Chapter Three

1T Day

Another reason I kept organizing was that temping was tedious work and the OSDC was developing a project that interested me far more than delivering lunch to corporate executives. To channel our post-Occupy energy, some of my colleagues and I planned to publicly commemorate what we called “1T Day,” the day that total student loan debt would hit one trillion dollars. This was an astonishing statistic. Just 15 years earlier, total student debt had been so insignificant that it did not even appear on lists of consumer loans. By 2012, though, it had become the second largest category of consumer lending after mortgages.

On April 25, 2012 OSDC organizers and supporters gathered in Union Square to mark the day. True to our roots, we performed a skit, this one more elaborate and better attended than the one we had put on at Zuccotti back in November. The writer, David Graeber, kicked off the spectacle. Dressed as a Roman soldier, he announced through a bullhorn that student debt was unjust and should be cancelled. Lenders and the federal government, he said, “want us to feel that we have a moral obligation to pay these debts. But what promise have they ever made to us that they haven’t broken? They lied to us and they tricked us, and they want us to be ashamed.”  

Next, Reverend Billy, a well-known performance artist, played the role of moralizing street preacher. In a fiery oratory style that stopped passersby in their tracks, he denounced student debt as an evil injustice. Other activists, in costume as tuxedo-clad bankers, played the role of lenders heckling debtors for their inability to make payments. “Turn over your last dollar so I can buy another yacht!” one called out. The loan servicer “Sallie Mae” made an appearance to demand that borrowers pay up–or else. Cowering at one edge of the crowd were student debtors wrapped in chains of debt and calling out for help. The “unemployed superhero” known as the “Master of Degrees” dashed in to rescue them from lenders’ clutches.

Finally, as the skits wrapped up, a young activist took over the “people’s mic” to make an announcement. “Wall Street is where the very first slave trade began on this continent,” he said. “As we gather near that site, we know that we are suffering from an injustice that the indigenous and African Americans have been experiencing for centuries.” The hushed crowd nodded in recognition. Student debtors then gathered in a circle. We held our student loan notices aloft and set them on fire. Cinders floated in the air above our heads.

****

Several progressive media outlets covered the 1T Day protest. On Democracy Now, a reporter described the event and explained that, since Occupy, the issue of student debt had become central to Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. The reporter then showed a video clip of a recent speech. “We can’t price the middle class out of a college education, not at a time when most new jobs in America will require more than a high school diploma,” the President said to an audience of young people. It was common for elected officials from both major parties to insist that the purpose of higher education was to prepare people for jobs. The President’s solution? Keeping interest rates at their current levels. “Interest rates will double unless Congress acts,” he said, referring to a rate hike that was due to go into effect. Before closing the segment, the Democracy Now reporter noted that Obama’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney, also supported keeping interest rates low.  

OSDC co-founder, Pam Brown, appeared on the show to further discuss 1T Day. Instead of interest rate cuts, she pitched our idea for a coordinated, national non-payment campaign, a strike that would force the government to act. “We are asking a million people to come together to refuse student debt,” she said. Professor David Harvey was also in the studio and participated in the discussion. “Employers don’t want to pay to train their own labor force,” he explained. “They want the labor force to train itself, and then they’ll use it. The result is that we have this enormous defect in American higher education.” Where Harvey saw an “enormous defect,” the President saw a system that needed little more than a tweak. I was troubled by the gap between the emergency that the OSDC was trying to draw attention to and Obama’s breezy assurances from the campaign trail that he supported low rates–just like his Republican rival.

The 1T Day event brought us to the attention of other former occupiers. This was partly because the OSDC was still organizing months after the occupation had ended and partly because our protest had garnered media coverage. Ross told me that he had been contacted by some activists who wanted to meet to discuss a potential collaboration. I was pleased that our work was helping to keep the spirit of Occupy alive.

At the meeting, I met some of the people who had been involved in organizing the original Zuccotti occupation. Other attendees were writers and editors who had produced or written for Occupy-related publications. The group included Amin Hussain, Yates McKee, Laura Hanna, Natasha Singh, and Astra Taylor. Most of these activists knew each other already, or at least it seemed to me that they did. Key members of the OSDC were also present, including Brown, Ross, Casuccio, and Meaney.

The discussion that day focused on how to continue the work started by the OSDC but in a way that would have a bigger impact. The new voices in the room suggested abandoning the Student Debt Pledge of Refusal, which we still referred to in public talks and in media interviews. Though diplomatic in their critique, they seemed to regard it as a little silly. I was not bothered by this. Experienced in media and communications, my new collaborators seemed to know what would get attention and persuade more people to come around to our point of view that student debt should be cancelled and that public college should be free. Since Occupy had been so maligned by the mainstream press, I wanted to know how to push back.

Beyond the question of specific tactics, there was a freewheeling discussion about debt as a symptom of financialized capitalism. We talked about medical bills, mortgage loans, and credit card debt. Borrowing on all of these fronts, we agreed, was how millions were surviving in an age of low wages, private health care, and skyrocketing housing and education costs. Cities were also in debt. Cash-strapped municipalities were extracting revenue from their poorest residents in the form of bail and court fines and fees, those debts that people incurred when they were arrested or detained.

Debt, we agreed, was a means of social control. With creditors breathing down their necks, people were less likely to protest inequality and injustice. In almost all cases, debt disproportionately harmed black and brown people and women–those who had already suffered from centuries of oppression. Student loans were one part of this rotten system.

By the end of the meeting, members of the OSDC and our new acquaintances had found much to agree on. We decided to collaborate under the name Strike Debt. The moniker, which would replace the OSDC, sounded powerful and strong, like we were going on offense. Our first task as a new working group was to draft a white paper. “Before we do anything else,” someone said, “we have to prove that we have done our homework.” The paper would discuss different kinds of debt in detail and explain how people were suffering. We would also make the case that debtors should be organizing around our common condition. I was sold on the idea of conducting research and publishing it. Since most of us had years of experience writing and making media, it was logical to make a priority of what we already knew how to do. After months of fearing that Occupy was in danger of disappearing for good, this felt like a new beginning.

When news of the founding of Strike Debt broke among the larger group of people who organized with the OSDC, most shared my enthusiasm. Sarah, a new college graduate, wrote to our email list: “I think it's important to make the connection that student debt breeds other debt. I have to pay my student loan bills. I have no money to pay doctor co-pays, so they go on credit cards which turns into more debt.” Others, though, expressed concern that the decision to stop focusing on student debt had been made without soliciting feedback from everyone who had helped to establish the OSDC. Referencing the Occupy-inspired principles to which many still tried to adhere, Suzanne wrote, “what is the decision-making process of this new group? Is it consensus? Who is involved in the process? How do we know that everyone is on board with ending the Pledge of Refusal?” Suzanne was opposed to new activists being implicitly granted the authority to shape organizing work that had been started by others.

Though sympathetic to my colleague’s concern, I was unsure how to address it, especially because the white paper was already being drafted. (I had agreed to write a chapter on municipal debt, those Wall Street loans that cities and towns were forced to take on when their local tax revenue dried up.) But the question nagged at me. Should activists and organizers prioritize establishing processes and procedures at the risk of sparking the kind of interminable debate that I had seen many times before? Or should a few motivated people just get busy changing the world? The birth of Strike Debt deepened the dilemma.  

Chapter Four