligibility for City investments.
Citizen testimony at the April 5 hearing gave a resoundingly negative response to the City Treasurer’s proposal. A coalition of groups representing Palestinian human rights, private prison divestment, proponents of a municipal bank and climate justice argued that the proposed plan was completely devoid of any transparency and community input. The proposal lacked a tool to screen for values that Portlanders embrace. In testimony that was sung rather than spoken, the Raging Grannies challenged the Council with the words “From Standing Rock to Palestine and here in Portland town, Human life is under attack and the right thing must be done. Human life or profits, which side are you on?”
Initially, Council member Chloe Eudaly proposed amendments to the Treasurer’s resolution. These amendments called for the City to add Amazon, Caterpillar, Bank of NY Mellon, and Nestle to the proposal and for these companies to be placed on the Do- Not-Buy list. Ultimately, what won the day was the City Council passing a resolution proposed by Council member Dan Saltzman to prohibit Portland from investing in any corporate securities.
“This decision is a huge victory for citizen activism,” said Maxine Fookson of Jewish Voice for Peace and Occupation-Free Portland. “Through bringing the discussion of the egregious practices of companies such as Wells Fargo and Caterpillar into the light of day, the City Council opted to withdraw our taxpayers’ financial support from these corporations.”
“Although we would have preferred seeing the City keep its socially responsible investing policy and its SRIC so as to highlight the worst of the worst corporations and in order to encourage better corporate behavior, the compromise amendment at least ensures that our tax money will not be complicit in human rights violations in Israel/Palestine and elsewhere,” Fookson added.
Wells Fargo is the largest financier of private prison corporations, which are widely known for human rights abuses of detainees and understaffing and poorly trained and low-paid workers. Wells Fargo, which is also financing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), has gained notoriety for fake customer accounts and fraudulent and discriminatory lending practices that particularly target communities of color.
Caterpillar is heavily profiting from involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In violation of international law, Caterpillar sells the Israeli military weaponized bulldozers that are used as weapons of war to demolish Palestinian homes, villages, and agricultural lands. Churches, student groups and numerous international human rights organizations have attempted to engage Caterpillar to urge them to cease supporting this brutal military occupation, but the company has disregarded all attempts at engagement. In addition, Caterpillar was contracted to dig the Dakota Access Pipeline and is a favored company for construction of the US-Mexico Border Wall that Donald Trump is proposing.
“The City of Portland has taken strong stands in opposing DAPL and fossil fuel extraction,” noted Curtis Bell of Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East. “It was only consistent for the City to disinvest from the companies engaged in those projects.”
Divestment from companies such as Wells Fargo and Caterpillar--companies that do such grave harm--is a strong statement for corporate responsibility. Though the City Council voted to make this statement in a more generic way, Enlace and Occupation-Free Portland applaud the fact that Portland will no longer be complicit with companies whose practices are so diametrically different from the social values Portlanders cherish. Both groups also welcomed the testimony given on behalf of a public bank and echo the insistence of climate justice organizations that Portland stay on record in support of keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
“In this age of Trump, we see our movements coming together internationally to push back against a corporate agenda that seeks profit over investment in people and the planet,” said Amanda Aguilar Shank, Interim Director of Enlace, convener of the National Prison Divestment Campaign. “In Portland and nationally, our communities are demanding that our cities become Freedom Cities, sites of resistance and also sites of visionary advances, like what we have seen in Portland today.”