Chapter Twelve

Taking the Fight to the Media

The protest in Anaheim went a long way towards demonstrating that debtor organizing was viable. Former-for profit college students, most of whom hadn’t known each other before, had come together to demand relief from their common foe, the Department of Education. Even better, borrowers were ready to recruit more people and continue the fight.

This was a positive sign that raised a serious problem: the Debt Collective had no regular source of funding. Like the labor unions that inspired us, our long-term plan was to attract members who could pay dues. We wanted debtors unions to be financed and run by debtors themselves. In the short term, though, the Corinthian campaign required resources. Though some members of our working group were salaried professionals who helped out when their schedules permitted, most of us were not. Relying on unpaid labor from those who could least afford to offer it was unsustainable, especially since the campaign was quickly becoming a full-time job. Costs for travel, web hosting, printing, and other basic expenses had started to add up.

To try to address the need, some of my colleagues contacted potential donors, including individuals and philanthropic organizations. Once good candidates were identified, we made inquiries and drafted pitches. Our primary strategy was to describe the organizing that had already been done on a shoestring while asserting how much more effective the Debt Collective could be if it had support.

We also emphasized that the Corinthian campaign was a pilot intended to demonstrate that debtors of all kinds could build power by joining forces. One of our proposals, for example, described two tactics that blocs of borrowers might take up.

Debtors could engage in collective bargaining with creditors, winning lower rates, principal reduction, and the cancellation of illegitimate loans. They could also conduct citizen debt audits (to distinguish between legitimate debts that should be honored and illegitimate ones which should be refused) while using their findings to demand concessions from predatory lenders. 

A tactic employed by workers to win higher wages and better benefits from employers, collective bargaining was a strategy that we thought could work for debtors as well, on both small and large scales. What if credit card debtors joined forces to negotiate a lower interest rate? What if medical debtors who had been treated at public hospitals negotiated lower bills? What if residents in one neighborhood refused to repay a local payday lender to protest sky high interest rates and the fact that such businesses profit from a lack of public goods and services? The possibilities for collectivizing debtors’ struggles seemed almost endless. Even more thrilling, from my point of view, was that debtors from all backgrounds and political persuasions (including people who did not normally engage in politics) could join a debtors organization.

Citizen debt audits were a tactic that could unite whole communities in the fight against predatory lenders. Audits had recently become popular in Europe where indebted cities and towns had taken up the practice of reviewing their balance sheets to determine which creditors had lent to them illegally. In France, in 2012, dozens of towns sued the Franco-Belgian bank, Dexia, for selling toxic loans to municipalities whose interest rates had skyrocketed in the wake of the financial crisis. In the US during that same year, Oakland, California had conducted an audit which revealed that the city was forking over millions of dollars annually to repay a predatory loan issued by Goldman Sachs. As a result of the audit, Oakland’s elected leaders decided to stop paying the debt and encouraged other cities to review their own books with an eye toward refusing municipal debts. To the Debt Collective working group, these twin tactics–collective bargaining by consumer debtors and municipal debt audits–illustrated some of the possibilities of debtor organizing beyond student loans.

Our dossiers also highlighted our desire to turn the Debt Collective website into an interactive platform where debtors of all kinds could get information and access services while learning about and participating in actions and campaigns, both at the local and national level. While primarily serving as a community gathering place, we also saw the platform as a way to address a growing information gap between creditors and debtors. “Creditors have databases about us,” we wrote in one funding proposal. “They know who we owe, how much we owe, and the status of our payments. Debtors should have access to information about the lenders and collectors who are profiting from them.” As more debtors voluntarily shared information about their loans via our platform, we explained, the Debt Collective could create a searchable database that would reveal who was profiting from their payments (and who stood to lose if they didn’t). Data could also be aggregated and analyzed to offer borrowers a fuller picture of the debt system, including which companies dominated which markets, which collectors were breaking the law, and which elected officials were being funded by predatory actors. In addition to providing knowledge that could be used for organizing and campaign building, the platform could help the Debt Collective meet another important goal: demonstrating to individuals that their loans were connected to everyone else’s. Debtors, as we had been saying for years, were not alone.

Despite years of research and brainstorming (and now with a pilot campaign underway), we were not very successful at raising money from philanthropic institutions. Potential funders often responded to our dossiers by saying that our plan was vague and too ambitious. They claimed not to understand how the various pieces we were proposing were connected. Our past activism was also a source of confusion. As individuals, we were known as the Occupy activists who had cancelled millions in medical and private student debt via the Rolling Jubilee. Why we were now talking about a union?

These critiques frustrated me. Debtors needed to exercise collective power, just like unionized workers did. The concept didn’t seem hard to grasp. But few donors were persuaded, and it soon became obvious that the Debt Collective was going to struggle to secure financial support.

After the Corinthian campaign became better known, it occurred to me that some donors’ stated reasons for not wanting to fund the Debt Collective may have disguised their real concern. The scale and ambition of our proposals was likely only a minor obstacle. The real sticking point, I realized, was that some wealthy funders were deeply opposed to our long-term solution to the problem of mass indebtedness. “As long as people can’t access medical care, education, or housing through public systems, and as long as they are charged fines and fees each time they interact with the courts,” we explained in one pitch, “they will have to take out loans.” Our working group had always been adamant that public spending on things like health care, education and on policies to end mass incarceration was necessary to end indebtedness. Though we would not explicitly describe it that way until later, the Debt Collective was an anti-austerity organization. That meant that our activism would include pressuring officials to spend money on things people needed to live and to which they had a right as human beings. We assumed that “progressive” foundations would want to support that effort–or at least not be bothered by it. We were wrong.

It wasn’t that my colleagues and I had not anticipated any objections. We knew, for example, that the federal deficit was a worry to Democrats as well as to Republicans, which is why we explicitly addressed the concern in our fundraising requests. “Organizing around debt may not make immediate sense to some progressives,” we wrote, “after all, it is the political right that traditionally harps on the federal deficit as an excuse to push through cuts to ‘entitlements.’ All the more reason to steal their fire and fight back on the opposing foot.” While this was one of the clearest expressions of our politics up to that point, the statement was also a kind of heresy that almost certainly damaged our fundraising prospects. A proposal to “steal the fire of the political right” by pushing for government spending was unlikely to ever be funded by liberal foundations, especially if a coalition of working-class debtors would be doing the stealing.

Even though I had no prior experience in fundraising, I should have been more savvy about the degree to which elite progressives were committed to a politics of austerity. I remembered how President Bill Clinton had bragged about balancing the federal budget during the same moment when he was ending, in his words, “welfare as we know it.” Millions of people, disproportionately black women, had suffered under his barbaric cuts to social service programs.

President Obama had continued the tradition of Democrat handwringing over government spending. A commission that he had established in 2010, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (also known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission) had recommended cutting Social Security and Medicare to address the deficit. Though the commission’s recommendations were never taken up by Congress, Obama soon introduced his own budget modeled on Simpson-Bowles. I had long understood that pleas for “fiscal responsibility” from politicians were just a way to make screwing over poor people seem like the responsible thing to do. I also knew that such calls were commonly made by officials in both parties. But I had not made the connection to the political preferences of liberal foundations.

Confronting elite distaste for public spending reminded me of an article that had made an impression on me a few months before my first visit to Zuccotti Park. “Beyond Austerity” was written by the economist Bill Mitchell and published in the Nation. Mitchell described how, after 2008, the government had spent trillions to stop “unsustainable private debt growth” in the financial sector. In other words, the government had bailed out the banks. Just two years later, however, Obama told us that spending on basic goods and services had to be cut in order to save future generations from the supposed horrors of the national debt. Mitchell highlighted this blatant contradiction in a way that I was surprised to see in a mainstream, if left-leaning, publication. “There were no questions asked when the government, in the early days of the crisis, instantly provided billions for the banks,” Mitchell wrote. He went on to argue that such spending was possible because the US was a sovereign issuer of its own currency and could never run out of money. Public money could be spent as long as it was used to produce goods and services that people needed and that would put to use. Indeed, Mitchell argued for a national employment program–a job guarantee–that would offer a living wage to anyone who wanted to work. The idea made a lot of sense and reminded me of a similar proposal that had been included in the Freedom Budget drafted during the civil rights movement.

Mitchell’s writing gave me a framework that I remembered years later when I began organizing with former Corinthian students. Collectivities of borrowers, I thought, were in a good position to make the case that the government should address the root causes of mass indebtedness by spending on public goods and services. Student debtors were particularly well situated to advocate for a jobs guarantee since they had enrolled in college to prepare for well-paying jobs that didn’t exist. In 2014, though, making those arguments was a quick way to be dismissed as quacks who couldn’t do basic math. I had little doubt that liberal foundations regarded the Debt Collective’s proposals as illiterate when it came to federal spending. We were organizing to address a crisis whose solution, at least from a budgetary perspective, was unutterable.

*****

Unable to raise adequate funds for organization building, the Debt Collective working group returned to focusing on the Corinthian campaign and to developing those (low cost) tactics that were available to us. One of them was op-ed writing. Several of my colleagues were experienced writers with editorial contacts at various publications. If we got the Corinthian campaign into the press, we reasoned, and if we could get people sharing articles about the Debt Collective’s work on social media, that might help expand our membership base. In addition, we had not given up on the prospect of one day receiving financial support. We hoped that pieces in mainstream publications might encourage funders to see the value of debtor organizing.

Another goal of the Debt Collective’s media interventions was to transform the way people talked about mass indebtedness and its possible remedies, an effort we referred to as “changing the narrative.” Though we knew that student debt would not disappear simply as a result of the idea being written about more often, we hoped to create a kind of rhetorical space that could set the stage for material transformation. For student debt to be cancelled, for college to be made free, for universal health care to exist, more people would have to imagine that those things were possible. And to imagine that something was possible, one first had to be able to name it in words.

Our writing team kicked into gear soon after the public hearing in Anaheim. Several articles on the plight of Corinthian borrowers were published during that time. Astra Taylor’s piece in the Guardian exemplified the genre. In it, she described how scammed debtors had bravely testified in front of Department officials to assert their right to relief. She also expanded her argument beyond for-profit colleges to include a demand for free public higher education. “Germany just made tuition free at all public universities,” she wrote. “That’s the kind of big-picture change we need in the US. It’s not just about stopping tuition and interest rates for higher education from getting higher. The goal is lowering the bar to zero, so everyone can afford a chance to learn.”

Members of our working group had been making such appeals in the press and via our activism for three years. But with the Corinthian Collective now publicly agitating for debt cancellation, the moment felt different. At the same time, we assumed that victory was still a long way off. “Change won’t come from Democrats on high,” Taylor concluded in her article, “no matter how appealing [free college] might seem to an untapped voting bloc.” The obstacle to winning free higher education, Taylor suggested, was not voters but their elected representatives, a conflict that seemed impossible to resolve anytime soon.

The work of changing the narrative was not an exercise in saying whatever we wanted but rather a tactic structured in advance by what had already been said. Many of the articles published by the Debt Collective during the Corinthian campaign were written to correct what others had claimed about for-profit colleges while countering the deficit fearmongering that borrowers’ calls for loan cancellation often inspired. For example, not long after the Anaheim hearing, Education Secretary Arne Duncan was asked by a New York Times reporter if his agency would consider cancelling former Corinthian students’ loans. He lamented that eliminating the debt could cost $2.5 billion, a big number that his public relations team had no doubt encouraged him to emphasize.

Duncan’s intention was to seed the idea that justice for former students was too expensive to contemplate. It worked. Several journalists repeated the talking point in follow-up stories. “One of the deep ironies of Corinthian’s collapse,” Molly Hensley-Clancy wrote in Buzzfeed

is that there are, experts say, effectively too many victims for there to be any reasonable way to compensate them, or to actually shut down the dozens of Everest campuses. It would cost the government billions to forgive the outstanding debt of former students.

These sentences infuriated me. It was not surprising that Duncan would raise concerns about the cost of providing relief to the Corinthian Collective. After all, he was a member of Obama’s cabinet, and the President had already signaled his preference for austerity. But it was disappointing to see a journalist follow the script, citing nameless “experts” to justify the choice. Students had been lied to and preyed upon. There was nothing “deeply ironic” about a federal agency having to do its job and make them whole. I came to regard each story that referenced the supposed high cost of debt relief as a sign. The lie that the federal government could not spend without going broke would be used against the Debt Collective for years to come.

Though some media stories harmed rather than helped our cause, a late 2014 deluge in reporting on Corinthian and on former students’ demands got the attention of elected officials. In December, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren sent a stern letter to Secretary Duncan. In it, she chided the Department for failing to stop Corinthian College from preying on students. Warren also urged Duncan to get busy relieving debts. “Congress recognized the importance of accountability in this area,” the Senator wrote, “when it gave the Department of Education broad authority under the Higher Education Act to cancel student loans in the event that colleges and universities violate students’ rights.” Co-signed by twelve of Warren’s senate colleagues, the letter stated outright what Herrine’s legal research had showed: Defense to Repayment gave the Department all the authority it needed to wipe away debts. While they had taken no position on the cost of relief, Warren and her colleagues seemed to be saying that the federal budget could not be balanced on the backs of scammed students. Though it was a strong argument from a US Senator, would the letter result in debt cancellation for the Corinthian Collective?

It soon became clear that the likely answer was no. By the new year, the Debt Collective had received no response from the Department of Education. Former students were angry and restless. One evening, on an organizing phone call with the Corinthian Collective, borrowers raised the question of how to turn up the pressure. Like the majority of debtors in our networks, nobody in the group was paying their loans. Many were already enduring wage garnishment and the seizure of tax refunds, and everyone’s credit score was trashed. Without quick relief, the situation would only get worse. As Laura Hanna described it, Corinthian students had been run over by a truck and now the truck was backing up and preparing to crush them again. At the Anaheim hearing, borrowers had been in the position of supplicants. They had been ignored. Hanna proposed a way to go on offense. “Why not declare a strike?” The debtors loved the idea and immediately started discussing details. I had long assumed that a successful strike would likely require lots of people getting involved–enough to pose a genuine threat to a lender’s bottom line. With nothing left to lose, the Corinthian Collective was about to show me otherwise.

Chapter Thirteen