Chapter Seven

The End of Strike Debt

By the end of 2012, Strike Debt had cancelled tens of millions of dollars in overdue medical bills while debt assemblies were being held in cities across the US. Regional chapters were also forming. Strike Debt Bay Area was the most active. But we were also contacted by organizers in places such as Fort Worth, TX, Denver, and Chicago. Since Strike Debt NYC had no formal process for approving chapters, local groups could not be integrated into an official organization. Still it was validating that debtors wanted to organize in their own cities.

In New York, there was a growing disagreement about what Strike Debt should do next and what kind of organization it should ultimately become. Should local chapters operate more or less autonomously, or should the NYC group organize a national meeting to decide on our collective goals? Should Strike Debt continue to operate with no formal structure, set up an official non-profit organization, or something in between? These questions weighed heavily because so many of us had experienced Occupy Wall Street and its aftermath as a moment of genuine political possibility which had not yet been met. Like others, I felt personally implicated in whether or not the solidarity and the desire for broad social change that I had witnessed as an activist was channeled in the right way. But I also did not want to dull the insurgent spirit of a movement that had started as a boisterous occupation in Lower Manhattan.  

The time to deliberate was short. After the success of the Rolling Jubilee, offers to collaborate came pouring in from individuals and organizations, including from long-established and well-funded progressive entities in Washington DC. One of those entities was Jobs for Justice whose director wrote to invite Strike Debt to a strategy session in the nation’s capital. The invitation read: “A broad array of organizations, ranging from students to retirees, will be coming together to coordinate a strategy that will take higher education out of the hands of private corporations and put it back in the hands of the public.” That sounded good. Since the OSDC days, my colleagues and I had worked to bring public attention to the crisis of student debt. In that sense, the invitation from Jobs for Justice was welcome. Free college and student debt relief would not be realized until those policies were taken up by elected officials.

At the same time, many Strike Debt organizers were deeply opposed to engaging in electoral politics. As activists long marginal and marginalized, they were particularly skeptical of well-resourced non-profits coming into a space that their uncompensated labor had created. For those anarchists in the group, the idea was abhorrent. I was sympathetic to that view. As someone who wanted to see debts abolished and who knew that lobbying federal officials would be necessary to achieve that goal, I was still unconvinced that joining a coalition of Washington non-profits was the right approach. The Jobs for Justice group, for example, was proposing a number of reforms, including “a package of bills to make higher education affordable and accessible.” Affordable? Accessible? Strike Debt wanted a debt jubilee and free college, not to mention free, universal health care.

After several discussions about the invitation, Strike Debt could not come to an agreement on whether we should be represented at the meeting. Pam Brown, who had long argued for the necessity of making alliances beyond the New York activist scene, announced that she would attend the Washington meeting anyway. This decision angered some of Brown’s colleagues, many of whom suspected that she was less interested in building a movement than in establishing her own career among professionals in Washington.   

Such disputes were inevitable and irresolvable. With no legal status and no legible decision-making structure, there was no way to prevent anyone who thought of themselves as a Strike Debt organizer from doing anything they wanted in the name of the group. Just as it was unrealistic to expect those activists who wanted to do electoral work to refrain from doing so  according to a code of behavior with which they did not agree and which was not part of any codified philosophy, it was fruitless to try to convince those who opposed electoral politics not to be angry when the tactic was taken up by others.

When it came to career ambitions, I had fewer misgivings than some of my colleagues. Everyone deserved to earn an income and attain other benefits (such as health insurance) that often came with a salaried job. Why should activists decline employment opportunities that came up as a result of their activism? Aware of class differences within Strike Debt and of the ambitions that may drive some to participate in social movements, I still did not think it made sense to fault anyone for wanting a decent job. My position would become more nuanced in the years to come.  

In 2013, tensions around questions of authority and over the widespread perception that some were seeking to personally benefit from Strike Debt’s success multiplied to the point where the group was always in a state of crisis. Arguments that could never be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction were common and enduring. We were experiencing what was known as “the tyranny of structurelessness.” In 1970, Jo Freeman had published an essay with that title in which she critiqued radical feminist collectives of the era for refusing to nominate leaders or create clear rules of engagement. The result, she said, was a pernicious organizational culture that lacked democratic control or accountability.

In Strike Debt, the tyranny was partly a result of people’s differing access to email, to work hours, or to family obligations that prohibited attendance at meetings. Those who missed in-person gatherings or phone calls would complain that they didn’t know what was going on in the group. For those who regularly attended meetings, often taking time away from work or family to do so, the labor of taking notes for absent colleagues felt thankless and tiresome. In short, we had no real infrastructure and were reliant on individuals voluntarily taking on tasks that needed to get done.

It was also undeniable that some members of Strike Debt exercised more authority than others. For a few months, decisions about everything from how to respond to media inquiries to which kinds of debts to abolish were made by a small clique of Strike Debt’s original founders. We called ourselves a “Think Tank” and communicated on an invite-only email list. The irony of “structurelessness,” as with “horizontalism” in general, was that Strike Debt had a kind of structure. It just hadn’t been made explicit or agreed upon by all and operated largely behind the scenes.

Though a member of the Think Tank group, I sometimes joined the chorus of discontent. In response to a Strike Debt meeting being held at the Brooklyn office of N+1, a glossy magazine that published work by an up-and-coming intellectual class, I wrote to Casuccio: “Since when did Strike Debt become a subsidiary of N+1?” I was troubled by a disparity I perceived between Strike Debt’s founders, who were mostly professionals in the fields of academia, media, and art, and most others in the group. My position, though, was somewhat contradictory. I could not, in fairness, celebrate Strike Debt’s successes while lamenting where many of the resources to achieve them had come from. There was no doubt that my Think Tank colleagues got things done–often in ways that left me awestruck. It would have been impractical to expect dozens of activists to achieve consensus on every issue in a timely manner, especially since minor disagreements could turn into interminable discussions. I believed that I had been invited into the Think Tank group due to my work ethic and my skills as an administrator. Since I was not part of the professional-creative class to which many of my fellow co-founders belonged, I was profoundly ambivalent about my role there. I did not know how to balance my desire to get things done with my belief that disgruntled colleagues had a point.

My preferred solution to the conflict was to stop talking and start doing. I hoped that concrete organizing work in our hometown would get Strike Debt out of the impasse. Some colleagues and I were planning to execute what we called “mobile debt clinics,” a way to bring the solidarity politics of the Rolling Jubilee to the streets. We hoped to rent a van and set up shop on weekends in various neighborhoods to assist people with their debt collection notices. Residents could stop by and enjoy a coffee while organizers helped them stop predatory collectors or otherwise sort through their options.

Beyond clinics, we were also talking about renting a storefront where we hoped to establish what we called a “community finance center.” Instead of emphasizing financial literacy (which implies that debtors are to blame for their situation and only need to learn to better manage their money), Strike Debt would host political education events where attendees could listen to a speaker while also accessing services. With these two locally focused projects, I hoped to dispel the crisis that was brewing.  

No amount of activity could alleviate the tension. After hosting debt assemblies, publishing a book, and launching the Rolling Jubilee, Strike Debt had amassed a national contact list with over 30,000 names. Many of those people wanted to join Strike Debt, set up a chapter in their city, or otherwise help to organize a national debtors movement. Only a few founders had access to the list, a resource that many considered to be a basis for an expansion that we had been dreaming about for more than a year. Access to the list became a focal point of disagreement between members of the Think Tank and others who wanted to get to work organizing. In the winter of 2013, some colleagues formed another decision-making body. Calling themselves SDOG (for Strike Debt Organizers), they asked for access to the list which suggested that they planned to reach out to people to discuss a national organizing plan.

I regarded SDOG as having a legitimate claim to authority, and I attended some of their meetings. While I did not have access to the contact list myself, I was generally supportive of the contention that it should be more widely shared. Other Strike Debt founders disagreed. Pam Brown, for example, was vehemently opposed to SDOG’s existence and to giving the group access to the list. She framed her opposition as a rejection of horizontalism, an ethic to which she presumed SDOG members still adhered. “I'm concerned that the culture of ‘non-hierarchy’ reproduces a dominant worldview,” she wrote to the Think Tank, “and that this ultimately produces homogeneity.” I wasn’t sure what kind of “homogeneity” could possibly be produced by marginal activists who wanted to spend their free time fighting for mass debt relief. Furthermore, in insisting that SDOG had no right to exist, Brown exhibited the attitude that those with less power and influence found insulting and which had led them to set up SDOG in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, the controversy over who exercised authority became connected to the question of whether debtor organizing was insufficiently concerned with race and racism. Brown told me in private that she believed those who had established SDOG had done so because they were racists. She offered no concrete evidence, and I found the accusation baffling, especially since not everyone in the group identified as white. The conflict began to feel like a scene from an absurdist play or like a graduate school seminar at which we had all been taken hostage.

In one of many online exchanges about how to assure that our work was anti-racist, for example, Amin Husain revealed a reverence for one of anarchism’s sacred tenets by arguing that Strike Debt should give up on the notion of leadership all together. To bolster his argument, Husain made a connection between our battles over internal structure and the movement to abolish slavery in the American south. “It wasn’t the abolitionists who put an end to slavery,” he wrote. “It was the dogged resistance of millions of slaves, from refusal to work to acts of sabotage, that brought the economic system based on slavery down.” Abolitionists, none of whom were slaves themselves in his analogy, had not been necessary to the project of abolition. From Husain’s point of view, this fact was crucial to understanding what was going on in Strike Debt in New York City in 2013. Our debates over leadership and structure, he suggested, were distractions from the real revolution: debtors’ spontaneous acts of resistance. Since this discussion took place on a thread devoted to anti-racist organizing methods and during a moment when access to a national contact list was at issue, everyone understood what Husain was suggesting: the attempt to establish clear structures and organize in a formal way was racist.

Brown, for her part, disagreed with Husain. She responded to his statement about the “dogged resistance” of slaves by glossing her own theory of social change in a long email. “Slaves did not free themselves,” she wrote. “I think many overstate self-determination in the process of abolition which was a lengthy and unified effort between black slaves and those white abolitionists who had greater political power. I reject accounts of abolition that do not attribute this victory to multiracial solidarity.” In a continuation of the analogy between the 1860s and the 2010s, Brown was suggesting that winning debt relief and the public provision of goods and services would require a coalition between debtors and non-debtors. This was a position more closely aligned with my own. But since Brown herself was publicly disdainful of others’ efforts to access a contact list for the purpose of organizing, I did not know how she imagined such multi-racial solidarity could actually be built.

Debating theories of revolution did not help Strike Debt address its organizational problems or answer the question of what to do next. Indeed, if the debate over how slavery ultimately ended was relevant to building a debt resistance movement in the 21st century, the connection was mostly unclear. Moreover, such discussions could go on for days and were alienating to those activists who wanted to get busy helping their fellow New Yorkers get collectors off their backs. The turn towards abstraction signaled a derailment. Strike Debt would host only one clinic and the community finance center would remain only an idea.

In February, the group suffered a blow from which it would not recover. Brown attacked one of our long-time colleagues for what she described as a racist post on his personal Facebook page. A co-founder of SDOG, Hans Horking, had posted the words “Fuck Obama” on the social media platform. At the time, his profile picture was a blurry photograph of a plate of rice and beans. The image was a popular meme based on Ecce Homo, a 1930 painting of Jesus which had been damaged and then badly restored. Appearing vaguely like the face of Jesus, the photo was a humorous reference to the botched restoration. Brown did not recognize it as a joke. She claimed that, if you looked closely, the rice and beans was actually a picture of a brown head with a white face. Next to the words “Fuck Obama,” Brown argued, this image was a tirade against a black president who was sometimes ridiculed as being “white on the inside.”

Horking replied to Brown’s email and said that his profile photo had nothing to do with his “Fuck Obama” post. He explained that he had written those words because he opposed the President’s foreign policy. “I have been very consistent with my disgust for this administration since at least the surge of troops in Afghanistan,” he wrote, referring to a major escalation of the war that Obama had initiated in 2009. “That disgust has grown,” Horking continued, “with the increase of drone strikes and with support for legislation which allows for indefinite detention.” (In 2011, Obama had signed a law permitting the US to capture and imprison anyone without charge or trial for an indefinite period.)

Horking did not need to summarize his politics. Anyone who had had spent time with him knew that he was a caustic critic of the administration and frequently spoke out in defense of those killed overseas by US bombs. Horking did more than talk and post memes. During Occupy Wall Street, he had drafted a public letter calling for the unionization of low-paid art workers, including art handlers and receptionists. The letter had circulated widely, generating a discussion among a group of laborers for whom talk of collective action had been rare up to that point.

His background as an artist-activist did not help Horking win the argument with Brown. She ignored his explanation for the meme and his reference to Obama’s foreign policy. “If this group is anti-racist,” she insisted to the rest of us, “then certainly the racists should be removed.” Getting Horking excised from Strike Debt was not Brown’s only goal. “Further, this Facebook post,” she wrote, “should shed additional light on SDOG, where a fundamentally racist group identity was formed and fostered.” Horking’s meme was an excuse for shutting down SDOG.

Over the next few days, a dozen Strike Debt activists weighed in over email and on phone calls on the topic of the racism charge. Some debated whether Brown’s reading of the meme was correct and, if it was, whether Horking had been deliberately racist or whether his pairing of the text and image was an example of “unconscious racism,” a thought-crime charge that was impossible to defend against. A few colleagues wrote immediately to insist that Brown’s accusation was ridiculous and that she was trying to purge Horking for cofounding SDOG. Anger mounted between people with opposing views on the subject. In numerous conversations and emails, few mentioned the drone program that had killed hundreds of civilians in countries like Pakistan and Yemen and which had actually prompted the “Fuck Obama” post. I had finally had enough. A few days later, I wrote to Brown in defense of Horking. “You should apologize,” I said. She said that she was disappointed I had “sided with white supremacists” and took to our group email list to demand that I be removed from Strike Debt.

The charge of meme racism was damning and almost impossible to shake. Horking had expressed his opposition to President Obama’s foreign policy by placing a text next to an unrelated image that looked like something it wasn’t. To some, this looked like a racist act. To others, the accusation was little more than Brown’s attempt to gain leverage over others. How should the situation be addressed? In a twist that almost anyone could have seen coming, Brown’s demand that the “white supremacists” be removed from Strike Debt could not be met. Because the group had no formal leaders or processes, no one could legitimately claim the right to say who was or wasn’t a member. Our choices were to banish Horking and other supposed racists from the group or to reprimand and discipline Brown for leveraging a false and defamatory accusation. But there were no agreed upon methods for determining which of those courses of action ought to be taken, and no one in the Thank Tank had any real authority to resolve the conflict even if they had wanted to do so. As a result, Strike Debt fragmented into opposing camps made up of those who thought a blurry photo of someone’s dinner was a probable illustration of racist intent, those who didn’t, and those who declined to take a position on the question.

In a kind of denouement, two long-time activists submitted letters of resignation, an odd move considering there was no real organization from which to resign. Husain wrote in support of Brown and said that he was concerned that “conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority” were widespread in Strike Debt, an accusation he later made public in an interview. When someone pointed out to him that not everyone who had taken Horking’s side in the dispute identified as white, Husain was dismissive. “Black and white are ideologies not colors,” he shot back.

Husain’s position that anyone who disagreed with him or Brown was ideologically ‘white’ did not surprise me. He had been similarly dismissive of plans to launch debt clinics and a community finance center. Instead, for weeks prior to the Ecce Homo meme incident, Husain had been urging Strike Debt to establish a kind of compound for indebted artists near the city of Detroit. He wanted to use some of the money raised by the Rolling Jubilee to fund the project. Since the Rolling Jubilee had a formal structure (it was a non-profit organization with a board of directors), it was relatively easy for Husain’s colleagues to turn down his proposal–a decision he was obliged to accept. Soon after he was told that the Rolling Jubilee would follow through on its commitment to use every penny it raised for debt relief, relations between Husain and other members of the Think Tank started to break down.

A few minutes after Husain’s message, Nick Mirzoeff, a close friend of Husain’s, sent his own resignation email. He lamented that Strike Debt was run by white males, a curious claim since most members of the founders’ group were women. In any case, whiteness was a sin from which the NYU Professor now found it necessary to distance himself. “For the record,” he wrote, “I do not consider myself white. To anyone from Central Asia, I am immediately recognizable as being from Samarkand.” Mirzoeff’s message was odd to me since he had previously argued that there was nothing wrong with white people organizing for debt relief and that no one should have to produce evidence of their identity to be heard.

I wrote to my long-time colleague and told him what I thought was really happening: we were embroiled in a power struggle with petty authoritarians. “Some of us are being treated like employees by Brown, who went to an upper crust boarding school followed by Dartmouth College, and by Hussain who has a degree from Columbia Law School,” I said. Mirzoeff, who had attended Oxford University in England, did not respond. I began to consider that Strike Debt was becoming a kind of a guild–a group where professionals could burnish their brands as edgy activists. Mirzoeff’s goal, above all, was to remain a member in good standing.

Caught in its own class contradictions and in a morass of signs and symbols in which widely divergent interpretations could not be reconciled, Strike Debt collapsed. For the next few months, some continued to conduct activism under the group’s name. But most drifted away in fear and frustration or, like me, out of resignation. Only Casuccio envisioned a path forward. “The commitment to building a debtors movement is there,” he wrote to me, “the networks and ideas are there. It's all just going to change form.” I did not know what to make of the assertion that concepts like “ideas” and “commitment” could make anything happen. Dedicated to concrete plans and executable methods, I was more cynical. I would spend the next few years organizing with debtors out of a sense that I might as well keep trying, not out of a belief that success was just around the corner.

While Strike Debt was imploding, Black Lives Matter activists had continued to march, protest, and bring media attention to the issues of racism and police brutality. As the violence that had given rise to the movement showed no signs of abating, this was nothing to celebrate. At the same time, I was impressed that BLM had proven so durable and effective. That winter, along with some colleagues, I attended a rally against police violence. An NYPD officer had shot and killed a black teenager named Kimani Gray, an event which brought people from across the city into the street to protest. The cop claimed that Gray had pointed a gun at him, an accusation that Gray’s family and friends said was ridiculous. At the protest that night, I learned that witnesses had seen officers hunched over the 16-year old as he lay bleeding to death on the sidewalk. Gray’s final words to his killers had been: “please don’t let me die.”

****

After Strike Debt ended, I decided to stop temping and look for more stable work. A friend connected me to a lawyer who wanted to hire an office manager. After coordinating so many Strike Debt projects, not to mention having worked as a teacher, management was something that I thought I could do. I met with Paul and his law partner, Greg, in a Brooklyn coffee shop on a frigid morning. They explained that they did contract law and were starting a small firm. They needed someone to do some clerical work as well as post to the company’s social media accounts. Paul and Greg, who were young and white, explained their philosophy of doing business. “Many established companies are too inefficient. They have way too much overhead,” Paul said. He and Greg planned to work smarter and in a more streamlined fashion. I knew immediately what they meant: they did not intend to rent permanent office space or hire people. I was told I would be paid as a contractor, part-time, at a rate of $15 per hour.

Paul and Greg rented an office in Manhattan via WeWork, a real estate company that acquired buildings, divided up the interior space, and then rented offices by the month. It was a business model tailor made for an economy in which many twenty- and thirty-something New Yorkers were engaged in various part-time hustles while trying to forge careers or start businesses. Paul and Greg’s office was in midtown, where WeWork had transformed the top two floors of a building into a maze of variously-sized cubicles and conference rooms. Furnished in a Mid-Century Modern style, everything was clean lines and muted colors. Quotes, such as “Do what you love” and “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm,” were stenciled onto the walls. When not in their offices, the start-up entrepreneurs and others who occupied the space milled about in the communal kitchen drinking free beer or playing pool in the recreation area. In a small office next to Paul and Greg’s, I often saw a man with dark, curly hair hunched over his computer. The edge of his monitor was dotted with yellow Post-it notes. One of them said, “Look for deals!” Another read, “Don’t be afraid to take risks!”

Paul and Greg’s space was just big enough for three desks and a filing cabinet. It was crowded when we were all there together, which is why I normally wore my headphones and pretended to be hyper-focused on whatever tasks I had been asked to perform. From the beginning, it was a challenge figuring out what they wanted me to do. I would receive emails from either Paul or Greg asking me to file something or set up a conference call or create a spreadsheet. Very quickly, it all started to seem rather silly. Paul could have created his own spreadsheet in the time it had taken him to write an email instructing me to do it. I was occasionally asked to go to the post office. They could have hired a courier for less.

One day, Greg asked me to go through a series of very large volumes that looked to me like legal theory textbooks. I was to write down any instance I could find of a particular word or phrase. I obliged, but it was clear that what they really needed was a paralegal, someone who could actually help them do their research. But since they couldn’t or wouldn’t hire that person, key-word searches were the best they could get from me. Another time Paul gave me a laptop that had belonged to his friend, John, who had also been a lawyer. John had died in an accident the year before. Paul wanted me to go through his friend’s computer and move all of his legal research onto another drive. I spent a week copying files from a dead man’s laptop.

I started to detest my bosses. One day, when they didn’t think I could hear, they made fun of some women in the office next door for seeming drunk after one glass of beer. “Asians can’t drink!” Paul laughed. This was hilarious to them. Being in the presence of these supremely confident young men, whose instincts and desires the world seemed to have spontaneously organized itself around, felt degrading. The most absurd part of the job was that Paul and Greg refused to explain anything about the cases they were working on. The refusal was a badge of honor, as if taking the time to inform me of anything of consequence would have meant that they were not as busy and important as they thought. “Just watch and learn,” Paul had said early on. I was in my late thirties with few employment prospects beyond stapling and photocopying for guys like Paul and Greg for the rest of my life. Watch and Learn – or else! It felt like a threat.

I did not last three months. Paul sent an email explaining that my presence in the office was no longer required. I didn’t take it personally. I assumed the two attorneys had determined that the hyper-efficient, weightless company of their dreams needed fewer actual human beings than even they had imagined. In fact, the entire WeWork business model collapsed a few years later. Investors ultimately refused to fund the company’s grand vision of offices for people who don’t want offices–or employees. Once valued in the tens of billions of dollars, in a matter of weeks the company’s famously mega-maniacal CEO was forced out, thousands of employees were laid off, and the business was sold off for parts. Years later, while reading about WeWork’s demise, I thought about Paul and Greg. I wondered if they had been holed up in that midtown building, writing up contracts and suing people, until the end.   

Chapter Eight