Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement

PWRM Button
Button from the PRWM. (source)

The Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement (PRWM) began October 5th, 1970 when a number of fliers were posted on Polaroid bulletin boards and left at all entrances of the Cambridge, MA offices.

It was started by two African American Polaroid employees, Ken Williams and Caroline Hunter. Caroline Hunter explains how it came about:

“I worked at Polaroid as a research chemist and my late husband Ken Williams was in the photo department producing advertisements for Polaroid, and one day I went to pick him up for lunch and we discovered an ID badge with a mockup of a black guy that we knew from Polaroid saying ‘Union of South Africa Department of the Mines’,” Hunter said. “We discovered that Polaroid was in South Africa and that they’d been there for quite some time, since 1938, and that they were actually the producers of the notorious passbook photographs which South Africans, black South Africans called their ‘handcuffs.'”  (html)

Polaroid initially denied the allegations, but later conceded their materials were involved in passbook production:

The next day Polaroid denied it was aiding apartheid either “directly or indirectly.” But company officials took a closer look and two weeks later admitted that about 20 per cent of the film sold to their South African distributor had found its way into the passbook program — one of the chief instruments used by the South African government and its 3 million whites in the subjugation of the country’s 13 million blacks. (paid)

These revelations were particularly damaging to Polaroid as it was a company that had built up a reputation as a progressive company.

The movement was joined by many other groups, and an early example of calls for divestment as an activist tactic. It was the first South African divestment campaign organized by black workers.

tumblr_mxdqnnvLFY1qaihw2o1_1280 (1)
From a PRWM pamphlet. (source)

In 1971, in reaction to the campaign, Polaroid announced the Polaroid Experiment, under which they would continue to do business in South Africa with some modifications.

In 1978, after a number of revelations about how their materials were being used, they announced they would be pulling out of South Africa completely.

—–

The workers were initially focused on the sales of the Polaroid ID-2 identification system, which was seen as part of the machinery of apartheid. See ID-2 Controversy

Polaroid’s involvement was opposed by many groups, including Science for the People (or, SftP).

Caroline Hunter is still active in divestment activism, focusing recent efforts on Palestine.

Ken Williams died several years back. He co-founded the movement with Hunter.

Guardian revelations about 1977 trade. (pdf)

Article on Polaroid’s eventual pull-out. (pdf)

Source: Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement

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