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A Student Debt Strike Force Takes Off

Can young people re-imagine the burden of debt as a a productive tool, rather than a means to profit?

Debt—and the shame that surrounds it—is the tie that binds the 99 percent. Can young people reimagine it as something productive, rather than a tool for profiteering?

“ONE, we are the zombies! TWO; we are indebted! THREE; this occupation is… om-nom nom-nom…”

Playfully infusing a familiar Occupy Wall Street chant with the mindless noshing of zombies, last month around 100 costumed protesters undertook a small but significant “Night of the Living Debt” march around the New York University campus and Washington Square Park. The event was organized by All in the Red, an initiative of student activists which grows out of the nocturnal marches that began last month in solidarity with the massive popular mobilization in Quebec against austerity-related tuition hikes. Equipped with an arsenal of felt red squares, red banners, red balloons, red confetti, and pots and pans, the young organizers—recent graduates of the OWS Summer Disobedience School training program—undertook the first coordinated march in New York to translate student-specific struggles surrounding tuition and education debt into a broader discourse concerning the perpetual condition of indebtedness in which the 99 percent currently finds itself. With its necromantic pop-cultural reference, the march suggested that zombie-like servitude to Wall Street creditors is a basic condition of life for the majority of the population—a point driven home with a cathartic “debtors’ die-in” at the conclusion of the event.

The Night of the Living Debt march was just one sign that debt is emerging as a connective thread for OWS organizers and their allies as they begin to build toward the movement’s one year anniversary of September 17, variously known as S17, Black Monday and Occupy Year One. More than just a commemorative ritual or one-off day of action, many organizers in OWS plan to use the media spotlight surrounding the day and its buildup as what Sandra Nurse calls a “launching pad” for a new kind of political movement in the United States—a movement of debtors identifying themselves as such.

This is not an entirely new focus. Some of the most prominent initiatives of OWS and the Occupy movement more broadly have revolved around the foreclosure crisis, and the Occupy Student Debt Campaign (OSDC) succeeded in drawing national attention to the student debt crisis with 1T Day in April, marking the fact that outstanding student debt has reached $1 trillion. However, these organizing efforts have tended to treat different sectors of debt as single-issue campaigns in isolation from one another. And yet when one looks back to early OWS platforms, such as the 99 percent Tumblr, one finds that indebtedness of all sorts was already a self-conscious motivation for many participants and sympathizers of the movement. As the one-year anniversary approaches, a key question for many organizers is how alliances might be forged among groups suffering from and organizing against different kinds of debt-servitude. As OSDC organizer Pamela Brown put it in a recent article:

We are faced with a broken American social contract, and have reached a critical moment for the 99%. Under these circumstances, it seems obvious that a political movement to build a new dream should take debt as its focus.

A major development in the past month was the staging of the first NYC Debtors’ Assembly in Washington Square Park on June 11. The format was simple, and the facilitation was minimal. Seated around a banner reading “Strike Debt,” affixed with the red felt square familiar from student struggles in Quebec, those assembled were invited to step up to publicly share their “debt stories” through a cardboard “debtors’ mic.” Over two hours, several dozen people from a wide range of backgrounds and generations delivered emotionally charged, first-person testimonials about the experience of debt-servitude to Wall Street and its intermediary institutions. Whether speaking of the ruinous effects of student debt, credit card debt, health care debt, or mortgage debt, almost all of the speakers remarked that this was their very first time speaking publicly about their status as debtors.

To speak as a debtor, and to address others as debtors, was an empowering process in its own right; the simple act of speaking built community and solidarity based in a shared experience of breaking with debt-shame—the insidious sense that to be indebted is an individual moral failure rather than an enforced condition of life under contemporary capitalism. As Shyam Khanna put it, the assembly created a space for “debtors to find each other, for debtors to become a political subject.”

The Debtors’ Assembly was an important development in the overall trajectory of OWS. Lacking a General Assembly or a Spokes Council empowered to make movement-wide decisions, OWS as it currently stands is a dispersed network of working groups, affinity groups and project groups that sometimes overlap intensively and other times remain at a distance from one another. Some have lamented this “structureless” condition as contributing to a deadly lack of focus and dispersion of energies, leading some to claim that Occupy as a both a trope and movement has itself been exhausted. Others have seen the post-May Day interregnum as a fruitful period of reflection and reinvention on tactics, strategy, alliances and goals.

How debt became the focus

Among the most interesting post-May Day experiments were a series of outdoor, outward facing “thematic assemblies” hosted on a weekly basis at Washington Square by the group Occupy Theory (OT), publishers of Tidal magazine. Avoiding the unwieldy decision-making apparatus of the Zuccotti-era General Assembly, as well as the often insular culture of OWS working groups, the OT assemblies prioritized open-ended reflection on specific political problems. In late May, an assembly was held on the concept of global solidarity in light of the intensifying struggles of student activists in Quebec. Among the participants in the thematic assemblies were members of Occupy University, Free University Think Tank, F The Banks and the OSDC; in an organic process attuned to developments in New York and around the world, it was agreed that the subsequent assembly would be devoted to the topic “Education and Debt,” with a focus on the building of a political movement specifically around the intersection of these terms.

The initial OT Education and Debt assembly—which preceded the full-scale NYC Debtors’ Assembly by a week—was remarkable for the kind of space it opened up. It wove together the testimonial format with a highly focused conversation about the strategies, tactics, messaging and coalition-building it would require to make the condition of indebtedness the galvanizing focal point for a full-scale political movement rather than a single-issue campaign. As indicated in the notes from the meeting, which were circulated online throughout OWS social networks, several major questions that have long preoccupied OSDC are in the process of moving to the forefront of OWS as a whole.

Debt is the tie that binds the 99 percent. Almost everyone in the United States is a debtor of some sort. Even those excluded from mainstream credit systems are still preyed upon by lending institutions, exemplified by payday loan sharks and pawn shops that dot poor neighborhoods. Rather than a supplementary facet of the overall economy, the personal debt system is a primary engine of Wall Street profits, and it is prone to crisis. Indeed, the student-loan bubble is regarded by many analysts as analogous to the subprime mortgage bubble that led to the crisis of 2008, with a trillion dollars in unpayable loans bundled together and resold by banks through exotic financial instruments. The debt system is a highly tangible way in which the predatory logic of Wall Street impacts the lives of families and communities. And yet, as Chris Kasper of the OWS Arts and Labor group put it in the inaugural assembly:

Even as it connects us all to global capitalism, debt isolates, atomizes and individuates. The first step is breaking the silence, shedding the fear and creating a space where we can appear together without shame.

Messaging in the making

In the first assembly, analogies were drawn to the notion of “coming out” in the history of the gay rights movement, in which a new sense of political identity was forged by collectively embracing an otherwise stigmatized individual condition—a play on the famous ACT UP slogan, “Silence = Debt” has been put forward as a meme, alongside the slogan “You Are Not a Loan” coined by student debt activists in earlier phases of organizing. Another well-received propaganda project to emerge from the debt assemblies has been a sticker reading “Hello, My Debt Is…,” designed in the manner of the “Hello, My Name Is” identifier that would be worn at a conference or convention. A large banner has also been produced featuring this design; participants in the debt assemblies are invited to sign the banner with the dollar amount they owe to creditors, with each signature in turn supplemented by a safety-pinned red felt square of the sort typically affixed to the clothing of protesters.

According to artist Leina Bocar, creator of the participatory banner:

The felt square is increasingly recognized in New York as a signature not only of student struggles, but of debtors more generally. It mediates between the intimate scale of the body and the collective scale of the banner, the assembly, and indeed the movement as a whole.

Looming over these discussions of debtors’ movement has been the question of a debt strike, a deliberate withdraw of consent by debtors from the system designed to keep them paying in perpetuity. Millions already do not and cannot pay their debt anyway, and are by default on strike. These de-facto debt-strikers constitute what has been described as an “invisible army of defaulters” with massive political potential. Debt strike—or debt refusal, as OCSDC describe it in an online pledge—is a significant alternative to the notion of debt forgiveness, which has been advocated by some groups rallying around the Student Loan Forgiveness Act. In the words of OSDC member Christopher Casuccio:

Forgiveness, while certainly a noble idea, implies a guilty debtor asking to be freed from its sin. Refusal, on the other hand, is an empowering, collective challenge to an illegitimate and predatory debt-system.

However, organized collective refusal is a project requiring long-term research, organizing, and support. To simply call for a debt strike without significant groundwork is unlikely to resonate with debtors already living in fear around their credit ratings and day-to-day survival.

An alternative messaging framework that has emerged from these assemblies has been “Strike Debt”—variously telegraphed as #strikedebt and DEBT. Playing on the metaphorical possibilities of the word “strike,” in the words of Amin Husain, “Strike Debt opens imaginative space for a wide spectrum of thought and action without limiting a politics of indebtedness to any predetermined model.”

Striking debt here can mean many things; it conjures images of a physical blow against a specified target, or crossing out the tabulation on which crippling debt is registered. Strike Debt propaganda has also emerged depicting the striking of a match, an image that lends itself naturally to the spectacle of burning debt-statements in an echo of draft-card burning which began in earnest on 1T Day and is likely to be scaled up in the form of debtors’ bonfires later in the summer. Further, an image of the iconic Quebec red square supplemented with the DEBT sign has started to go viral on Facebook.

Even as it carries with it a tone of negation or attack, the call to strike debt also has an affirmative dimension attuned to OWS principles of mutual aid. To strike debt in this context would also be to create infrastructures of support and care—legal, financial, and cultural—for those suffering from indebtedness or deliberately taking the risk of debt refusal. Mutual aid in this sense would be the prefigurative opposite of the atomizing, predatory, and fear-mongering debt system of Wall Street.

An intriguing mutual aid pilot project is the idea of a “debt fairy” campaign in which groups of private citizens would pool their resources to purchase defaulted debt for pennies on the dollar from banks —who typically sell to collection agencies—liberating the debtor from their burden. While not a structural solution — and not applicable to student loans — scaled up it could become what David Graeber imagines as a “moving jubilee” capable of both garnering media attention around debtors’ struggles and taking business away from the intermediary companies that profit from hounding and penalizing those unable to pay.

If debt is a gateway into a radical conversation about the capitalist system itself, strategic and analytical questions arise about the role of the state—questions that have always haunted OWS as a movement grounded in anarchist principles. What can we learn from the debt cancellation forced upon the Icelandic government by citizens earlier this year? How do we connect the dots between “personal” debt and the public debt of municipalities and governments subjected to corporate bondholders and credit-rating agencies? How do we link struggles against budgetary austerity with the grievances of the indebted? In the words of Andrew Ross, “How might debt be rethought as something socially productive and collectively managed, rather than as an engine of predatory profiteering for the 1 percent?” Can we think beyond existing models of public finance, planning, and infrastructure toward something closer to the ideal of “the commons”?

As activist and New York University professor Nick Mirzoeff has asked, in a speculative vein, if “slavery” to debt were abolished, what would a subsequent “Reconstruction” process look like? For ordinary people to delve into these questions is empowering in its own right, and for OWS they will continue to be explored through public assembly and direct action of the sort that began at Liberty Square 10 months ago.

Toward September

The debt conversation has figured prominently in the messaging and planning discussions surrounding the September 17 anniversary (S17), which will involve a three-day national convergence in New York City encompassing conferences, assemblies, cultural events, trainings, and disruptive direct action. Organizers of S17 are wary of what F the Bank member Aaron Bornstein calls the “overpromise, underdeliver” expectations exemplified by the May Day general strike call, as well as the risk of falling into a backward-looking, self-referential celebration of Liberty Square. However, S17 and the build-up to it provides a spotlight that organizers are keen to take advantage of in order to roll out a multi-pronged series of documents, media campaigns, and creative actions that they hope will lay the groundwork for a full-fledged debtors’ movement that goes far beyond any single day of action or electoral cycle.

The coming months will see an escalation on the part of Strike Debt. The first of several projected non-Manhattan Debtors Assembly was held recently at Occupy Town Squares Bushwick in Brooklyn, where participants grappled with how to articulate the debt conversation with urgent struggles around issues such as the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, immigrant worker justice and radical community-based direct actions, such as the rent strike taking place in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park. David Graeber will lead a debt-related teach-in at Summer Disobedience School this weekend, and the related action will target NYU as a warm-up exercise for a large-scale casserole march on July 22 called Red Sounds, in which Strike Debt will collaborate with activists from Free University and All in the Red. All the while, organizers will be sharing and strategizing for the S17 convergence and beyond.

While it remains to be seen on what terms OWS will collaborate for S17 with its allies in the “99% Opposition” on the institutional left—ranging from the groups gathering for the Student Power Convergence in August to the 99% Spring network, to May Day partners such as SEIU—there are signs of an emerging consensus across the spectrum of the left that debt, and especially student debt, is a key note to hit for a longer-term vision of social and economic renewal. While some will attempt to yoke the energies of S17 to the timeframe of the electoral cycle and ultimately the established mechanisms of the state, OWS will push back with its own sense of time and priorities. The physical tactic of occupation first deployed on September 17, 2011, is unlikely to be replicated, but the spaces of education, empowerment, and imagination created by Occupy remain open. Debtors—which is to say, the 99 percent—are poised to step out of the shadows and into that space, providing it with the content and focus required for what was once a precarious encampment to evolve into a sustainable social movement.

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