Florida Atlantic University's campus in Boca Raton, Florida. (en.wikipedia/KnightLago)
A sit-in at the university president’s office; calls for their resignation; a packed, campus-wide meeting that resolves nothing and opens the door to further conflict. Such actions are notable enough on their own, but we’ve never seen a protest movement quite like what’s happening at Florida Atlantic University. For the first time on record, hundreds of students are raising their voices against the renaming of their school’s football stadium. FAU decided to sell the stadium’s naming rights to GEO Group, a notorious private prison corporation, and students are saying, “Hell no.” Their efforts signal something even more significant than pushing back against the inviolate prerogatives of a school’s football program. It’s a high-profile sign of the growing movement against our system of mass incarceration otherwise known as “the New Jim Crow.”
GEO Group will pay $6 million over twelve years to rebrand the football stadium, home of the FAU Owls. Protesters have now also rebranded the stadium, calling it “Owlcatraz.”
Students marched and occupied President Mary Jane Saunders’s office last week, submitting a letter that read, “We are protesting because we believe that institutions of higher learning like FAU have the responsibility to stand up to the systemic racism, corruption and human rights violations that define the prison-for-profit system, and advocate instead for the equality and human rights.”
The students are, of course, correct. Private prisons are immoral, Orwellian institutions. To combat any trend against growing levels of incarceration, they spend millions on political lobbying to make sure that provably racist institutions like “the War on Drugs”, “three strikes” laws and, their latest ripe plum, the incarceration of undocumented immigrants, remain the rule of the land. But if private prisons are diseases, then GEO Group is the Ebola virus. Describing one of their juvenile jails in Mississippi, a judge called GEO Group’s facilities “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions.”
Throwing more gasoline on the fire, President Saunders’s initial response to GEO Group’s offer was pure, uncritical glee, calling it “delightful” and saying without a sprig of irony, “This gift is a true representation of The GEO Group’s incredible generosity to FAU and the community it serves.”
When people at a packed meeting of 250 students raised concerns about the way Geo Group “serves the community”, she pointed out that GEO Group’s chairman, George Zoley, has a “love” of the school because he is a proud alumnus. This led philosophy professor Simon Glynn to say, tartly, “We don’t seem to be doing our jobs adequately because it appears we may be graduating people from the university who are ethically challenged.”
It also raises the question, in these cash-strapped times, where President Saunders would draw the line if not at GEO Group. Would she have considered an offer to rename the field “Jerry Sandusky Stadium” if offered $7 million? If Larry Flynt had pledged $8 million to call it “Hustler Arena,” does she take a meeting? For many students, the deeply personal disrespect embodied in the taking of GEO Group’s money is no less intense.
A number of FAU students are the children of immigrants. GEO Group, as I’ve written elsewhere, is currently bidding to be the state’s private prison of choice, aiming to warehouse the state’s 3 million undocumented immigrants. Incipient immigration reform, it is believed in the industry, will create a massive demand for private detention facilities. It’s viewed that GEO Group’s effort to be the shiny name on the side of the stadium is a form of corporate “sin-washing” that smoothes the transition to GEO Group’s taking on this incredibly expansive role in jailing the undocumented.
As students packed the rafters and demanded answers, Saunders didn’t backtrack from her earlier praise of GEO Group but also actually said that she was simply unfamiliar with their record and history. She also described the $6 million payoff as a “closed book,” saying that the papers have been signed and it’s a done deal. Student protest leader Gonzalo Vizcardo said, “The board of trustees should have done due diligence on GEO before they signed that agreement. What (Saunders) said about GEO being a wonderful company was outrageous.”
This movement isn’t stopping despite President Saunders’s most fervent wishes. By, at best, not doing her due diligence or, at worst, valuing the money over any attendant moral or ethical concerns, Saunders has turned the school into a national punch-line. By standing up to this synthesis of football and prison, and GEO Group’s uniquely American horror story, the students are trying to map a different way forward for the university. If it’s remembered as a place where a campus movement was finally launched against the private prison industry and the New Jim Crow, that will be a far prouder legacy than the place that sold their soul for the dirty money of a for-profit gulag.