Think Out Loud

How effective are divestment campaigns?

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
May 3, 2024 11:29 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, May 6

A tour inside the occupied Branford Price Millar Library at Portland State University, April 30, 2024. Demonstrators protesting the war in Gaza have called for the university to divest from companies that do business with Israel.

A tour inside the occupied Branford Price Millar Library at Portland State University, April 30, 2024. Demonstrators protesting the war in Gaza have called for the university to divest from companies that do business with Israel.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


Students across the country, including in Oregon, have escalated their protests in recent weeks of Israel’s war in Gaza. Many of the student protesters have been calling for their colleges and universities to divest from companies that do business with Israel. Similar calls were made in the 1970s and 80s as part of the effort to end apartheid in South Africa. But how effective have those divestment campaigns been in effecting change? And how realistic is it for educational institutions to modify complex financial portfolios to end investments in specific companies?

Joining us to answer those questions and add some historical context is David S. Meyer, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of “How Social Movements (Sometimes) Matter.”

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Students across the country, including in Oregon, have escalated their protests of Israel’s war in Gaza in recent weeks. Many of these protesters have been calling for their colleges or universities to divest from companies that do business with Israel. Similar calls were made in the 1970s and ‘80s as part of the effort to end South African apartheid. But how effective has divestment been as a strategy, and how do these current protests fit into the larger history of social movements? David S. Meyer has thought a lot about these kinds of questions. He’s a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of “How Social Movements (Sometimes) Matter.” Welcome to the show.

David S. Meyer: It’s good to be with you, Dave.

Miller: It’s good to have you on. How far back does the idea of divestment go?

Meyer: The earliest mention of divestment that I could find was in about 1783, when Quakers urged their members to divest their holdings from the slave trade. And the idea wasn’t to financially cripple the slave trade. The idea was to get their conduct in line with their beliefs so they could advocate more effectively, sort of a strike against hypocrisy.

Miller: So, get your own house in order, first.

Meyer: So that you can advocate effectively, so that you won’t face cross-pressures, where you’re worried about making money at the same time as you’re worried about doing right. And stock funds, since the turn of the 20th century, have offered social concerns … investment funds which may exclude alcohol or tobacco, so people who don’t like alcohol and tobacco can avoid making profits off them.

As a political campaign, the first mention I can find of it is the campaign against investing in South Africa, which goes back to 1965 when student organizations began protesting against South Africa as a kind of a continuation of the civil rights movement.

Miller: I have to say that that’s earlier than I was familiar with, in terms of South African-related divestment efforts – 1965, as opposed to 10 years after that, or 17 years after that. What was the global context around those divestment campaigns that really spread around college campuses in the decades that followed?

Meyer: When Nelson Mandela was sentenced to an indefinite detainment in the early part of the 1960s, there was a global outcry about it. Well, it wasn’t everybody in the globe, but opposition to apartheid was everywhere. And the divestment campaign was accompanied by exclusion for an athletic and artistic boycott which developed over the ‘70s and 1980s, and by a general “pariah status” imposed on South Africa, where it became harder and harder to travel with a South African passport.

And it’s important to put the student movement in a larger context of international opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa. The first college to divest was 10 years after the first demonstration, that was Hampshire College in 1976. And it’s a tiny liberal arts college which had a tiny endowment, and an even tinier portion of it invested in companies that did business in South Africa.

Miller: And known for being counter-cultural, and “make your own way,” make your own course of study.

Meyer: It’s a lefty hippie college.

Miller: Your alma mater, right?

Meyer:  I graduated from a hippie college (laughter).

Miller: I want to turn to a logistical question here – which has gotten a fair amount of talk in recent weeks – because one of the big logistical arguments, especially now, about divestment campaigns or maybe against divestment campaigns, is that university holdings are often managed by outside companies and are tied up in complex or proprietary investments. Hundreds of millions of dollars,

sometimes, that are tentacled out into shares here and there. How likely is it that institutions can actually pull their investments out from any particular company?

Meyer: Well, there’s no question that it’s increasingly complicated in a globalized economy, but some schools have done it and some institutions have done it. So it is doable. Most endowments are managed by professional firms that work for the universities, and the universities can call their shots as to what they want to be in and what they don’t want to be in.


Now, that’s not to say that it doesn’t take time to make these financial arrangements. And one of the things that we want to think about is these divestment movements really took off on American campuses when young people were outraged by mass killings from bombs in Gaza, like the tremendous destruction in this tiny area of land. And this campaign is unlikely to have any direct effect on that.

Miller: What do you mean by that?

Meyer: If you want to strangle the companies that are invested in Israel, when the firm that’s holding the stocks sells them, somebody else is gonna buy them. Historically, divestment movements haven’t made much direct financial impact on the companies. They’re more important as the basis of a political campaign, raising awareness and spurring political action, encouraging people to do other things besides divestment.

If you look back at the divestment movement in the 1980s, which was when there was tremendous attention to student politics, it was accompanied by students camping out much like today, in pseudo-shanty towns on college quads to mimic the way Black Africans in South Africa lived. It was also accompanied by this artistic boycott. And if you go through YouTube, you can find a song, a collective song called (“ain’t gonna play”) “Sun City,” the artistic boycott that was written by Steve Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist, and it’s a bop. It works. So there’s a lot of things going on besides divestment.

The kind of brilliance of divestment as a strategy is that it allows young people to connect their lives to the political cause they care about, and to have something to do that seems like it matters.

Miller: There was a pretty unified political goal for the South African divestment campaign to end apartheid. It seems that there’s less unity right now among protesters. Depending on who you ask, you could hear that the goal is to end bombing, to end the war, or to end the Israeli state. How does that complicate calls for divestment?

Meyer: That is exactly on point. If you go to the encampments and talk to people, you will hear a whole range of goals articulated. And I think it was the war in Gaza that got most students aware and “woke,” if you will, on the issue, and a lot of them are figuring out what the ultimate end goal is.

Organizations that have been protesting on behalf of Palestine for the last 20 years were well positioned to seize the rhetorical edge in the beginning. But for sure, it’s not clear what all these students agree on, nor what they can get American political figures to agree on. So that’s very much an open question. You put your finger on it.

Miller: You know, I mentioned the title of one of your books, “Why Social Movements (Sometimes) Work.” We could probably talk about this next question for 17 hours. But what do you mean by “work?” I mean, is your definition of success synonymous with a list of protesters’ demands being met?

Meyer: Well, the title is why they sometimes “matter” – why they “work” was on the cutting room floor, but it’s a good title too.

Miller: Did I say work? My gosh, I apologize.

Meyer: No, no, it’s great. That’s also a good title. And activists can influence policy, which is kind of what I was thinking about by “mattering.” But it always takes much longer than they think it should, and they almost always get much less than what they’re organizing for, because social movements don’t work by themselves. They work by recruiting institutional actors to take up some portion of the cause.

So if we think back to that iconic demonstration in 1963 on the Washington Mall, where Martin Luther King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech, they had a broad social agenda that went beyond a civil rights bill. They were endorsed by labor, they wanted higher wages, they wanted more jobs, they wanted housing. And eventually they got a civil rights bill. Eventually they got a Voting Rights Act, but a lot of the stuff was left on the cutting room floor, what didn’t get translated by the Johnson administration into policy.

And that doesn’t mean it didn’t work. People go out with broad dreams of what they want, but what they usually get is less than that, and they don’t get it by themselves.

Miller: Well, before we go, I’m curious – to some extent, social movements can be shaped, not just by what the people who are a part of them are asking for and how they’re asking for them, but how the powers that be respond to them, what the crackdown is like, in some ways, or what the answer is like.

I’m curious what you see as that interplay right now, whether we’re talking about police in Columbia, or responses anywhere else in the country. What do you see as that kind of dialogue right now?

Meyer: Oh, that’s right on target. The president of Columbia did not get her job based on her expertise on Middle Eastern politics. She did not take the job thinking that she would be making targeting decisions for the Israel Defense Forces. She did not start as a target.

The problem that students at Columbia had was finding a target that was meaningful, and that happened when she began to send in the police to arrest them – then she became a target for the students. In general, I think when the strategy you effect as a social movement gets people inside and outside political institutions talking about the issues you care about, you’re winning. You’re making a difference. When they’re talking about the tactic to the exclusion of your issues, well, that’s not so great. That’s not helping you as much as you would like it to.

And I think that’s the worry right now, that the discussion about Israeli conduct in Gaza has given way to a broader debate about free speech, which doesn’t really touch IDF policy.

Miller: David S. Meyer, thanks very much.

Meyer: Thank you.

Miller: David S. Meyer is a professor of sociology at UC Irvine, the author of the book “How Social Movements (Sometimes) Matter.”

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