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The “People’s Bailout” Was Just the Beginning: What’s Next for Strike Debt?

Thomas Gokey is one of the creators of Occupy’s Rolling Jubilee, which is preparing to purchase and cancel $9 million of ordinary people’s medical debt. Here, he speaks about the project’s origins, methods, and future.
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Thomas Gokey executes a jump kick in a gallery, in front of three panels from his sculpture, "Total Amount of Money Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper." Photo courtesy Thomas Gokey.

Syracuse University art professor Thomas Gokey earned his Master of Fine Arts degree five years ago, but remains chained to his alma mater by $49,983 of debt. Soon after he graduated, the grim prospect of indefinite payments inspired its own art piece.  Gokey put his debt up for sale in reconstituted squares of shredded money from the Federal Reserve, which he called "Total Amount of Money Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper."

The project got good press, but the debt remained. Gokey continued to think about how debt controls people's lives, and this year, together with the activist group Strike Debt, he helped organize a bold "People's Bailout" called the Rolling Jubilee, which has raised over $465,000.  Bringing that money to the marketplace where collections companies buy and sell debt for pennies on the dollar, Strike Debt intends to purchase about $9 million of Americans' medical and educational debt—and then cancel it.

Strike Debt, which grew out of Occupy Wall Street, wants to foment conversation about the debt we rack up in pursuit of basic needs, and the industries that profit from that debt. Gokey is currently on a year-long unpaid leave from teaching to help organize the Rolling Jubilee and upcoming Strike Debt projects.

Occupy’s New Offshoot Set to Cancel Millions in Medical Debts

Using financial techniques normally used only by financiers, ordinary people are poised to buy an estimated $5.9 million in bad debt in order to cancel it.

Fabien Tepper: How did you come to be interested in debt, and how did you decide to talk about it through your artwork?

Thomas Gokey: Well, I tend to make work about what I'm thinking about. And debt really controls my life—it's just this massive burden. I came up with that particular project in 2007 to '08, after I graduated from art school.

I was thinking, my diploma is just a piece of paper, and it costs all this money. And our money is just pieces of paper that are more or less worthless, but we treat them as valuable because they are "legal tender for all debts public and private." So we're basically passing around these pieces of paper with IOUs on them. And a lot of artwork is just worthless material, like a piece of paper with some charcoal marks on it. So part of what I got really interested in was, how do we put value on these priceless things?

What I was trying to play around with in that piece was to convert my tuition debt into a priceless work of art that I could sell for the amount of my tuition debt. It's made out of real money that I procured from the Federal Reserve after they had shredded it.

Now, since I'm an educator, I'm thinking about the ways in which my students and I seem to be getting taken advantage of. At some point in my classes we stop and we pause and we look at how much it's costing each one of my students to take one of my classes, and how much I'm getting paid to teach the class. And we look at each other and think, why don't we just go hold our classes at the public library? Somebody's obviously making money off both of us, so can't we cut out that middleman and focus on education?

So yes, I've been dancing to the tune that my debt calls for ten years now. We're supposed to be "the land of the free" yet all of my choices are being made for me by the market. We have a system where they say, in order to meet your basic needs you have to turn over a large amount of your freedom to this market system that's really designed to take money from you and give it to Wall Street.

Fabien: What kinds of choices are being made for you by the market?

We're supposed to be "the land of the free" yet all of my choices are being made for me by the market.

Thomas: Well, like many people, it's what kind of work I can do. Think about people who are going into law school who say, “I want to become a lawyer because I want to defend poor people in court.” By the time they finish law school, they've got $200,000 in debt, and they need to work for a corporate law firm in order to pay it back. The main reason they got into law is now removed.

The debt has this massive power to discipline us, rather than allowing us to discipline ourselves. I mean, I don't live where I want to live. I recently relocated to Chattanooga, Tenn., whereas my art career would be better served if I lived in New York. But I can either pay Brooklyn rent or I can pay my tuition debt. I can't pay both. People are losing their houses because they've got medical debt—two thirds of all bankruptcies have medical debt as a contributing factor, and that's just immoral. No one should have to go into debt to receive basic medical care.

And, I look at my students. First of all, I look at what kind of students end up in my classroom, and I notice that they're not very representative of the country as a whole. The main thing our university system produces is class difference. People on the poorest end of the spectrum get locked out of the system altogether; they never show up in my classroom. People who are wealthy enough that their parents can just write a check, they graduate debt-free and pass go and collect $200. And for everyone in the middle, the price of entry is to take on decades worth of crushing debt.

It infuriates me, because I actually care about education, and I'm trying to produce this dangerous education that is going to be liberating—because that's what the liberal arts are supposed to do, they're supposed to liberate you. Yet now there's no liberation going on at all—it's the exact opposite. It's line up and sacrifice the next decades of your life doing things you don't want to do, to pay for this education that you supposedly need.

Fabien: How did Strike Debt's organizers find each other and come up with the idea of Rolling Jubilee?

The best way to meet lawyers who are willing to work on causes like this is to go get arrested doing something for Occupy Wall Street.

Thomas: This idea has been floating around activist circles for a couple of years. I first encountered it in Zuccotti Park last October, and I thought, this is a brilliant idea—somebody needs to make it happen. And everyone said, “Okay, well you make it happen.”

So I've been working on it for 14 months now, and Strike Debt itself formed after May Day. We saw in the park that debt was one of the ties that binds the 99% together. A lot of us there just had this massive amount of debt and no adequate work to pay it back.

Strike Burn-555.jpg
For Some Debtors, “Coming Out” Is First Step Toward Resistance
Chris Kasper hadn’t realized how much shame he felt for being in debt until he stood up in public and spoke about it.

There had already been other working groups formed—the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, the Occupy Theory group, and Occupy University—some of the more active and forward-thinking groups. So we met in May, and decided to hold some assemblies around debt. At first we just said, let's come and talk about debt. Let's talk about the way in which debt has been controlling our lives. And that had a pretty powerful emotional effect—I know Chris Kasper wrote a short piece for YES! about his own personal experience, of just being able to talk openly and honestly about debt.

And then we focused on learning more about how debt actually works, and how we can protect ourselves, and how we can fight back. So we researched and wrote the Debt Resistors Operations Manual, and released that on September 17. And then, after I had been working on the Rolling Jubilee for a long time, Strike Debt was a perfect working group to take it and amplify it. So it turned out to be bigger and more amazing than I ever could have imagined, because it really was this collective project.

We've got lots of other ideas up our sleeves. The dream is to create a global, nonviolent, non-cooperation campaign focused around debt. What would a Gandhian mass refusal campaign look like? We're several years away from being able to call for something like a global debt strike or a global jubilee, but we're working towards that. Strike Debt covers a diversity of tactics, all of them nonviolent, all of them imaginative. People haven't seen anything yet. The stuff we've got in store is going to be bigger and more amazing, but it's going to take months’ and in some cases years’ worth of hard work to actually realize them.

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