Viewpoints Timmon Wallis and Vicki Elson: Putting our money where our mouths are:Boycotting and Divesting from Nuclear Weapons

  • Members of the New York Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, outside New York City Hall on the day the City Council heard testimony for and against city divestment from nuclear weapons, in January 2020. NYCAN

  • US Rep. Jim McGovern, center, on the steps of Northampton City Hall, together with other local candidates who signed the pledge for a nuclear weapons free future in October, 2018. TIMMON WALLIS

  • Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz shows his executive order divesting Northampton city funds from nuclear weapons companies to Northampton activist Frances Crowe, who died in August 2019. Lydia Wood

  • Vicki Elson and Tim Wallis at their home in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 8/3/2020 5:56:43 PM

We are very fortunate, here in Northampton, to be represented by so many outstanding politicians. But out there in the rest of the country, it’s a rather different story. Politicians, on the whole, represent big companies and vested interests far more than they represent us, their constituents.

That was famously demonstrated in a 2014 study at Princeton University, which looked at more than 1,800 pieces of legislation introduced in Congress over a 20-year period. They found a near zero statistical correlation between legislation that was supported by the public and legislation that ultimately got passed into law. On the other hand, they found a very high statistical correlation between legislation supported by big corporations and legislation that became law.

Fossil fuel companies, drug companies, insurance companies, big banks, vested interests like the National Rifle Association and military contractors fund the election campaigns of major politicians. They spend millions of dollars lobbying politicians every year, and offer them lucrative contracts and positions on their boards when they leave office.

We need to be voting for people who will end this legalized corruption once and for all. And in the meantime, we can put much more pressure on the companies themselves, since they are the ones who are calling the shots in this country.

There is nothing new about trying to put pressure on companies in order to achieve social change. Consumer boycotts and divestment campaigns played a major role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They helped bring apartheid to an end in South Africa. Most recently, they are being used to put pressure on fossil fuel companies and the NRA.

In the 1980s, consumer boycotts against General Electric, Morton Salt and other household names played an important role in helping to turn Ronald Reagan around on the nuclear weapons issue. Hundreds of small towns across the country, and some big cities like Chicago, New York and Oakland, passed Nuclear Free Zone laws that prohibited those cities from investing in or signing contracts with nuclear weapons companies.

Today, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Ban Treaty) provides us with a much more powerful tool for doing this. One of the clauses in this treaty is known as the “assistance clause.” It forbids “anyone” from “in any way” assisting “anyone else” to engage in “any activity” that is prohibited by this treaty.

Assistance clauses have been incorporated into a total of nine international treaties, and numerous countries have interpreted this to mean, among other things, that investing in private companies that violate these treaties is illegal in those countries. Eight European countries have passed specific national legislation that bans both private and public investments in any company still making weapons banned by these treaties.

The Nuclear Ban Treaty has not yet entered into force. But already, two of the largest pension funds in the world have divested from nuclear weapons: the Norwegian Sovereign Fund and the ABP pension fund of the Netherlands. DeutcheBank of Germany and Resona Holdings of Japan have also divested.

Altogether, 77 banks, pension funds, insurance companies and other financial institutions around the world have so far withheld more than $500 million from nuclear weapons companies. In the United States, Amalgamated Bank of New York, Green Century Funds of Boston and the Methodist pension fund, Wespath Holdings, have all divested from nuclear weapons.

Just before the coronavirus hit, the New York City Council held a public hearing about divesting New York City pension funds from nuclear weapons. A super-majority of New York City councilors have already expressed their support for the divestment, but because of the lockdown, it has not yet come to a vote.

When the city of Cambridge passed a similar resolution a few years ago, the state told them they couldn’t divest pension funds without state authorization. A bill that almost made it through the Massachusetts State House this year would have sidestepped this hurdle by divesting the pension funds of the whole state.

In Northampton, we are already one step ahead of Cambridge and New York City. In 2018, Mayor David Narkewicz signed into law an executive order calling for Northampton to divest from nuclear weapons companies and to refuse to enter into city contracts with any of those companies. In order to implement the latter, Northampton had to apply for special permission from the state, through a “home-rule petition” filed by our state representative, Lindsay Sabadosa.

And on July 2 of this year, Gov. Charlie Baker signed that home-rule petition into law, allowing Northampton to overrule state laws that regulate city contracts in this particular case. This is a hugely significant step, and one we should be rightly proud of as residents of Northampton.

We can all put our money where our mouths are, by getting our faith communities, colleges, local businesses, towns, cities and other institutions to divest. It’s harder for us, as consumers, to actually boycott many of these companies, because they do not make everyday household products. But many of them do make IT systems and high-tech equipment that are sold to cities, schools, hospitals, police departments, libraries and other large institutions. So cities like Northampton can boycott, as well as divest from, these companies.

Companies don’t like people divesting from their public stock or boycotting their products. These actions may not directly hurt their bottom line, but they affect a company’s reputation, and that has a monetary value. They can also have a damaging effect on the confidence of other investors, and sound alarm bells ringing throughout the entire industry.

It’s time to ring those alarm bells. The world cannot wait another 75 years to put an end to the madness of nuclear weapons. You can join the divestment and boycott campaign at NuclearBan.US.


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