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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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Fabien: Did any roadblocks crop up while you while you were preparing for the Rolling Jubilee? Anything other people could learn from?

Thomas: Oh, yes. There have been many times where I've just thought, this isn't going to work—this is not possible—and despaired. One of the early roadblocks was that we needed lawyers to work with us, and I didn't know any lawyers. 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. It turns out you've got a couple of days in jail to talk to all the lawyers who are in jail with you, because they got arrested with you. So that helped us clear some hurdles. I guess the advice is, if you get stuck, go get arrested with some of the best people in the world, and then brainstorm.


Thomas Gokey holds a sign at Zuccotti Park. Photo courtesy Thomas Gokey.

Fabien: I understand that a major goal of this campaign has been to start conversations. Have there been any conversations that have surprised you?

Thomas: Oh, it's been beautiful to watch. On websites, especially conservative web sites, some people are saying, “Wait a second, these debts really are illegitimate.” And then other people are saying, “They knew what they were signing up for,” and then people are sharing their personal stories.

There was one kid on Facebook who said, “I don't like this idea. People should just be responsible with their money and not end up in debt.” And then someone else responded to that and said, “I've been extremely responsible with my finances, but what are you supposed to do when you get cancer and you lose your job, and I've got this amount of debt? Tell me what I did wrong.”

And the kid said, “Well, that is wrong. You shouldn't end up with that.”

Exactly what we were hoping to happen happened, and it's continuing to happen. The Rolling Jubilee is a tactic that is meant to get the conversation started, and to direct that conversation toward particular areas of injustice. Most people didn't know that there is a secondary market for debt, and that banks sell the debt they're expecting you to pay full price for to each other for a fraction of the price.

And there are many other injustices out there that we are hoping to use the Rolling Jubilee to focus the national conversation around. This is something that we see coming up in different phases. In phase one, we're focusing on medical debt. In the second phase, three or four months from now, we might focus on a different kind of debt, or on a particularly egregious practice that we would like to get shut down. So stay tuned. We've got big dreams and big schemes.

You can't just call for a debt strike. It doesn't work that way. You have to put in the legwork and organizing that will make it possible.

Fabien: Have any fresh insights or directions arisen from the new regional chapters of Strike Debt?

Thomas: I'm a part of one these new regional chapters. I never have actually lived in New York City, and I just recently relocated to Chattanooga, where we're having our first meeting on Saturday.

About three weeks ago, we started seeing Strike Debt chapters pop up everywhere. Philadelphia and San Francisco were the first ones, and Strike Debt Chicago is looking like they've got a lot of energy and good ideas. I can't even keep track of all the different affiliates, but I'm hoping that this will create mutual aid networks on a local basis, so that when we mobilize a mass refusal campaign a couple years from now, we'll actually have some infrastructure in place that can support that.

You can't just call for a debt strike. It doesn't work that way. Just like you can't just call for a general strike. You have to put in the legwork and organizing that will make it possible. So, I'm super-excited. The big, pressing question that we're focused on in Strike Debt right now is how to coordinate all these chapters, how to make the most of this moment, and how to use it for long-term movement building.

Fabien: What are some ways that people can participate?

Thomas: The first thing they can do is download the Debt Resistors Operation Manual. If they're near a city that has a Strike Debt affiliate popping up, they can go attend an assembly. Or they can start an assembly.

If you go to the web site, we have created a Strike Debt Organizers Kit that's full of practical things for people to do right now. A couple months from now we're hoping to roll out some additional projects. But for right now it's reading the manual, meeting with your neighbors, and forming local Strike Debt affiliates. We're encouraging people to hold open debtor's assemblies, where you start talking openly about how debt functions in your own life.

And one thing that we want everyone to do is to study how municipal debt functions in your own city. We know to some degree how it's functioning in New York City, but I don't know how it's functioning in Chicago or Los Angeles. So that's a research project, to figure out how debt works where you live.

We have also called for a debtor's summit on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, where we can start talking about some of these bigger goals for the movement, like organizing something resembling a debtors' union that you can join.

I think we can start organizing a coordinated way for people to cash their paychecks if they can't open their own checking account

Locally, in Chattanooga, I've got some ideas that I'm going to propose for ways that we can combat payday lending. Payday loans really shouldn't exist—they used to be illegal in the 70s, and then the courts made them legal. I've also got some ideas about how to shut down these check-cashing services for the poorest workers in our society, who are unbanked. They've got poor enough credit that they can't have a bank account, or they can't have a bank account because it will get garnished. But they need a way to cash their paychecks, and these check-cashing services charge them money to get paid, basically.

I think we can start organizing, as a mutual aid project, a coordinated way for people to cash their paychecks if they can't open their own checking account. Kind of like a Strike Debt check-cashing service that's zero-interest, zero-fee. It’s the kind of thing that has to be implemented on the local level to make it happen.

I'm hoping Strike Debt is going to mutate in a lot of interesting ways, and I'm expecting lots and lots of surprises.

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