Chapter Twenty-Three

Essential Work

The beep-beep-beep of the cash register’s digital scanner might have had a calming, even a hypnotic, effect if I weren’t checking groceries in the middle of a global pandemic. All around me, customers moved up and down the aisles, trying to quickly fill their baskets, pay, and get home to their families. I could sense their anxiety despite the fact that they were wearing masks. We all were. I hadn’t seen anyone’s full face outside of the members of my own family for months. I was living in a city in the western US. Even If I wanted to, I couldn’t leave. Where would I go? The virus was everywhere.

I had taken the job as a supermarket cashier after months of looking for white collar work. The search had been harder than I had anticipated–and ultimately futile. In order to qualify for health insurance, I would need to work full-time, and supermarkets were hiring. No matter that I had to walk through a homeless encampment to get to my workplace (a reminder of the time of rising unemployment and mass death in which we were living) or that I had spent my entire adult life trying to crawl my way into the professional class; I now felt lucky to be employed anywhere.

The first few days on the job, I lived in utter terror of becoming ill with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. There was no way to avoid being in close contact with people, whether customers or my co-workers. We had to talk to each other in tight quarters, lean in to hear in enclosed spaces, huddle around the cash register to learn a new skill or to solve a problem. The plexiglass barrier between cashiers and customers felt insufficient once we learned the virus was airborne. Every person, every surface was potentially contaminated. The disease and its consequences felt inevitable.

At the same time, we were trying to protect others. One of the least enviable jobs at my store was “cart cleaner.” Most employees, save those in management positions, had to do it at some point. On my day as cleaner, I stood at the entrance of the store and disinfected the carts and baskets that customers had left after loading up their cars with groceries. Surrounded by spray bottles, dirty rags, and with a long line of carts still to get through, I knew that I was helping to stop the spread of the virus that was, at that moment, ravaging through the state. At the same time, I was increasing the chance that I would get sick myself. Indeed, employees at my store called in sick frequently, sometimes several in a single day. At any given time, some of us were under quarantine orders after contracting or potentially contracting the disease caused by the virus. We were usually short staffed and constantly exhausted.  

After a few days checking groceries, my anxiety abated somewhat. I started to suppress the emotion because, it seemed to me, few around me seemed to feel it. For months, grocery store workers, like others who could not stay home, had been laboring in intense conditions, often for low wages. They had simply become tired of living in fear. People needed to shop for food, grocery stores could not close, the people who worked in them needed jobs, and that was that. It was better to accept the situation, to maybe even see the positive side. My boss had told me on my first day: “we are providing an important service for our community.” My first instinct was to reject this statement as a manager’s way of convincing me to risk my health for a wage and some high-deductible health insurance. But I later realized that she was not entirely wrong.

I was now among a group of people that media and the government had deemed “essential.” Unlike many professionals, we could not stay home (no one was paying us to do so) or work via conference calls. We had to punch a clock if we wanted to get paid. Though I resisted any romanticization of our situation, which could turn deadly for any one of us at any moment, the term meant something. “Essential” engendered a kind of pride among those so labeled. I heard several of my co-workers say that their job was hard but that they genuinely liked helping others–especially during the pandemic. Though I wasn’t always so sure that was the right way to look at things, the word had confirmed for them, and for me, what mattered. And, for once, it was us.

*****

After conceding the race for the democratic nomination to Joe Biden in March of 2020, Bernie Sanders announced that he had won the battle of ideas. “Together,” he said, referring to his millions of passionate supporters, “we have transformed American consciousness.” This assessment was a restatement of a campaign theme. Months earlier, the Senator had described the election as a “conflict of ideas” where voters would have to choose between the party establishment, which promised more policies that favored the rich, or Sanders and his “political revolution” of universal healthcare, jobs for all, free higher education, and student debt relief.

Many commentators agreed with the Senator’s conclusion. The leftist magazine, Counterpunch, published “Sanders Won the War of Ideas” which discussed how the Senator had inspired a racially diverse coalition of voters to “grow and thrive under one electoral umbrella.” In its post-mortem of the 2020 primary, the Washington Post predicted young people would “carry Bernie Sanders’s ideas into the future.” In the Atlantic, John Nichols praised Sanders for inspiring millions to imagine a better world. “Bernie Sanders Lost,” Nichols wrote, “But he won.” Even Barack Obama stepped up to praise the Senator from Vermont. “Nothing is more powerful,” the former president said, “than millions of voices calling for change.”

Meagan Day, a democratic socialist and staff writer for Jacobin, best articulated the sentiment when she credited Sanders with encouraging people to think differently. “Ultimately,” she said in an interview,

imagination has a role to play in the larger material forces in history. The main victory [of the Sanders campaign] is that imaginative victory. We don’t really have anything else to show . . . besides that people believe different things are possible in our society now than they believed five years ago, before Bernie Sanders started running for president.

Day was correct in the sense that polls showed that Sanders’ policy proposals were extremely popular. According to her analysis, though, the heightened imaginations of newly converted radicals was a kind of “material force.” There was a time when I might have agreed with Day. But I was no longer sure that ideas or “believing things” could make anything happen. Though I was still thinking through the distinction, changing minds, in my view, was a different category of activity from exercising power.

One reason for my skepticism was that the fundamental power of the material world–one that didn’t care about ideas or imagination–had recently become more evident. A viral disease called COVID-19 had begun spreading around the world in late 2019. Highly contagious, the virus caused some victims to suffocate to death. Hospitals in the US were soon overrun. Chaos and terror ensued when health care workers immediately ran low on respirators and on the face masks and gowns they needed to protect themselves while saving the lives of others. State and local governments issued orders for people to stay home and for all but essential businesses to shut down. Schools were closed and large gatherings cancelled. Within weeks, tens of millions of US residents had lost their jobs. Many also lost their health insurance.

As morgues ran out of spaces for the dead in some cities, Congress unanimously passed a $2 trillion spending package, known as the Cares Act, to stabilize the economy. Primarily a corporate bailout, the Act included a program for buying and cancelling corporate debt, even so called “junk bonds” that were little more than worthless scraps of paper. All told, the bill facilitated a bank rescue that far surpassed the one that had occurred just 12 years earlier–an event that had set the stage for Occupy Wall Street. By summer, more than 7 trillion dollars would be spent to the disproportionate benefit of the rich, especially billionaires who saw their wealth skyrocket during the pandemic.

Many politicians balked at helping ordinary people over the long term. Weeks after the Act passed, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander issued a warning: “There’s not enough money to help everyone,” he said. Alexander was undoubtedly afraid of the political impact of government relief. Thanks to a short-lived rescue package, some low-wage workers earned more collecting unemployment than they had at their previous jobs.

The government’s intervention to keep the economy afloat also included a step that would have been unthinkable weeks before it happened. In April, mortgage and rent payments were temporarily suspended in some regions of the country. At the national level, federal student loan holders were told that their debts would be placed in a stopped payment status until the end of the year. Senator Alexander did not, under any circumstances, want people to get used to this. Neither did Joe Biden. That same month, one of the nominee’s advisors informed a reporter that a Biden presidency meant a curb on spending. “When we get in,” he said, “the pantry will be bare.”  

The election still months away, some politicians who had supported the Cares Act began to argue that it was time to help ordinary people. Elizabeth Warren pushed for $10,000 in student loan cancellation to be part of the second round of relief legislation. Representatives Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Alma Adams went further, proposing that $30,000 in loans be cancelled as an economic recovery measure. The Congresswomen promoted the idea on social media, with Adams noting on Twitter that “student loan debt kills jobs. Black and Brown borrowers bear the brunt of the crisis.” A high-profile supporter of College for All, Omar touted student debt relief as part of a range of programs that were necessary to get people through the pandemic. “Enough is enough,” she wrote. “Cancel rent and mortgages and student loan debt.” In another tweet, she asserted what economists had made plain: “Cancelling student debt is a great stimulus package. Let’s do it!” While some of these lawmakers had previously expressed support for making public college tuition free, a policy that the Debt Collective regarded as equally essential, their tweets did not reflect that. One of the reasons the Congresswomen did not offer a fully articulated higher education policy proposal may have been that they had no leverage in their own camp–and they knew it. House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, refused to include student debt relief in the legislation. Her stated reason was its estimated $300 billion price tag.

Pelosi’s line that relief was too expensive was a true throwback. The Cares Act itself had lifted the veil on how government spending actually worked. The law authorized trillions in spending with no corresponding cuts to other parts of the federal budget. Even late-night television show audiences knew the truth. In June, the comedian, Stephen Colbert, featured an interview with the financial writer, Andrew Ross Sorkin. “So many people are in economic distress right now,” Colbert said. “There is massive unemployment . . . and shuttered businesses. And yet this week the [stock] market has been climbing. How is that possible?” Sorkin cited the fact that the federal government, as the issuer of its own currency, could never really run out of money. “The Federal Reserve is printing trillions of dollars like it’s going out of style,” he said. “They don’t even print it,” he continued, “they literally just press zeros on a computer.” Colbert remarked that a similar step had been taken back in 2009, a bank-saving measure that had not caused inflation. The fact that the US dollar could be created by “pressing zeros on a computer” without necessarily resulting in rising prices had become fodder for late night TV. And yet Speaker Pelosi still refused to spend a dime to cancel student debt in the middle of a pandemic.

One reason for her decision was almost certainly the influence of the Debt Collective’s long-time nemesis, Ted Mitchell, a man with whom former students had pleaded for relief during face-to-face meetings in Anaheim and in Washington. Disarmingly gracious to borrowers in public, the former Undersecretary of Education had gone from the Obama administration to a lucrative job with the American Council on Education, a higher education lobbying organization. That spring, in his capacity as head of the group, he retaliated against student debtors. He sent a letter to Pelosi advising her against cancelling student loans as part of any economic relief package. “Any large-scale debt relief initiative would prove very expensive,” he warned. Though she may not have needed much persuading, the Speaker ended up complying with Mitchell’s request. It seemed that those in power would continue doing what they had always done in the way that they had always done it. No one could make them do otherwise. The Debt Collective’s campaigning had been so successful that some of the most powerful people in the world could no longer ignore it. At the same time, it felt like we were no closer to winning mass student loan relief.

A global health crisis did not even stop the federal government from illegally garnishing debtors’ pay. The Debt Collective learned about the ongoing wage seizures in the spring when panicked borrowers started reaching out for help–another instance when individual debtor’s needs far outpaced organizers’ capacity. With new ammunition against DeVos, lawyers filed suit to stop the illegal collections. Like a scene from a movie that I had seen many times before, the case started winding its way through the courts. Debtors could do nothing but wait. Given the circumstances, it was hard to be heartened when Senator Chuck Schumer seemed to take their side, at least on social media. In September, the minority leader from New York posted a tweet with just a single hashtag: #CancelStudentDebt. Back in 2011, I would have rejoiced–if I didn’t first die of shock–at such a statement from a Senator. By 2020, though, I had come to regard full debt relief and free public college as policies that did not necessarily become more likely the more people talked about them. In fact, I suspected that calls for debt cancellation coming from establishment figures served another purpose: they laid the rhetorical groundwork for a scaled back relief measure–one that could be framed as the more reasonable, compromise position next to leftists’ “radical” demands for an end to financialized higher education.  

While student debtors were left to rage at the gap between words and deeds, the news could not have been better for for-profit colleges. A pandemic that kept people at home was good for the education business. For years, the schools had been on the ropes as they fended off attacks from debt strikers, from lawyers, and from elected officials who had threatened to shut them down. But colleges saw their enrollment numbers tick up as people lined up to take online classes. “The pandemic could lead to a repeat of the enrollment surge for-profits saw in 2008, when they took advantage of a depressed economy to enroll students who were unable to find work,” the American Prospect explained.

History was on repeat, except predatory schools would have even more help this time. As part of the Cares Act, Congress had authorized billions of dollars in relief to college and universities. Thanks to an intervention by Betsy DeVos, for-profit schools would be eligible to receive funds. Predatory colleges seemed on the precipice of a triumphant and lucrative return.  

For students who had attended for-profit schools, the news couldn’t get much worse. And then it did. From her first days in office, Secretary Devos had set to work rewriting the already-weak Defense to Repayment law to make it even harder for borrowers to get relief. In the spring of 2020, Congress overruled DeVos’s revision of the statute, citing the fact that the new rules would permit colleges to get away with fraud. But President Trump overruled Congress, and the Democrat-controlled House failed to override his veto.

After the Secretary’s victory, a New York Times reporter reviewed documents outlining how the Department planned to handle debt disputes going forward. “The department’s methodology for granting relief was so restrictive,” the reporter wrote, “that it was mathematically impossible for many borrowers to have their loans fully eliminated.” Even with federal budget numbers finally on their side, debtors still faced a mathematical impossibility in the form of the Department’s authority to determine who merited cancellation. While an entire administrative infrastructure had been set up which would permit mass debt relief in theory, it hardly mattered if the law was never–or only rarely–applied. Five years after debtors had begun filing disputes, and three years after a trickle of relief had begun to flow, Defense to Repayment was essentially dead.

****

As members of Congress promoted debt cancellation proposals on social media and as the number of US residents killed by COVID-19 reached 100,000, a black man named George Floyd walked into a convenience store in Minneapolis, MN. He made a purchase with a $20 bill. Believing that the bill was fake, an employee called the police. Officers quickly arrived and handcuffed Floyd. In the process of the arrest, officer Derek Chauvin pushed Floyd’s face into the concrete and kneeled down on his neck. Over the course of the next eight minutes and forty-six seconds, as Chauvin’s fellow officers and bystanders looked on, Floyd suffocated to death. On a cell phone video of the killing, Floyd could be heard saying “I can’t breathe” twenty times. Before he died, he called out for his mother. Chauvin did not release his knee from Floyd’s neck until more than a minute after paramedics arrived.

In response to Floyd’s vicious killing, cities around the country erupted in protests that were later called the largest in US history. For weeks, hundreds of thousands marched from coast to coast against police violence, racism, and white supremacy. Participants carried banners that read “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe.” Police stations, stores, and other buildings were vandalized as riots broke out in some cities. Police responded with force. Protesters were often met with tear gas and rubber bullets, tactics which revealed to many more people why some activists had been calling for years for police departments to be defunded–even abolished.  

For some, a transformation in consciousness had been underway for a long time. Sanders Fabares, a long-time member of the Debt Collective, posted in support of the protests on Facebook. He also admitted that, as a white person, he had once been confused by racial justice activism. “I remember just a few years ago when Black Lives Matter first began,” he wrote.

I didn’t understand the point of the phrase. My activism against student debt since 2015 has exposed me so many intelligent people of all colors who challenged the way I thought about class struggle and the ways in which minorities have been targeted and marginalized. They helped me see how debt was being used to control us all. I made friends with people from all walks of life who were in the same fight for our futures. They also exposed me to some literature by authors who were great at portraying the struggle in a way that was honest and accessible.

When he first heard the words “Black Lives Matter,” Fabares had not understood “the point of the phrase.” But then he started organizing for student debt relief. Fabares had helped to disrupt a parade in New Orleans and had given testimony to negotiated rulemaking committee members in Washington. Participating in the Debt Collective had introduced to him to a diverse group of debtors who had encouraged him to learn. From those experiences, he had discovered not only that “debt was being used to control us all” but that the struggle for racial justice was his own.  

Not everyone had the opportunity to participate in collective actions or to meet fellow borrowers face to face. During one of my final days with the Debt Collective, I received a phone call from Brian who had attended ITT Tech in the Midwest. Weighed down by $20,000 in debt and with few job prospects, he was angry and frustrated at the government and, it soon became clear, at the Debt Collective itself. Since Brian had joined relatively recently, we had never spoken before. He was aware of the campaign to file thousands of debt disputes with the Department of Education. “We need to double down on Defense to Repayment,” he announced. Brian wanted to use his software development skills to create an automated system, what he called “a Defense to Repayment bot,” that would help people file claims more quickly. “If we want to win relief, we have to get a lot of people to file,” he said, sounding like me back in 2015.

Brian had been viciously preyed upon by a for-profit college and he was right to be outraged that, five years into the Debt Collective’s fight, most former students were still battling for relief. But I had no interest in sugarcoating the facts, especially since I sensed from his tone that Brian was unfairly taking his anger out on me. “If you want to help people file claims, then you should go ahead and do so,” I said. “You don’t need permission from me or anyone. But it is unlikely that it will make much difference. Betsy DeVos, who has the power to decide who gets relief, even ignored the orders of a judge just last year and had to be threatened with jail time before she finally cancelled some borrowers’ loans.” Brian resisted this news. “There is nothing wrong with filing disputes, and people should continue to do it,” I continued. “But we should be honest with everyone who attended a scam school that the current federal government is even more hostile to their interests than the last one.” The solution, Brian continued to insist, was to assure that former students’ voices were being heard. “We need to be louder,” he said. “No,” I corrected him. “This is not a problem that can be solved by getting more attention.”

Brian wanted nothing more to do with me. He believed that Trump, a man I guessed he had voted for, would cancel student debts if only he could be better informed about how much people were suffering. “I’ve seen what the Debt Collective is doing now,’ Brian said. “You are now talking about free college and debt relief for everyone. Well, I didn’t join the group to help promote socialism.” Ignoring his remark about socialism, I said “you’re missing the point. This has nothing to do with teaching anyone anything they don’t already know. It has nothing to do with convincing. DeVos does not want to cancel your debt, and no one can make her do it. It’s that simple.” Promising to build his bot and send more relief applications to the Trump administration, Brian hung up. I thought he was confused about the nature of his enemy.

At the same time, I could relate. My perspective had come from almost a decade of experimentation, of trial and error, of doing, not from some innate political knowledge or intuition. One lesson from the experience was clear. I had long regarded changing the conversation as a kind of victory, or at least a flashing sign on the road to one that read: “you’re on the right track.” But I had confused the language used to talk about a thing with the thing itself. While some student debtors had seen their loans vanish, and while mass relief for millions no longer seemed like a radical proposition, those victories revealed a brutal diagnosis. The problem was not that the Debt Collective lost the battle of ideas; the problem was that we won it.