Chapter Ten

Launching a Debtors Union

The Debt Collective working group did not have the luxury of focusing solely on the Corinthian campaign very long. By August, my colleagues and I felt a new urgency to keep refining and expanding our thinking about debtors unions writ large. That month, an eighteen-year-old black man, Michael Brown, was killed by a cop in Ferguson, MO. Brown had been shot while his hands were in the air. His body had lain for hours in the street on a blisteringly hot day while neighbors watched in horror. In response to Brown’s killing, Black Lives Matter organizers led massive direct actions and rallies across the country, putting pressure on cops and politicians to address racist policing. A BLM offshoot, The Movement for Black Lives, would eventually release a lengthy policy platform that included various demands for economic justice, including the abolition of student debt. The platform’s authors also spoke out against another type of loan that was disproportionately harming black people: court fines and fees.

As Strike Debt had discussed in the Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual, fines and fees were a financial obligation imposed on people who were arrested or detained. These court debts could lead to additional jail time, more fees, and, in some states, the loss of the right to vote. In Ferguson, where Brown had died, the link between fines and fees and racist policing was undeniable. After Brown was killed, the legal advocacy organization Arch City Defenders released a report noting that Ferguson, a majority black city of just over 21,000 people, had issued almost 33,000 arrest warrants two years earlier. Many of the warrants were issued because alleged offenders could not pay their court debts. The report accused the city of running a debtors’ prison in which people were routinely jailed because of their economic status. Cops helped the city extract this revenue.

Ferguson was not alone. In light of the fact that many cities were funding themselves by putting their poorest residents in debt, the Debt Collective working group began to think concretely about how a debtors organization might support people in hock to local court systems. Like other borrowers, fines and fees debtors could rarely mount an effective offense as individuals. With the support of an institution that provided resources, training, and legal expertise, blocs of debtors could aim to stop predatory collections in the short term while pushing elected officials to end the policies that had produced fines and fees in the first place. Such an effort might also be an opportunity for political education. Involving borrowers of all kinds in the work of ending fines and fees could encourage a broader understanding of the political, racial, and economic dynamics that produced court debt. I did not know if any of these plans would ever be realized or if court debtors would want to join an organization like the one we imagined. But more and more I regarded the Debt Collective’s upcoming campaign with former Corinthian students as a pilot that would help us learn how viable debtor organizing might be in the long run.

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To develop a campaign with Corinthian borrowers, one of our first tasks was contacting more former students. We wanted to assure that everyone who had attended the school was aware of what we were doing and had the opportunity to participate. The debtors we met in California took on the job of reaching out to their peers. They created a Facebook group called the Everest Avengers where they added their classmates who, in turn, added others. The numbers rose quickly. Within a few months, the Avengers boasted 6,000 members from across the US. Many of them, elated that someone was taking their situation seriously, were ready to fight.

The Debt Collective’s organizing team also welcomed some new members. A colleague put us in touch with a young web developer, Karissa McKelvey, who was enthusiastic about joining the campaign. After attending our meeting with the former Corinthian students in California, she offered her labor on a volunteer basis which made her a godsend since developers generally commanded high salaries. Luke Herrine also got more involved in the Debt Collective working group around this time. Though he had been a member of Strike Debt, I had not worked closely with him during those years. That was about to change. An NYU law student, Herrine wanted to help us think through Corinthian borrowers’ legal options, especially considering they had all signed away their right to sue.

Joan Donovan, who had helped to coordinate the Interoccupy communications system, also began working with us. She offered to run the social media component of the campaign. As a graduate student whose academic work included studying social movements, I assumed that Donovan also wanted to publish academic articles about the Debt Collective. This was familiar territory. Several members of the working group had already published academic and other texts referencing the OSDC, the Rolling Jubilee and Strike Debt. Creditocracy, Ross’s book about how organizers were taking on the new creditor class, had come out earlier that year.

Whatever their reasons, I was pleased and relieved that volunteers with much needed skillsets were joining us, especially because other colleagues had started to drop off. Astra Taylor was preparing for a tour with a band in which she played guitar. A filmmaker, she was also planning a new project that would take up most of her time for the next two years. One colleague moved to Florida to start a job as a professor while another left to focus on completing his PhD. Though he participated via email for the next few years, Ross too returned to focusing on his teaching and research when school started in the fall.

These departures were unfortunate but understandable. No one was getting paid to spend months thinking about debt, and there weren’t many other rewards associated with doing so. There was, as of yet, no funding, no official organization, and no mechanism for keeping people around, especially when they had remunerative jobs or better opportunities elsewhere.

As these personnel changes took place, our organizing team focused on recruiting members to what we had started calling the Corinthian Collective, a debtors union specifically for those who had attended Corinthian College. With significant support from our working group, the former students would fight to win loan relief for everyone who had attended the school regardless of where or when they had enrolled. The campaign would also allow my colleagues and I to test the idea that debtors of all kinds should be organizing as a bloc.

With the launch of our first student debtors union, the Debt Collective also planned to formally announce another piece of news: our Rolling Jubilee fund, which had stopped collecting donations the previous year, had been re-activated in support of the Corinthian campaign. A debt broker had located a portfolio of unpaid private loans held by former Corinthian students. We had purchased the portfolio and cancelled the debt. Along with the announcement that former students were demanding relief from the Department of Education, we hoped that the Rolling Jubilee debt buy would communicate to the public and to the press that a new organization for debtors was on the way.  

An organization needed members. As the work of locating former students continued on Facebook, it became clear that the social media platform was inefficient and confusing when it came to day-to-day organizing. The Debt Collective needed a website or an online portal of some kind that could help us recruit and share information with Corinthian borrowers.

I coordinated the development of this new site with McKelvey and with the designer, Ange Tran. Even with significant help this time around, making things happen on the internet was not any easier than it had ever been. For one thing, the Debt Collective had to accomplish two distinct goals with its online presence. First, the campaign with former for-profit college students had to be plainly described. But we also had to express that the Corinthian Collective was just the first in what we hoped would be a series of unions for debtors of all kinds.

One of my principle concerns was how best to portray the potential power of borrowers in text and images. While it was comparatively easy for workers to understand why it might be beneficial to join a labor union, debtors unions did not exist yet, which made it harder for potential members to imagine the utility of organizing one. How could a website show that a mortgage debtors union might have stopped or reduced foreclosures after 2008? How could it articulate how blocs of debtors might fight back against creditors and win? When it came to the zone between theory and practice, between talking about doing something and actually doing it, language was the perennial dilemma.  

In late August, after mulling over these questions with my collaborators, I wrote to the working group with a list of items that I thought should appear on the site. First, we needed a rationale or some kind of mission statement. How and by whom would it be written? Second, there had to be some kind of entryway for former Corinthian students. Once inside the site, borrowers should be able to find information on the scam their school had perpetrated against them, instructions on how to stop their loan payments in the short term, and a list of ways to participate in the campaign. Who would curate and write up this information? Third, there were branding considerations. The Debt Collective needed a graphic logo. Slogans would also be required. Hanna and I both liked “we have stopped cooperating with Wall Street.”

Those seven words generated a long email discussion. Ross questioned our focus on Wall Street. “For student debt,” he wrote, “it's the federal system that's key. Though the for-profit colleges are Wall Street's colleges, they could not exist without federal say-so, backing, and indirect funding.” Ross was correct in the sense that the bulk of Corinthian borrowers’ loans were federal, so the main creditor to whom they would be appealing was the Department of Education. But Hannah Appel thought it was important not to lose the Wall Street angle. “I agree,” she wrote, “except to the extent that student debt (as well as other debt) is now a financial product, so the Feds are debt collectors for investors.” Referencing a particular type of federal loan that was being bought and sold by investors, Appel was also correct.

We were already too deep in minutiae to be effective sloganeers. Our working group’s understanding of the student debt crisis, invaluable in getting us to the point where we could develop a campaign, meant that talking to anyone but ourselves was sometimes a challenge. I was in awe of the clear and compelling four-syllable demand uttered by Black Lives Matter activists: “stop killing us.” How could the Debt Collective describe, in just a few words, our vision of organizing by debtors while also communicating that, at that moment, we were campaigning only with student debtors who had attended one particular school?

Convinced that our long-term goals could not be sacrificed on the altar of brevity or expediency, I reported on an idea that I thought might help address the problem.  “In our tech meeting today,” I wrote,

we talked about creating an interactive timeline which would ask people for their birth year and then a little red square would move along a timeline providing them information about key events like the mortgage crisis and processes like the rise of tuition happening just as wages started falling.

Such ideas reflected a desire to make our website interactive while putting student debt in a broader context. Debtors did not take out loans because they were irresponsible or lazy. Instead, people borrowed for basic needs because the global economy was organized to benefit the rich.             

While most of our early design ideas reflected our ambitions more than our practical capabilities, refining our language and discussing visualization techniques had the effect of pushing us to question our core claims. As the quest for a catchy slogan wore on, Appel proposed: “Alone our debts are a burden but together they make us powerful.” We all liked that succinct phrasing, though we weren’t sure if it would make sense to anyone else.

Another colleague suggested an aphorism attributed to the early 20th century oilman, J. Paul Getty. “If you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.” We liked that too because it communicated the idea that debtors who stop payments collectively might do damage to creditors. I had one concern with the Getty formulation, which I shared with my colleagues:

We want to assert that if we owe $100 the bank owns us but if we owe $100 million, then we own the bank. My question is: is any of that actually true? If all student debt was wiped out tomorrow, would any bank actually feel it? Would the financial system bat an eye? Would any capitalist's portfolio take a beating?

Appel, by then an Anthropology professor at UCLA, replied:

Yes. If debtors had the power to negotiate the terms on which we take and repay credit, and if we were able to credibly threaten a debt strike to get our way, the financial system would bat many eyes. Remember we're not only talking about student debt. Imagine mortgages, the municipal bond market, credit cards, car loans, medical care. The financial system is made of debt and secondary markets absolutely rely on payments. Of course, we don't know how this will work, or what our leverage will really look like or how they will push back, so in that way I think it makes sense to question whether it's true because it is untested. But empirically it is true.

What we believed to be true was true. What we required was the power to challenge creditors and to force elected officials to spend public money on the goods and services that people needed. And, for that, we first needed a website that explained what we were doing and why.

By September, the first iteration of the Debt Collective’s website was being built. McKelvey, Tran, Hanna, and I spent two days in my apartment finalizing debtcollective.org. With fewer features than we had originally hoped for, the site included the most important element: a call for anyone who had attended a Corinthian school to join their fellow debtors in the Corinthian Collective.

 Another critical feature was the text on the main page which framed the Debt Collective organization as a whole: 

Every month we are forced into debt for basic necessities. We have no choice but to enter into contracts under unfair terms over which we have little power to bargain or negotiate. Creditors are holding us hostage. When we can’t meet the terms of the contract, we are harassed, we have our wages garnished, and some of us are even imprisoned. The Debt Collective aims to fight back against creditors and transform how basic necessities, such as education and health care, are provided.

The description was abstract but expressed an essential truth that was summed up in our new slogan: “Alone our debts are a burden. Together they can make us powerful.”

The press release, issued on September 17, was more concrete. We announced that our scrappy band of former occupiers, still scheming together three years later, had cancelled more debt. “On the third anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Rolling Jubilee has, for the first time ever, bought and abolished student debt.” We had cancelled $3,856,866.11 in student debt owed by 2,761 people across the United States. The release also referenced the bigger picture: “Our long-term goal is to end student debt, along with other forms of predatory lending. Access to vital common goods, like education and healthcare, must be available for free, as they are in almost every other wealthy country.” That same week, the Rolling Jubilee sent letters to those former Corinthian students whose loans had been erased. “You no longer owe the balance of this particular debt. It is gone, a gift with no strings attached.” It felt good to know that those letters were landing in people’s mailboxes.

The official launch of the Debt Collective and the cancellation of almost $4 million in private student loans by the Rolling Jubilee garnered publicity, as I knew that it would. I marveled at how Taylor and Hanna used their contacts and their overall savvy to get stories about the struggle being waged by for-profit college borrowers into the media. The coverage brought even more attention to Corinthian college’s fraudulent practices.

In its reporting on the Rolling Jubilee’s intervention, the magazine, Buzzfeed, noted that “the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau calls the school’s private loan program ‘predatory,’ saying that the company lured students into the loans with deceptive job placement claims and allegedly harassed them to repay.” Even more gratifying, the press easily made the link between predatory schools and the Department of Education’s policies. Luke Herrine was quoted on this point in the Guardian. “The Department of Education needs to stop acting as a debt collector for a predator lender and start discharging the debt of these students,” he said. I was over the moon with the thought that Department officials might lose sleep over the accusation that they cared more about fraudulent colleges than low-income students.   

While press coverage helped advance the cause of debt relief, I was disappointed that few media stories had explained that the Corinthian Collective was one brick in the edifice of an eventual debtors union. I concluded that making the link between the neat trick of the Rolling Jubilee, the crimes being perpetrated by for-profit schools, and the need for organized blocs of debtors to fight for public goods would take more time.

An article in the New Yorker advanced our case in another way. In “The Occupy Wall Street Movement Takes on Student Debt,” Vauhini Vara discussed the gulf between the Obama administration’s higher education policies and the solutions being proposed by student debtors. “In June,” Vara wrote, “President Obama said that he would use his executive power to expand a two-year-old federal program called Pay As You Earn, which forgives the balance of student loans after twenty years.” The PAYE proposal was ridiculous. None of the former students with whom we were collaborating could afford to wait two decades to have their debts relieved. Many were already in default or headed in that direction. After Vara’s article came out, much of the conversation among members of the Corinthian Collective focused on the absurdity of Obama’s policy prescription. I was pleased that former students were discussing public policy together in the space that the Debt Collective had made. I hoped that the organization could one day provide debtors of all kinds with more opportunities to discuss, to learn, and to teach.

Considering that the President’s solutions were out of touch to say the least, I predicted that the Department of Education would not take the Corinthian Collective’s complaints seriously. I could not have known that, within a few months, my assumption would turn out to be wrong. I also could not have imagined that, among the hundreds of emails that members of the Debt Collective working group had sent to each other over the last year, a crucial piece of information had been shared. Back in July, Herrine had reported on research being done by lawyers who specialized in student loan law. “There is reason to believe,” he had written, “that the Department of Education has the discretion to discharge loans issued to students attending a college that has violated lending laws.” This was a comment whose significance few of us recognized at the time.

The law that Herrine referenced was part of the Higher Education Act, a series of statutes that governed the regulation of colleges and universities. The little-known provision gave the Department the authority to cancel federal student loans in cases of fraud. Even more important, Congress had given the agency the power to determine when fraud had occurred. That meant that officials could erase debts without having to ask for permission from lawmakers. If the Department determined that students had been scammed, it could simply wipe away their obligations.

Discovering that a signature from the Secretary of Education was all that was required to free hundreds of thousands of former Corinthian students from an awful burden helped clarify what our campaign should try to accomplish in the short term. Critical as it would turn out to be, however, the law that we would spend the next five years fighting to see implemented would not ease our language dilemma. Its wonky moniker: Borrower Defense to Repayment.

Chapter Eleven