One morning, in the early fall of 2011, my Facebook feed was a stream of images and text alerting me to a large gathering taking place in the financial district of Manhattan. The mainstream media described it as a protest against economic inequality. The next day I took the number six train from Brooklyn to the Wall Street stop and emerged from underground into a day that still felt like summer. I found my way to a concrete, rectangular space that was no bigger than a city block. Formerly known as Liberty Square, it was now called Zuccotti Park. Hundreds of people had taken it over. I had never seen anything like it. Calling themselves Occupy Wall Street, protesters were carrying signs and chanting slogans. One sign said, “Foreclose on Banks Not People.” Another read, “Dear Capitalism, It’s Us, Not You. Just kidding. It’s You.” The occupiers seemed serious and determined. One of them urged me to come inside the park. “Don’t just stand there and watch!” he said. But I was intimidated. I circled the perimeter for a while without going inside. Then I got back on the subway and went home.
I kept thinking about the occupation of Zuccotti Park, especially as it started to garner more news coverage. I read that the protest was being led by anarchists. It had also been reported that a magazine called Adbusters was involved. I knew that anarchists disdained centralized authority and believed people should govern themselves. I had never heard of the magazine. Occupy Wall Street called the rich “the one percent.” The rest were “the ninety-nine percent,” and most of us were struggling just to get by. This way of describing the US economic system made intuitive sense to me. Protesters were especially angry at Wall Street banks for their role in the housing market crash which had occurred three years earlier. A disaster for the ninety-nine percent, millions had lost their homes while the banks that had caused the crisis had been rescued by the federal government. Another Occupy slogan was: “banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” I was immediately sold on that message.
Occupy highlighted the issue of student debt and its ruinous impact on people’s lives. As someone who had completed a graduate degree in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, this subject resonated with me. After leaving school I had found that academic jobs were nearly impossible to come by. By 2011 I was treading water as a part-time instructor at the City University of New York. Earning about $20,000 annually, I worried about how I would make payments on my own student debt in the years to come. Most of my students were also borrowing to earn degrees. A generation of people drowning in debt revealed a truth of which I was already convinced: college could not provide a path to upward mobility to all, or even most, of those who sought a better life through education.
The Zuccotti occupation inspired people from across the country to bust the myth wide open. On an online page called “We are the 99%,” occupiers and those who were sympathetic to the movement began posting their debt stories. I was transfixed by the messages posted there. “I have $50,000 in debt and my B.A. is useless,” one wrote. Another insisted that well-paying jobs were not available, even for those who had diplomas. "Graduated college: May 2010. Debt: $35,000. Jobs in United States: None.” Some were young and angry: “I am 24-years old and am $90,000 in debt from getting a college education. Why are we being punished with debt for getting a degree?” Not everyone was so young. “I am 38 years old,” another wrote. “It will take me almost 30 years to pay off my student loans.”
These statements of despair reminded me of a comment made by the cultural critique, Marc Bousquet. He had written that attending college or graduate school had long been a way for people without solid job prospects to “escape into the future,” to put off the moment when they had to face the reality of their economic situations. In 2011, it seemed that the future had finally arrived. It felt like a dam had broken.
I went back to Zuccotti Park a few days later to find it surrounded by police. Feeling more emboldened this time, I shimmied between two parked NYPD vans and made my way into the crowd. It was even bigger and more raucous than during my first visit. There was now a sprawling encampment. Occupiers had pitched tents and set up places to hang out, discuss, and read. Some protesters had assembled at tables where they were answering questions and taking names. There were news reporters, or perhaps academic researchers, talking to people and taking notes. I passed an Occupy Kitchen where vegan meals were being offered to anyone who came by. All around me there were small and large groups of people talking animatedly with each other. Zuccotti was loud. A drum circle at the western edge of the park never seemed to stop.
I wasn’t there long when I heard someone yell “mic check!” at which point many in the crowd stopped what they were doing and turned towards the man who was yelling. Others started calling “mic check!” in return, and soon almost everyone in the densely packed space had grown silent. The person who had first called out made an announcement about something called a general assembly that was happening later that evening. As he spoke, the crowd repeated his words, amplifying them phrase by phrase. It took several minutes for the speaker to make a short statement. But the announcement eventually made it to the far reaches of the park on a wave of voices. The general assembly seemed like the place where people gathered to talk about the occupation and to make plans. But I was more interested in a flier someone had given me announcing a meeting that would occur a few days later. The meeting was about student debt. I felt like I had been waiting for Occupy Wall Street to happen for years without knowing it.
The night of the student debt meeting the rain came down hard and never let up. I wondered if the gathering would take place at all, but I went to Zuccotti anyway. It was October. Though there were fewer people in the park that night, the encampment was still there. Occupiers had set up tarps to keep out the rain. I didn’t see any sign of a student debt meeting. It seemed unlikely that any discussion could take place in those weather conditions. I asked someone if they had heard about people getting together to talk about student debt. I was informed that all meetings had been moved indoors, to 60 Wall Street, a few blocks away.
I was one of the first to arrive at the address, which happened to be the headquarters of Deutsche Bank. Inside there was a large public atrium which was now the nerve center of Occupy Wall Street. A table and chairs had been set up on the east side of the room. This is where the meeting I had come to attend would take place. The main speaker was Professor Andrew Ross. I had never heard of him. People began to arrive and eventually several dozen of us had gathered around. Ross was introduced by someone who said that the purpose of the meeting was to have an “open exchange of ideas.” We were also informed that there would be two additional forums on student debt in the coming days featuring the scholars Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis. Those names did not mean anything to me either.
Ross began by saying he was a professor at New York University, the college with the highest rate of student debt in the nation. “I don’t feel very good about the fact that my salary is debt financed,” he said. He explained that he regarded student debt as a form of indentured servitude. “Most immigrants who came to this country, in the colonial period especially, were indentured laborers. Most immigrants still are,” he began.
Migrants who come from Central America or south China work very hard to pay off their recruitment fees and their transportation fees. Like college students, they are victims of predatory lending. The debt of such immigrants is a condition of their labor. They cannot labor unless they go into debt. That is the definition of indenture. Is it any different for the current generation of students who are the most indebted in history? We have been told it is impossible to get a job unless you get a college degree. You cannot labor unless you go into debt. That is the nature of indenture. Does this mean that highly educated students are in the same boat as the migrants who staff the sweat shops in this country whether in factories or in fields? The answer is no. There is a world of difference between those two populations. But everyone who has to accept debt in order to labor shares a common condition.
These statements struck me as beyond dispute, and yet I had never heard the issue framed that way before. Yes, of course, student debt was a form of indenture. People born in wealthy countries are not the same as migrant workers, but both groups take on debt in order to work. I myself had enrolled in graduate school as a way to move on from waiting tables, backbreaking work that I had done since moving to New York from the western US several years earlier.
Ross argued that it was time to bring individual student debtors in the US together into a kind of political bloc so they could fight back. He cited labor unions as a model. “As workers, we gain power by the threat to withdraw our labor. So too we can exercise a lot of collective power through the threat of a debt strike.” I saw a lot of heads nodding. Ross went on to suggest that debtors start with a “pledge of refusal,” a kind of petition where they would commit to stopping payments on their loans once a certain number of other signers had agreed to do the same. “There will be strength in unity,” the professor explained and emphasized that the “pledge of refusal” would be attached to specific demands. “Through this tactic,” he said, “debtors can demand free public higher education and the abolition of student debt.”
I found this proposal for creating a bloc of debtors to be visionary as well as practical. At that moment, even in the pouring rain, there were hundreds of people defying the police and Mayor Bloomberg by occupying a public space to bring attention to economic inequality and to Wall Street’s role in perpetuating it. Similar encampments had been set up in cities around the country, including in Oakland where, a few weeks later, thousands of occupiers would shut down the Port of Oakland. They would do so with the support of the International Longshore Warehouse Union, public school teachers, and the majority of the city’s residents. The movement also had international roots. Many protesters credited the Arab Spring, a series of pro-democracy uprisings that had taken place in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, with inspiring them. Maybe the time was right for a debt strike in the United States.
After Ross finished speaking, he invited the rest of us to discuss his proposal. Many people were nervous about the prospect of openly refusing to pay their loans. “We will look lazy,” someone worried. This was a common concern. “Young people are already thought to be entitled,” someone explained. “Why add to the perception?” Someone else suggested that debtors stop giving money to lenders while paying into an escrow account to “show our good faith.” Ross pointed out that millions of former students were already not paying their loans. “Our campaign would politicize the plight of people already in default,” he said, “while those of us who can pay will threaten to join them unless our demands are met.” While some in the audience applauded, others seemed conflicted.
Ross’s insistence that public college should be tuition free was less controversial. But some questioned the cost and where the money to pay for free universities would come from. Others wanted to know if such a program would add to the national debt. I timidly raised my hand. “The City University of New York was free from its founding in the 19th century until 1976,” I said. “It’s easy to forget this. They want us to forget.” I wanted to make the point that free college couldn’t be that radical of a demand if it had already existed. At the same time, after more than thirty years of rising tuition and fees, it was hard to imagine higher education being funded any other way. The gathering ended with people signing up to attend another meeting where the pledge of refusal would be further discussed. I eagerly added my name to the list.
Student debtors were not wrong to be concerned about public perception. Early on, the mainstream media had regarded Occupy Wall Street as a curiosity, and some commentators had even suggested that those protesting the gap between the rich and everyone else might have a point. But soon most of the coverage turned negative. From the right side of the political spectrum, observers like Ann Coulter called Occupy a “classic mob uprising,” while Glenn Beck was convinced that occupiers were “only interested in destruction [and] that leads to gas chambers! That leads to guillotines!” I had heard no one at Occupy talking about either gas chambers or guillotines. Most were angry about the 2008 bank bailout and anguished about their financial futures.
Reporting from the liberal press was less hysterical but no less disdainful. A New York Times writer, Ginia Bellafonte, portrayed occupiers as naïve and a little bit stupid. In “Protesters are Gunning for Wall Street with Faulty Aim,” she reported on interviews conducted in the park. Occupiers, she wrote, wanted to abolish the federal reserve, end corporate personhood, stop the drug war, and protect the environment. Instead of analyzing those discrete grievances to ascertain which broader social issues might be motivating the protest, Bellafonte wrote that protesters’ reasons for being in the park were “virtually impossible to decipher.”
Her reporting was also lacking for another reason. Bellafonte neglected to inform her readers of the links between Occupy and recent protests against racism and the criminal punishment system. In September, just days before she published her article, hundreds had participated in a rally at Union Square in memory of Troy Davis, a black man who had just been executed by the state of Georgia for a crime that many believed he did not commit. Chanting “the system is racist, they killed Troy Davis,” a mass of people then marched to occupied Zuccotti Park where they were welcomed with boisterous cheers, the two protests blending into one. Instead of discussing those obvious signs of Occupy’s broader political sympathies, though, Bellafonte ended her piece by quoting a financier who faulted protesters for demonstrating against economic inequality while using Apple computers.
Journalists often turned to professionals to seek out opinions about the meaning of the occupation. The results were almost never good. One reporter quoted a Professor who had laughed out loud when he was told that occupiers were angry about student debt. Business Insider published a list of protesters’ demands, including the repeal of Citizens United (a Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to donate to political campaigns), the re-instatement of Glass-Steagall (a law implemented after the Great Depression that separated commercial and investment banking) as well as social policies like universal health care and debt forgiveness. The reporter provided commentary about each demand, noting whether it had a chance of being taken seriously or not. Next to the call for “widespread debt forgiveness,” the author had written only three words: “not gonna happen.” Given the media’s hostility to all things Occupy, I wasn’t sure a follow-up student debt meeting would happen at all.
To my delight, about two weeks later I received an email from Ross inviting me to a gathering in his academic department. Arriving at the East Village location, the first thing I noted was that Zuccotti felt far away. The crowded and cold occupation site had been replaced by a warm, well-lit office complete with whiteboards, computers, and a bowl of hard candy at the front desk. Of course, it would have been impractical to conduct a planning meeting at Zuccotti where there was nowhere to sit or discuss anything without yelling. But I still felt guilty for not being in the park. This was my first experience with what would become a consistent problem in Occupy and beyond: finding an appropriate space to gather. In a city as vast as NYC, with many empty offices, apartments, and storefronts, locating a low-cost place to conduct a meeting would always prove difficult. As a result, fighting for public education required taking up residence in an expensive private university in one of New York City’s most exclusive neighborhoods.
There were about fifteen occupiers present that night. Like me, most attendees were relatively young and white, though there were a few people with gray hair who had obviously spent a lot of time in activist circles. One black woman around my age, Pam Brown, would become a close collaborator in the months to come. Though few in the room had met each other before, over the next two hours we worked together to develop the idea of the Student Debt Pledge of Refusal. We wanted the campaign to be national and agreed to set up a website where people could sign on to refuse to pay their student debt after one million others had agreed to do the same. There were several subsequent gatherings where our group wrote text for the site and discussed how to get the word out. We planned to launch the campaign in November at Zuccotti.
Since organizing the Pledge was my first experience with activism, I had not known what to expect. It became clear early on that getting anything done meant navigating instability. New people came to almost every meeting while more familiar faces came and went as their schedules permitted. As campaign planning progressed, several participants expressed a concern that each gathering was comprised of a slightly different mix of people. Who was in charge? How could we make decisions? How could we be sure that the things we were doing would be supported by other occupiers? I started to wonder: who was the Occupy movement and who were we within it?
Such questions were rooted in the fact that most Occupy initiatives were discussed and voted on at general assemblies, those large discussion and decision-making forums that I had heard about on my first day in the park. Since the GAs had the reputation of being interminable and chaotic, we were reluctant to seek approval for our student debt campaign there. Doing so also didn’t seem necessary since it was obvious that Occupy Wall Street, whatever it was and whoever was running it, would surely support a Pledge of Student Debt Refusal.
Considering that our group did not have an official stamp of approval from the GA, many of my colleagues felt that we should try as much as possible to adhere to the principles of the movement out of respect for those who had founded the occupation. Most of us were aware that Occupy Wall Street operated according to an organizing model called “horizontalism.” As part of a broad commitment to putting equality into practice, horizontalism meant that no one could claim to lead anyone else or to speak for others without their permission. All decisions were supposed to be made by consensus or by other forms of coming to unanimous or near-unanimous agreement. Horizontalism was the expression of a basic anarchist principle that the oppressed should not beg for charity from the rich and powerful. Instead, they should live like they are already free. “We don’t make demands,” some occupiers I met explained. “We live in the world as if it is already the way we want it to be.” Early on, I thought of horizontalism as a refusal to “pull rank” among one’s colleagues and regarded it as something like the daily practice of abolishing class–a goal that seemed righteous and necessary. It wouldn’t be easy to organize that way, but it wasn’t supposed to be.
Partly in deference to the horizontalist ethic, our student debt group resisted assigning formal leadership roles. We discussed, sometimes argued, and eventually managed to make collective decisions about the campaign. This lack of structure bothered me because it was often difficult to tell who was in charge of which tasks. For example, no one in the group seemed to know who was going to make the website where we would gather signatures. This was surprising to me because everyone I met seemed incredibly committed to the campaign. Many of my collaborators spoke powerfully about the need for free college and debt relief. But they usually did so in broad strokes and in a way that didn’t get us any closer to accomplishing our goal of launching the Pledge. My colleagues were, I had recognized by then, mostly students, academics, or other professionals. Though most of us were in debt, none of us was an organizer or a web developer. For that reason, technical questions seemed almost taboo. I decided that I was going to have to learn to make a website. It was the only way out of the puzzlement that I felt at the fact that no one else was doing it.
In early November, I took a crash course by watching Youtube videos and by studying websites that looked like the one I wanted to make. This was a jarring attempt at acquiring a new skill. After attending graduate school in the Humanities, I was suddenly learning about Content Management Systems and APIs while practicing writing basic HTML code. I had little talent for the work but, within a couple of weeks, I had put up a simple page. The pledge would be hosted at occupystudentdebtcamapign.org.
We titled our project the “Occupy Student Debt Campaign” (OSDC) after we learned that the name “Occupy Student Debt” and its corresponding web address had already been taken by Stef Gray, an activist who had been fighting for the rights of student debtors for more than a year. Indeed, occupiers were not the first to call attention to the crisis or the first to imagine ways to end it. Another activist, Monica Johnson, had previously founded what she called the “Edu-debtors Union.” In existence since at least 2010, her organization consisted mostly of a website and, later, a Facebook page where debtors posted their stories. I thought that the core of Johnson’s idea was right: debtors needed a union. As for our Student Debt Pledge, Johnson rejected it. She questioned whether a debt strike threat was the best tactic, especially because the consequences of non-payment were severe. The federal government could garnish borrowers’ wages, seize their tax refunds, or even take a portion of retirees’ social security disbursements.
Another well-known activist was Alan Collinge, the founder of Student Loan Justice which had existed since 2005. Collinge specialized in lobbying Congress and in turning a media spotlight on the plight of student debtors. His main policy demand was to return bankruptcy protections to student loans. In the 1990s, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Congress had rescinded the right of debtors to discharge their loans in bankruptcy. Later, Senator Joe Biden was instrumental in assuring that even private student loans were nearly impossible to discharge. Some from the OSDC reached out to Collinge but, immersed in his own project, he too was uninterested in collaborating.
As I dedicated myself to Occupy and learned about previous and ongoing efforts to address the student debt crisis, I began to dig into the history of activism around the issue. I learned that those public figures who openly supported a policy of free public higher education could be counted on one hand. One of the few who had been making the case for decades was the political theorist, Adolph Reed, Jr. In one interview from the early 2000s, the University of Pennsylvania professor argued that college “should be available to everyone as a right in exactly the same way as K-12 education. Anyone who wants to pursue higher education,” he continued, “should be able to without constraint by ability to pay.” When the interviewer raised the question of cost, Reed explained that the money should come from the federal government. As a model for this kind of expenditure, he proposed the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944. Otherwise known as the GI Bill, the law paid tuition expenses as well as living wage stipends to returning war veterans. A similar program for all college students, Reed explained, could be had in the 21st century for the amount of money that “congress passes out as a tip in corporate welfare.” Listening to Reed, I wondered if free college only seemed radical because we had all been lied to about the cost.
While ending tuition was perhaps not an extreme policy proposal, cancelling student debt seemed like another order of magnitude. I could find no examples of individuals or groups making such a demand within the last few decades.
In early November, I saw another opportunity to learn when I was invited to a series of talks in Washington Square Park. Andrew Ross would be speaking at one event along with someone named Anya Kamenetz. Even though it was fall, many Occupy meetings were still being held outside because there were few indoor options. I had my old graduate school habit of arriving on schedule with the expectation that things would start on time. That was almost never the case in Occupy. It was dark by the time I got to the nearly empty park. As I waited, warm lights from the NYU library beckoned in the distance. But there was no way to enter the building without an ID. Other occupiers eventually arrived, and we congregated around the Giuseppe Garibaldi statue.
Ross gave a talk similar to the one he had delivered at 60 Wall Street one month earlier. He described student debt as a form of indenture and insisted on the need to abolish it while making public college free. He promoted the Occupy Student Debt Campaign and encouraged people to sign the Student Debt Pledge of Refusal once it was available.
Kamenetz spoke about her recent book in which she argued that traditional schooling was too expensive and hopelessly broken. She said it was time to abandon the old model of brick and mortar colleges. She thought more people should be saving money by taking classes online with the help of open source software. As for current debtors, those who had the misfortune of being born during the era of traditional colleges and skyrocketing costs, one solution Kamenetz proposed left me depressed. She described someone she knew who had fled the country to escape his loans. She seemed to be proposing this as both an illustration of how bad things had gotten as well as an actual tactic that others might want to take up.
In making this suggestion, Kamenetz rejected organized collective action like the kind I was developing as part of Occupy. “In mainstream America,” she said, “there’s a very strong moral and ethical belief that people don’t walk away from loans they voluntarily assumed.” Kamenetz was correct that people in debt generally wanted to pay what they owed. I had sensed people’s fear of being shamed at the first meeting at 60 Wall Street. But I was confused about her presence at an event affiliated with the movement. Hadn’t we already determined that organized disobedience was the right move? No one doubted the depth of the student debt crisis, but did Kamenetz’s alternative proposal mean that the question of what to do about it was still up for debate? The unfamiliar world of Left activism was often confusing and disorienting to me.
I realized only much later that the evening in Washington Square had been my first experience of what was essentially a book talk under the guise of an Occupy meeting, a sort of crossover event that I would experience many times in the years to come. Kamenetz hoped to sell her book to activists and to others who were newly interested in the issues about which she had written.
Who could blame her? I was in an intense period of reading and study myself. Books and articles on debt, inequality, capitalism, and related subjects had enriched my understanding of what was happening around me. I was not alone. Some writers, such as David Graeber, the anarchist whose book Debt: The First 5,000 Years was widely read by occupiers, had already achieved minor celebrity status thanks, in part, to the movement. Almost before the first tents had been erected at Zuccotti, several new publications had been launched, including The Occupied Wall Street Journal and The Occupy Gazette. Writing and media were central to Occupy from the beginning–and texts produced by academics or other experts were frequently shared or referenced by occupiers.
A few weeks later, the relationship between activism and authorship became even more explicit. A young woman came to one of our OSDC meetings. I had never seen her before. She introduced herself and said she was not there to organize. She was writing an article about us. “I just want to be clear about my intentions,” she explained. Ross welcomed her warmly. “I think there are many people here who plan to write about what we are doing,” he said. I looked around the room and wondered who, among my new colleagues, he was talking about.
The Occupy Student Debt Campaign introduced the Student Debt Pledge of Refusal from Zuccotti Park on a bracingly cold late November afternoon. Unfortunately, the park was nearly empty. Occupiers had been evicted by the NYPD just days earlier and were still reeling from the massive show of force that had been unleashed on them. Two hundred people had been arrested during the late-night raid in which many people’s belongings had been confiscated or destroyed. Though a small crowd had returned to the park for our launch, the rowdy occupation was gone.
We had planned to perform a skit before introducing the Pledge. With many fewer people in the park, the impact would not be what we had hoped. But it seemed important to forge ahead. Along with several of my colleagues, I arrived wearing a black trash bag as a graduation gown. Several similarly attired “graduates” enacted a procession where, instead of our diplomas, we received loan notices attached to paper mâché chains which were then ceremoniously wrapped around our necks.
As the brief performance came to an end, I found myself standing next to someone I had seen at a few meetings but did not know well. His name was Thomas Gokey. He said that he was developing an idea to buy debt for less than its face value and then cancel it. He explained that he had already tried selling his own student debt to rich people as a kind of art project. I didn’t think that loans could be bought and sold like that and dismissed the idea.
I turned my attention to Ross and to Pam Brown. They were standing in front of us and reading the Student Debt Pledge of Refusal aloud to the crowd which included a few reporters. At the conclusion of the statement, there was a smattering of applause. The website I had built was live and signatures had already started to come in. The launch of the OSDC unfolded as we had planned it, but our voices echoed hard against the concrete in the nearly empty park.
The Pledge contained three parts. There was a petition for debtors to sign, promising to refuse their student loans once one million others did the same. There was a version for faculty to sign in support of the campaign. Finally, we prepared a pledge for non-debtors so that those without any student debt could still declare their support. The website also featured our list of demands. The first was tuition-free public higher education. “The single, largest step we could take to alleviate future student loan debt,” we wrote, “would be to guarantee tuition-free education for students enrolled at public colleges and universities.” My colleagues and I knew that we had to address the question of cost in order to be taken seriously. “According to a recent estimate,” we explained, “the cost of covering tuition at all the nation’s two- and four-year colleges and universities would be about $70 billion. Put in the perspective of the federal budget, a recent audit found that the Pentagon ‘wastes’ this sum in unaccountable spending every year.” For a group of Left activists, the bloated military budget was an obvious source of funding for education.
Another demand was zero-interest student loans. “If student loans are to exist,” we wrote, “they should not be packaged as if they were consumer credit debt. The current scenario, in which government agencies, banks, and other private lenders set extortionate rates and extract lavish profits is corrupt and abhorrent.”
While our campaign was focused on winning free public college, costly private higher education would continue to exist. In that case, the OSDC made a third demand that private colleges open their books. “Students at private and for-profit universities and colleges have a fundamental right to know how their tuition dollars are being allocated and spent,” we wrote.
Noting that the total amount of student loan debt would soon hit one trillion dollars, our final demand was that all student loans, held by nearly 40 million people, be cancelled.
The student loan debt system has yielded no end of private suffering and humiliation for at least two generations of debtors–and the worst may be yet to come. Immediate forgiveness in the spirit of a jubilee, where the injustice of an unpayable debt is redeemed through a single, corrective act, is the only just response to this crisis.
The OSDC was not proposing a gradual write down or a series of reforms but a one-time cancellation of all student loans. We wanted debtors’ “suffering and humiliation” to end once and for all. We chose the word “jubilee,” the Hebrew word for “trumpet,” because it referred to an ancient Judeo-Christian tradition in which, every few years, a horn was blown, debts were cancelled, and slaves were freed.
To spread our demand for a jubilee beyond Zuccotti, especially in light of the recent eviction of the park, the OSDC developed a media strategy. To accompany the pledge, Ross published an editorial in the New York Daily News. “Refusing a debt load that is rigged against them may be the only recourse for the most indebted generation in history,” he wrote. The title of the article, “NYU Faculty Member Backs Latest OWS Crusade: A Boycott of Student Loans,” was chosen by the editor of the paper. The headline was attention-grabbing but inaccurate, casting Ross as the firebrand professor in league with harebrained anarchists. We weren’t proposing a “boycott” of student loans, nor were we on a “crusade.” We weren’t even telling anyone to stop paying now. We were proposing that people pledge to refuse their debt at some point in the future. The goal was to draw attention to the crisis and to the possibility that masses of people might one day stop cooperating with a system that was crushing them.
I was stunned to see the Pledge discussed in the mainstream press because I had never thought about the news as something that an ordinary person like me, a part-time college instructor and the child of two public schoolteachers, could influence. It turned out, though, that reporters were eager to cover the OSDC. One of the first mentions of our campaign was in the New York Times where the reporter, Tamar Lewin, cited the Pledge in an article about the Department of Education’s response to Occupy. “As Occupy protests helped push spiraling college costs into the national spotlight,” she wrote, “Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged higher education officials ‘to think more creatively and with much more urgency’ about ways to contain costs and reduce student debt.” Duncan had also recently given a speech assuring the public that college was still a “smart investment,” a comment that seemed to be a direct response to Occupy Wall Street.
Ross, who was also quoted in the New York Times article, offered a radically different reading of the issue from the OSDC’s point of view. “We think education is a right and a public good,” he said, “and we think federal funding is the only way the United States can join the list of other countries that offer free public education.” College was either a profitable personal investment that just needed a few tweaks or it was a human right for which no one should ever have to pay. The journalist put these two competing visions–one being advanced by a member of President Obama’s cabinet and another by Occupy activists–next to one another in a tension that would endure for years.
The Occupy Student Debt Campaign itself would not last long. One cause was the forcible suppression of the movement whose adherents were the OSDC’s primary audience. After Zuccotti was evicted by cops, thousands had marched on the Brooklyn Bridge in protest. Several hundred were kettled there by the police and then arrested. After that event, it no longer felt like Occupy could help propel big ideas forward. It felt like we were losing. As occupiers drifted apart and as media attention on the movement started to fade, only a few hundred people ended up signing the Student Debt Pledge of Refusal.
Police repression was not the only issue. The Pledge also troubled people. Many debtors with whom I spoke expressed a reluctance to sign it because–just as Kamenetz had warned–they wanted to maintain a sense of personal responsibility in the face of debts they had agreed to take on. Many couldn’t imagine not paying their loans–even if one million other people agreed to do the same. Creditors had a lot of power to make people’s lives miserable. Since nothing like a debt strike had ever been tried before, no one could be sure what signing the pledge actually meant. Such concerns were perfectly understandable. Even talking about not paying a debt on purpose seemed to cross a line. The OSDC was urging free public college and debt cancellation at a time when winning lower interest rates on student loans would have seemed like a victory.
After the pledge of refusal failed to attract many signers, the OSDC organizing team met back at 60 Wall Street to debrief and decide on next steps. It was dead winter, finally too cold to meet outside. Most of the original members of the group had stopped showing up. There were just a few of us left who didn’t want to let go of the idea of a student debt strike. In addition to wanting to continue the work, many of us had become friends.
One of mine was Christopher Casuccio. In his 20s, Casuccio had been one of the first people to take his story of student debt (he owed over $100,000) to the media where he declared that he would not pay. As a result, he had opened himself up to having all his life decisions scrutinized by judgmental strangers. “Why didn’t you choose a less expensive school?” one reporter asked with barely disguised contempt. “Didn’t you know you were going to have to pay back your loans?” another said. Casuccio had calmly explained that, coming from a low-income family, borrowing for college had been his only option. A few years later, once the public narrative about student debt had begun to shift, these kinds of patronizing questions became less frequent. I attributed this change to occupiers like Casuccio who had gone public with their stories, taking the abuse early so others would not have to do so.
Another friend was Sue Meaney, an accountant from New Jersey who traveled across the Hudson regularly for our meetings. She had a long history as an activist and had traveled to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help rebuild the city. When Occupy began, Meaney told me that she knew she had to be part of it, especially because her daughter had just graduated from college and was deep in debt. She kept making the long drive to New York months after many local residents had stopped showing up to meetings and events. Meaney said that she enjoyed the camaraderie and the friendship that her fellow occupiers offered.
Occupy created a feeling of intense connection. The suffering that capitalism perpetuated was often hard to express, but here was a group of people volunteering to try to do something about it. I hadn’t known any of my OSDC colleagues before. Now I did, and that mattered. Looking around the unofficial headquarters of Occupy Wall Street that night, I saw several other groups talking, writing, debating, and making plans. Like us, they were still hanging on.