Chapter Four

Strike Debt

Strike Debt began by hosting what we called “debtors assemblies,” public events where debtors gathered to talk about their financial problems. Advertised on social media and held in parks and other public spaces, the sessions helped to further one of the OSDC’s early goals: reminding debtors that their situation was not their fault and convincing more of them to come out of the shadows.

As expressed in a slogan we had used to advertise 1T Day, Strike Debt wanted debtors to know that they were “not a loan.” On fliers advertising the assemblies, we expanded on the slogan:

Everyone seems to owe something, and we are continually told it’s our own fault, that we got ourselves into this, that we should feel guilty or ashamed. But how is it possible that the majority of Americas could all have simultaneously failed to figure out how to properly manage their money? And who do we all owe this money to? Where did they get it to lend to us? Come join us in speaking out about the injustice of debt as we look for solutions, create systems of mutual support and build a movement!

This invitation adapted the language of Occupy Wall Street–which had identified the one percent as the enemy of the ninety-nine percent–in the service of a debtors movement. Those in debt counted as the “we,” millions of people who had been forced to borrow to meet their basic needs. “They” were the creditors and collectors bleeding us dry. We liked this framing because it cast the net as wide as possible. Everyone in debt could consider themselves an activist.

The assemblies were well attended from the start and, though I did not expect to be surprised by the stories that debtors told, I was often moved by what I heard. Some attendees described being sick and not being able to see a doctor or being inundated with medical bills after an accident. Others told of being evicted and of enduring bouts of homelessness. Some debtors admitted to financial burdens that made them contemplate suicide.

Debt was a constant source of anxiety for almost everyone. Even those who did not owe were terrified of losing a job or otherwise falling into a financial black hole. “We are made to feel less than human because we can’t pay our debts,” someone said. Major life decisions were being put off as a result of unpayable loans. During one gathering in a Manhattan park, an artist named Hans Horking told a rapt audience that he wanted to have a baby with his partner, but he was so deep in debt after attending college that he didn’t know if he could afford to do so.

Strike Debt’s assemblies were not only dire recitations of daily terrors and dreams deferred. Some debtors used the gatherings as occasions to brainstorm with their new friends how to live in the world as it was. In the absence of a mass movement, and in an era when it seemed like nothing would ever change, many debtors focused on how to save themselves and each other. “Communal living is one solution,” a former occupier named Amy announced at one assembly.

My friends and I are going to buy a cheap house in depressed, rural Maine for $150,000. We will only have one person on the mortgage, someone who has good credit and only $50,000 in student debt.  The mortgage and other bills can be in just this person's name. As a community, we'd agree to make timely payments in order to keep the legal owner in good standing. The rest of us will then be freed up to default on our student loan debt or borrow on credit cards, knowing that we will never be homeless.

Amy encouraged others to develop their own communal arrangements. “If you can’t find a community of your own,” she said, “you can always just come and live in my house in Maine.”

As debtors grew more comfortable speaking openly about their financial problems while debating possible solutions, some expressed interest in joining Strike Debt in a more formal way. Eventually, we began holding meetings back at 16 Beaver Street. New people would show up each week to learn more. The necessity of turning a widely experienced but little discussed economic condition into something bigger than an assembly was obvious to everyone.  

That year, Strike Debt also conducted the first debtors protest since 1T Day. Dozens of people dressed as ghosts, zombies, and monsters arrived in Union Square for a rally. We banged pots and pans, sang, called for mass debt relief, and chanted “education should be free!” Next, the “Night of the Living Debt” march took us to Washington Square where our raucous crowd paused and waited for a series of planned “speak-outs” to take place. “We are students, not consumers!” someone announced. “Our public schools should not be privatized! Banks and corporations should not fund our education!” These statements were met with such acclamation from passersby that it was almost impossible to imagine that anyone, anywhere could disagree.

As Strike Debt grew and as we completed our white paper, I was hopeful that all of the frustration and anger being expressed at assemblies could be channeled into something lasting. I found the stories of suffering that I had heard impossible to ignore. I wanted to see those experiences put to use somehow. Though Strike Debt’s long-term goals were still in flux, one obvious need was an online home for the new organization that was forming.  

At one meeting, I announced that I wanted to make a website. I was put in touch with designer and developer, Zak Greene, with whom I collaborated over the next year to build strikedebt.org. Featuring debtors’ stories, political writing, and a calendar of public events, the site helped reach people in other cities. Debtor organizing had wide appeal. In California, in 2012, activists founded Strike Debt Bay Area and soon began hosting assemblies modeled after those being held in NYC. Strike Debt was moving in a promising direction.

The first sign of the unraveling was the public display of a provocative slogan. The incident occurred at “A Day Against Debt,” a series of teach-ins that took place at Columbus Circle in Manhattan in late 2012. Organized by activists from various groups and attended by hundreds of people, ADAD was a chance for Strike Debt to share its research about the debt system. Several of us spoke at the outdoor event.

After the last talk had been given, and as many were preparing to leave the area, a banner was unfurled from the top of the 76-foot Christopher Columbus statue that gave the place its name. Viewable to hundreds on the street below, it read “Debt is the New Colonialism.” Police removed the banner almost instantly, but its appearance would be the only thing that many remembered about “A Day Against Debt.”

A few days later, a post about the banner drop appeared on an activist blog. Describing herself as “black, genderqueer, neurovariant survivor, political organizer, theatre artist, and parent,” the blogger wrote that the slogan was offensive to people of color. “It is the handiwork,” she explained, “of political gentrifyers [sic] who insist on promoting ethical solidarity between the ideological polar extremes of Whiteness." I did not know what “the ideological polar extremes of Whiteness” meant. But the rest of her complaint was clear:

Student loans are bad. Healthcare bills are bad. Foreclosures are bad. But debt is NOT the new colonialism! Would the people saying so, for example, go by an African burial ground and drop a banner reading “DEBT IS THE NEW SLAVERY”? Would they go by a prison and drop a banner reading: “DEBT IS THE NEW PRISON”? Debt is an oppressive system, but it is not the ‘new’ anything.

The writer’s claim was that the statement “Debt is the New Colonialism” was racist. My colleagues and I, some of whom had helped to organize the Columbus Day event, were confused. No knew in our group would admit to having participated in the banner drop. With no advance knowledge that it was going to occur, we could not be certain that anyone affiliated with Strike Debt had been involved in the incident. Still, we suspected that the critique was directed at us.

The blogger’s post unleashed a barrage of related complaints. Strike Debt founders began to hear from former occupiers and from other activists on the Left that our organizing around debt was perceived locally, in the words of one critic, as “centering the concerns of middle-class and white people.” I did not know what to make of such a comment. I knew from our research that black and brown people, particularly poor black women, were more likely to be in debt than others. While the colonialism slogan may not have been the right one for the moment, it didn’t make sense to me to paint debtor organizing in general as insufficiently concerned with race.

My Strike Debt colleague, Nick Mirzoeff, who was a professor at NYU, agreed to respond to our critics. On his personal blog, he justified the statement “Debt is the New Colonialism” by referencing Burkina Faso’s former president, Thomas Sankara. The African leader, Mirzoeff wrote, “called on African nations to go on a debt strike against multinational lenders” during the 1980s. “Just as the Haitian Revolution drove the French Revolution into its radical phase,” he continued, “just as the Algerian and Vietnamese revolutions produced the Euro-American wave of 1968; so now the debt abolition movement is implementing decolonial politics in the metropole.” Though his academic language was a stark contrast to the words used by the blogger, Mirzoeff’s point was clear: colonized people had long viewed debt as a type of colonialism. Furthermore, revolts in poor countries had often inspired activists in rich ones to take up the cause of decolonization. Strike Debt, he argued, was part of that tradition.

It was unclear whether Mirzoeff’s statement had settled the question from the point of view of our peers. Internally, we continued to discuss the incident. Pam Brown weighed in on our email list to defend the banner drop. “It concerns me that powerful and appropriate language is being taken off the table,” she wrote. By the next day, though, her positioned had evolved. “We need to take more care with these issues.” The ‘Debt is the New Colonialism’ slogan, she added, “showed the underlying assumption of Strike Debt’s white, middle-class viewpoint.” I did not understand how a concern about an economic burden that was crushing millions of people who were disproportionately black could be an expression of a “white middle class viewpoint.” But I was open to learning more, especially because it seemed that a major fault line had formed.

Once again, it felt like I had to quickly catch up on debates that had been happening on the Left for a long time. When it came to the blog post criticizing the Columbus Circle banner drop, I was mostly struck by the phrase “political gentrifyers.” The term suggested that people who wanted to engage in activism should be careful to organize only around those issues that affected them directly. It was a warning not to step on others’ turf, especially if you were white or middle class.

The language reminded me of the critique of “privilege,” a term that was used in academia to describe anyone who had a good income, a decent home, or access to things like health insurance, education or other resources. I had also heard the word used to describe virtually anyone who was white or male. In Strike Debt, for example, people who were not in debt might be regarded as “privileged.”

On one hand, the critique of “political gentrifyers” and the attempt to pejoratively name those with certain advantages made sense. It was logical that those suffering from a particular oppression should be the ones leading the fight against it. On the other hand, such a requirement could undermine the cause. It seemed to me that a successful struggle against mass indebtedness, not to mention racism, would require support and maybe even leadership from many people from all backgrounds. I was well aware by this point that my perspective was not shared by all.

The banner drop controversy continued to haunt Strike Debt, but the work of day-to-day organizing eventually took over. With a new website and several public events under its belt, Strike Debt was also preparing to release a book based on our white paper. The Debt Resister’s Operations Manual (DROM) would be published by PM Press. A formal publication that laid out our understanding of the crisis of mass indebtedness, the book included chapters on multiple kinds of debt including student, medical, credit card, tax, and auto loan debt. My contribution was a chapter on municipal debt where I summarized some of what I was learning about the role of bank loans as a disciplining force in cities and towns. “Is your city experiencing a budget crisis?” I wrote, “Is your state laying off workers and cutting services? Are local hospitals understaffed and underfunded? Do you worry about whether your child’s school will have enough money to provide students with a quality education? If this is happening in your community, you are a debtor.”

Co-written by a dozen people, including well-known as well as novice writers, the DROM would introduce Strike Debt to a larger audience. It included a mission statement that summarized our group’s current thinking.

To the financial institutions of the world, we have only one thing to say: we owe you nothing. To our friends, families, our communities, to humanity and to the natural world that makes our lives possible, we owe you everything. To the people of the world, we say: join the resistance, you have nothing to lose but your debts.

Our research and activism had pushed us to develop a specific definition of ‘debtor.’ People were in debt, we wrote, because public goods and services were inaccessible. Everyone had a right to health care, education, and an affordable home. But we had all been forced to borrow to get those things. Strike Debt had come to regard debtors as a kind of creditor. In the DROM, we expressed this understanding by asking a fundamental question: Who owes what to whom? Debtors as those who are owed was a framework that we would return to again and again in the years to come. 

The publication of the DROM brought Strike Debt more attention within the New York activist community and beyond. But our organizing meetings came to a halt when a massive storm made landfall in late October. One of the most destructive to ever hit New York City, Hurricane Sandy shut down air traffic, obliterated hundreds of homes, and left two million people without power for days. With schools closed, the subway flooded, and large parts of the city under water, New York felt like it was under siege.

Former occupiers sprung into action. For weeks following the storm, activists traveled regularly to the city’s hardest hit areas in Queens and on Staten Island where they helped dig out basements and brought supplies to residents who had lost everything. Most Strike Debt events were put on pause to allow organizers to focus on the clean-up effort. This was also the period in which I and my colleagues began intensely planning for what would turn out to be our biggest initiative yet. Strike Debt was embarking on a project to cancel medical debt, student debt, and more for thousands of people at random. It would be called the Rolling Jubilee.

Chapter Five