Chapter Five

The Rolling Jubilee

Thomas Gokey was the first person I had heard talk about the possibility of individuals buying and cancelling each other’s debts, a kind of anarchist jubilee. Strike Debt’s plan was even more ambitious. Our research on mass indebtedness had showed that consumer debts (including medical debts, credit card bills, payday loans, and more) were being traded on secondary markets. If a borrower didn’t pay a credit card bill, for example, it eventually fell into default. A debt broker would then sell off the defaulted loan to a collector for a fraction of the original amount. The collector then tried to convince the consumer to pay up. Collectors were making big profits by convincing borrowers to fork over the full amount for a debt that had already been written off by the original collector. The Rolling Jubilee was a Strike Debt project to buy defaulted loans and then cancel them instead of collecting.

After confirming that our plan could work and was legal, Strike Debt founders began collaborating with lawyers and with debt brokers to acquire portfolios of unpaid debt. Unlike in the Biblical jubilee tradition, there was no central authority that could decree a mass jubilee, so we planned to raise money via individual donations. Portfolios could only be purchased anonymously, so there was no way to know whose debts we were buying in advance. As long as donations kept coming in, though, the jubilee could “roll” on indefinitely.

As for debt type, we decided to focus at first on medical debt. The Rolling Jubilee was a chance to bring attention to the fact that millions of people in the US lacked health insurance. Indeed, two-thirds of bankruptcies were linked to medical bills. A jubilee of such debt would allow us to make the point that people were drowning because health care was connected to employment and only available via private markets. In addition, many unpaid medical debts were being written off by creditors for a loss.  

Buying and cancelling medical debt was also a public relations decision. Unlike with credit card debt or even student loans, it would be more difficult for defenders of the current system to argue that sick or injured people had been irresponsible borrowers. We wanted to prevent that accusation from the outset. It was also hard to deny the depth of the medical debt crisis. In 2012, one out of six people had a medical bill on their credit report. Strike Debt’s main goal was to demonstrate that debts were being written off all the time, just not to borrowers, and that universal health care was the only real solution to the crisis of medical debt.

Starting that summer, the work of developing the Rolling Jubilee virtually took over my life. I quickly became part of the core organizing group which included about a half dozen people. There were meetings, calls, research to conduct, a promotional video to make, and an endless stream of documents to write, circulate, and revise. As had become my habit, I took on the job of coordinating the build of the project website which would be located at rollingjubilee.org. The site had to have several functions: it needed to describe the debt relief campaign, allow people to donate, keep a running tally of how much money had been raised, and list how much total debt had been cancelled as a result. The livestream of the Rolling Jubilee launch event, a variety show called the “People’s Bailout,” would also be streamed live on the site. All of this work had to be done before we could find out whether anyone would donate money to bailout debtors they would never meet.

One thing we were certain about is that debtors of all kinds were in deep distress. From the moment news of the Rolling Jubilee’s fundraising drive broke, messages by the hundreds began pouring into Strike Debt’s email accounts. In what was an intensely sobering experience, the majority were from people begging for help. A typical plea came from Debra in Tennessee who described being harassed by collectors:

I heard about you on my local news and read about you on your web site. Sorry I just don't have any money for your cause because I am in so much medical debt plus other debt. I am barely living from paycheck to paycheck. People like me are just trying to live the best life they can without thinking about the collector calling with attitude [and] not wanting to listen to your side of the story. I had a collector call me at work looking for me. I lied and said that I was not who they were looking for. Can your organization help people like me?

After relaying personal stories of debt and despair, some borrowers offered to exchange work for loan relief. Maxine, from Florida, wrote to explain that she was relying on her family to pay her debt since she had become disabled.

I am on disability and I have about $18,000 of a private student loan to repay. My father is paying it, reluctantly. He isn't going to live much longer, and things didn't go as planned. I didn't plan on disability. I can't pay that debt. How may I possibly receive some help?  I am a graphic designer. I can volunteer some work.

A number of borrowers wrote to say that they were considering taking their own lives. “As a Catholic, I am praying. But I feel that God has abandoned me and am entertaining bad thoughts,” wrote Tom:

I even wrote to the bank [and said] that instead of throwing me out, they can collect my body from my home. Please help me. If I were to kill myself, I will never be able to see my only child again. I am so desperate that I do not know what to do at this point and do not wish to be a burden to anyone.

Like Tom, many debtors feared overwhelming family members or friends with their financial problems. Being in debt was isolating shameful, and with no hope of a real jubilee, messages from suicidal debtors were a grim reminder of the risks of getting sick or injured in the US.

Chris Casuccio and I took on the task of responding to the emails. Unable to manage the load ourselves, we asked fellow Strike Debt activists for help. Several offered to spend their free time replying to messages from distraught strangers. Next, our email response team discussed how to craft appropriate replies. The only thing we could offer were words of sympathy and solidarity. Though we couldn’t buy and cancel any one person’s debt, we assured each debtor that the Rolling Jubilee was one part of a long-term effort to win debt cancellation and public goods like universal healthcare.

Casuccio recognized that the flood of messages, and the fact that our replies felt so insufficient, pointed to another problem. “We are getting hundreds of emails a day,” he wrote to me:

We need greater guidance from the larger group. I'm just making this shit up as I go along. The Rolling Jubilee team needs to be aware that only eight of us are in direct contact with all of these people, and we're not 100% sure how to make the most of this moment. I know Occupy Wall Street was not prepared for all of the emails they received and couldn't use them effectively to build the movement. How do we learn from that and not make the same mistake?

Like most members of the organizing team, Casuccio saw the Rolling Jubilee as more than just an effort to provide relief to a few lucky borrowers. Assisting debtors was an act of solidarity that we hoped could help grow a movement–a result Occupy Wall Street had been unable to achieve. Thousands of emails from debtors was added proof that we needed to move urgently from campaigning to organization building.

This was not a new realization. Casuccio and I, along with a few others, had been talking about movement building since the failure of the Student Debt Pledge of Refusal. Andrew Ross had summed up our thinking in an email a few weeks earlier. “We should have something that people can join, like a Debtor's Union, or League or Co-op or Collective,” he wrote.

We can use it as an infrastructural base for organizing from which local chapters could be formed. . .We might benefit from a more transparent kind of organization that everyone can join–not just defaulters but also those without debt, for example, who want to work on this issue nationwide and build toward a strike. I realize this would mean adding something more to the many initiatives we have set in motion, but it may be essential to attracting people as ‘members’ or co-participants in what we are doing.

This was the kind of plan I had long hoped Strike Debt would eventually develop, one that would lead us to creating something like a membership organization. But the work required to coordinate the Rolling Jubilee while conducting our assemblies and other events had made pursuing that thinking more difficult. Neck deep in emails from desperate borrowers, Casuccio and I wrote to our colleagues. “When people donate money to bail out debtors,” I explained,

they should be prompted to join the union (or whatever it will be called). Our hope is to enroll people in the union through our websites and then help them set up regional debt assemblies, which could be the organizing bases for an eventual strike. If we can't hook people up to a larger infrastructure now, we are missing an opportunity. 

I was convinced that people’s desire to get out of debt while assisting others could serve as the foundation for an economic justice organization. Many of my colleagues agreed that such an infrastructure was necessary, but there was only so much that an exhausted band of volunteers could do. And we were already out of time.

The Rolling Jubilee launch event, the People’s Bailout, arrived on the night of November 15, 2012, one year to the day that occupiers had been evicted from Zuccotti Park by the NYPD. Though I had been involved in planning the event, in some ways I was not sure what to expect. When I met them, I didn’t know anything about my fellow co-founders of Strike Debt. It turned out that several had deep connections in the worlds of media, art and music. In addition to their social networks, they brought a level of polish and professionalism that made the OSDC seem artisanal by comparison. Laura Hanna and Astra Taylor were able to secure a modest budget with which they paid a designer, Ange Tran, to make theatrical stage sets that included wall-sized canvases where people could write their stories of financial ruin. The duo was also able to book celebrity performers. Held at the concert venue, Le Poisson Rouge, in Greenwich Village, the People’s Bailout featured performances by comedians such as Hari Kondaboulu and Janeane Garofalo as well as musicians such as Lee Ranaldo, Guy Picciotto, TV on the Radio, and Neutral Milk Hotel. The event was hosted by the comedian David Rees and by Lizz Winstead, a co-creator of the cable television hit, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Before the event began, Strike Debt announced a goal to raise $50,000. With that kind of money, we could abolish approximately one million dollars in medical debt.

The People’s Bailout was by all accounts a major success. By the end of the night of musical performances, comedy routines, and a finale that included laying waste to a giant piñata, we had smashed our initial goal. The Rolling Jubilee fund ended up raising over $300,000 which allowed us to cancel seven million dollars in debt for more than 2,600 people. (Over the next few months, as donations continued to roll in, we would raise enough to abolish more than $30 million in debt.) Our many hours of labor had paid off.

There were feature stories in mainstream outlets including the New Yorker, NPR, The Guardian, Forbes, and many more. Two of Strike Debt’s co-founders, Astra Taylor and Amin Husain, appeared on the cable show “Up with Chris Hayes” on MSNBC where Taylor emphasized how mass indebtedness was crushing millions of people’s hopes for the future. “The American Dream,” she said, “is getting out of debt.” I had never done any media interviews before but, by that winter, I had been quoted in outlets like Marketplace, Business Insider and had been interviewed on CBC Radio. A group of us was also photographed for an article in the New York Times titled “Occupy Offshoot Aims to Erase People’s Debts.” I was grateful for the positive coverage after months of negative articles during the occupation.

People couldn’t stop talking about the Rolling Jubilee. Some who attended the People’s Bailout credited us with reviving the spirit of Occupy, a result that thrilled me. In FlavorWire, Judy Berman wrote:

There was something of Zuccotti Park in the air, with handwritten financial horror stories blown up to poster size and stuck on the wall of Le Poisson Rouge’s bar area. Performers who jokingly alluded to violent revolution against the 1% or who pointed out that corporations control not just Republicans but both major political parties got the loudest applause.

As Strike Debt organizers, we were proud of what we had accomplished. That was “one of the most inspiring nights of my life,” schoolteacher Matt Presto wrote on our email list. “So proud of everyone!” David Graeber was similarly pleased: “I'm just so happy that I could be there. Love you guys.” Hannah Appel wrote from the west coast: “Just wanted to echo all the congratulations, jubilation, and adoration. The Occupy Oakland livestream party was a total smash. We had the livestream on in the background but ended up having two long conversations about where the larger strike debt tactics can go and how to get that organizing off the ground here.” Nicole Hala wrote, “I wish I could rewind time and do it all again. That place was bursting with good will, wit, and possibility. Kinda like Zuccotti Park, where people change, change their minds, feel different.” Strike Debt had taken another step towards proving our theory viable: debt was a material condition that could bring people together to fight for relief. Doing so could even encourage people to imagine that another world was possible. From that place of newfound clarity, I thought I could see a glimpse of a bright future.

The positive mood and good will were welcome reprieves from what had been several days of intense discussions leading up to the People’s Bailout. A week before the event, Taylor had posted an image to our email list by the artist Molly Crabapple who had created it to be used as publicity for the Rolling Jubilee. It was a drawing of a woman with brown skin and black hair standing in front of a red square, the international symbol of debt resistance. The woman’s arms were outstretched in a stance of defiance, and chains were dangling around her wrists as if she had just broken through them. Standing to each side of her, two more people were partially visible. Their chains, which had been connected to hers, were also broken. In the act of freeing herself, the woman had freed others. Text under the drawing read: “We Owe You Nothing.”

The drawing immediately generated controversy since the woman featured was black. Hans Horking was among the first to say he did not think the image was appropriate. “I have talked to folks–not many but a few–who are really put off by references to slavery and prison with regards to debt,” he said. “Personally, I have a lot of debt. It's limited my life a great deal, but it ain't slavery. I really don't think we should have the chains.” Gokey expressed a similar concern. “Are we setting ourselves up for another ‘debt is the new colonialism’ moment?” Lana Smith agreed that Crabapple’s drawing would court controversy. “I would be offended if I saw this poster with an Asian woman breaking free from chains,” she wrote, “Why can’t [Crabapple] redraw it with a white woman?” Smith hinted at a question that had been raised after the banner drop: was indebtedness associated with white people? Laura Hanna, who noted that some members of her family were from the Philippines, wondered if the identity of the artist (a white woman) was at issue. “Are we saying debt doesn't equal any form of bondage?” she asked. I was torn. I did not doubt that the image might stir controversy. At the same time, the drawing expressed something essential about a debt jubilee: by freeing others, we could liberate ourselves.  

Near the end of the long email chain, which included people making various cases for the inclusion or exclusion of the image, Nick Mirzoeff weighed in. “I have followed this thread with a growing sense of depression,” he wrote. “I don't understand how an event like the People’s Bailout can use language like ‘jubilee’ and ‘bailout’ and not evoke enslavement and imprisonment, which are both intimately involved with debt. I also don't understand how this group has got the point where people feel the need to produce evidence of their own ethnicity in order to be heard.” For her part, Pam Brown called Crabapple’s image “beautiful.” But she agreed that it might provoke a backlash from our activist peers. She said that the drawing should only be included as part of a series of portraits of racially diverse people. Since commissioning more art was impossible, we did not use the image to promote the campaign.    

Our fear of upsetting would-be allies was not unfounded. Shortly after the People’s Bailout event, Strike Debt was once again hammered by external critique. This time, it came from an even more surprising source. The founder of an influential left-wing finance blog called Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith, launched a 4,000-word bomb that December. She accused the Rolling Jubilee of “putt[ing] borrowers at risk” by buying and cancelling their debts. She described our jubilee as akin to giving money to “sex slave traders”:

Debt collection is a shakedown operation. And I’m puzzled at the lack of instinctive revulsion to a plan that perpetuates and enriches the participants in abusive practices. I don’t think you’d see such enthusiasm, say, for a plan to deal with trafficking in women by raising funds to buy a few of the victims from the sex slave traders and free them. But the economic relationship to a predatory system is similar.

Months before, fellow activists had suggested that Strike Debt’s focus on ending mass indebtedness was racially insensitive. Now, a former Wall Street trader was insisting that exposing how secondary debt markets worked while cancelling medical debts at random was no better than sex trafficking.

I was mystified, especially because Strike Debt had begun to hear from some of the people whose debts we had erased. For example, an eighty-year-old Kentucky resident, Shirley Logsdon, wrote to thank us for cancelling a medical bill that she got after having back surgery. An article in AFP told her story of hitting “rock bottom” as a result of the debt.

Logsdon received repeated calls from a debt collection agency over an unpaid medical bill. Then one day, out of the blue, she received a letter saying the $983 debt had been handled–purchased by Rolling Jubilee, a group linked to the Occupy Wall Street movement. ‘I was dumbfounded but delighted, of course,’ Logsdon said.

The article provided important context for Logsdon’s story, noting that “one in five Americans struggled paying medical bills.” Strike Debt volunteers had helped a distressed borrower who was “delighted” by our intervention. The campaign had prompted a journalist to remind readers that millions of US residents didn’t have adequate health insurance. It didn’t seem fair to compare that work to participating in the sex trade, as Smith had done. What was going on?

The question lingered as the year came to an end. I had been blindsided by internal and external divisions and felt emotionally drained in advance at the prospect of having to answer the emails from despairing debtors that were still landing by the hundreds in our inbox. But I remained hopeful that 2013 would be the year that a membership organization for debtors would finally come to be.

Chapter Six