For Some Debtors, “Coming Out” Is First Step Toward Resistance
I could buy a two-bedroom home in most American cities with what I owe on my student loans. I’ve been making monthly payments for four years now and, thanks to a locked-in 4.5% APR, my debt is bigger than when I started paying. I’ll most likely die before it’s gone.
So when I heard that people from Occupy Theory, the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, and OWS Free University, among others, were holding open assemblies in Washington Square Park on the topic of debt, I showed up to the next one scheduled.
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It took place at noon on a Sunday in early June. Just a handful of people were there at first, but our numbers grew to around 25 over the next couple hours. The conversation focused on debt, and how something had shifted in Occupy that was turning our focus toward this issue. I recognized some labor folks, some professors, and people who I had been in marches with. There were also people I didn’t know.
One professor talked about his work with the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, and about a personal conflict he had been having. He had realized, he said, that he was participating in an exploitative system of education that was sending students out to start their lives in service to enormous burdens of debt. This struck an immediate chord with me, being in service to enormous burdens of my own through that very system.
Another speaker described the idea of debt as a negative commons, how most of us shared a permanent state of docile servitude to our creditors through a constant, nagging anxiety of maintaining credit ratings. People talked about their own medical bills and horrific experiences with the American healthcare system. Municipal and sovereign debt was discussed. People talked about their experiences with credit cards and underwater mortgages, which are mortgages that exceed the current value of the property they’re paying for.
The conversations fluctuated between analytical ruminations on debt and its effect on people’s lives, and emotional anecdotes about speakers’ personal experiences with debt. Some people floated ideas of debt abolition and debt strikes, different ways that we could mobilize large masses of people to refuse to pay their debts.
I felt compelled to speak and began talking about my experience being brought up in a working-class family, and how all of my education was financed by loans I’d taken on. In the flow of what I was saying, I felt angry, and then sick with nerves as I approached the specific amount in dollars that I owed.
I realized in that moment that, while I’ve spoken about how much I owe to a very few close people, I had never before stood up in public and spoken about how enormous my debt actually is. This is something I have always kept secret, in the dark. My debt is something I had always been ashamed of. In spite of my sick nerves, I let it out, and was met with a circle of nodding heads and twinkling fingers. It was liberating and empowering to, for lack of a better phrase, come out with that.
By the end of the assembly, quite a few others spoke out about their debt. We had this eureka moment, realizing shame was a powerful tool used by all different types of creditors to manage us, keeping us working and committed to treating our debts as if they were actual moral obligations.
We came to understand that this shame is one of the things that gives debt power over our lives, both individually and collectively. Perhaps letting go of the shame around our debt was a first step toward identifying other debtors and beginning to lay the groundwork toward building a global movement of debt resistance. We vowed to pick up this conversation the next time we met, and to allow time for a debtor’s speak-out.
The next week, our assembly had more than doubled in size. We dedicated an hour for debtors to speak out about their debt. What followed was, judging from a palpable range of affect, something very powerful for the speakers and assembly alike. A diverse group of women and men of all ages stood up one at a time and spoke emotionally of their own struggles. They received spontaneous encouragement, attentive respect, and applause from the group. They spoke of their fears, humiliations, regrets, and choices they may have made differently in life if these burdens of debt hadn’t been weighing down on them. It was clear, having listened to these testimonials, that we really are not alone.
Weekly meetings continued all summer. In addition to the speak outs, rigorous research and organizational work continues to be done. Several initiatives were developed in time for September 17, the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and the beginning of Year Two. On Saturday, September 15, Strike Debt released the Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual (DROM) at Judson Church.
The DROM is a living document collectively written for collective action. It provides useful information for any debtor considering becoming a debt resistor, with a focus on dealing with types of debt such as: municipal, housing, student, medical, fringe finance, credit card, and bankruptcy. In addition to being available online, 10,000 copies have been printed and distributed. Translations into other languages are currently being made.
Strike Debt also has several special events planned for the fall. The Rolling Jubilee is a Strike Debt campaign to liberate debtors at random by purchasing and abolishing bundles of anonymous debt for pennies on the dollar. [Editor’s note: organizers aren’t sharing the financial details behind this project at this time.] The Rolling Jubilee will launch a People’s Bailout with a variety show & telethon on November 15, with 100 percent of ticket proceeds to benefit the Rolling Jubilee. Comedian Janeane Garofalo, songwriter Jeff Mangum (of Neutral Milk Hotel), and members of the Yes Men are among those scheduled to perform.
Strike Debt aims to transform the shame and fear of being burdened with debt into outrage, and turn that outrage into action, resistance, and mutual aid. Strike Debt is the beginning of a radical movement of international debt resistance.
Personally, I have more hope and faith in the possibility of Strike Debt continuing to spread and to build viable alternatives to living at the service of credit ratings, than I do in ever paying down my own debt.
Chris Kasper wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Chris is an organizer for Strike Debt, based out of New York City.
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