While co-founding the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, I taught two or three classes of Composition and Literature each semester. I had too many students, no benefits, no desk, no phone, no right to use the copy machine, and there were mouse droppings in the office that I shared with dozens of other part-time teachers who made up the bulk of the “professors” at the college. As the intensity of Occupy died down, I filled out an application at a temporary employment agency. I figured I could work as an administrative assistant or something similar while deciding on my next move. I had to get out of academia mostly because I was never really in it. I was cheap, expendable labor, and I knew it.
Two weeks later, I was called for an interview. I took the subway to an Art Deco building on the east side of Manhattan. There, in an office that contained only a desk and two chairs and where a window looked fifty stories down onto Lexington Avenue, I filled out a stack of papers. Then, I met separately with three different interviewers who asked me about my “skillset.” I explained that I had experience researching, writing, and teaching, which meant that I was prompt, well-organized, and had good communication skills. The answer seemed to satisfy them. One of the interviewers asked if I could type with “all ten fingers” and whether I enjoyed filing. “I can type, and I don’t mind filing,” I said. She put down her notepad and looked at me. “What if you were put in a room and told to just file paperwork all day long? How would you feel about that?” she asked. “That would be okay,” I said. She seemed pleased.
A few days later I received a call from the agency. I was told to arrive at an address in midtown the next day at 8am. I was advised to dress professionally and informed that I would earn $14 per hour. I wanted to ask the temp agency how much profit they were making by serving as the middleman on the deal between me and whatever company I was now working for. But I thought better of it. The next day I found myself sitting at a receptionist’s desk outside a financial firm. My job was to answer the phone, deliver mail, make copies, and take deliveries to the six traders who worked in a room that I was instructed never to enter unless invited.
Over the next couple of years I worked a number of similar jobs for the temp agency, some of them lasting a few days and others a few weeks. As a temp, I often filled in for a person who was either ill, on vacation, or on maternity leave (in every case, the person I filled in for was a woman). Since I didn’t know how to do the real employee’s job, I was usually not asked to do it. I was just filling the seat. In most cases, I could not be seen with a book. But I could read on the computer screen, since staring at a monitor looked like legitimate labor. Temping, tedious and humiliating as it turned out to be, gave me time to think. Outside the frenzy of the doomed Zuccotti occupation and the launch of the Pledge of Refusal, I was able to read about and reflect on the questions and issues that the moment and my own participation in it had raised for me.
Though I had never considered myself an activist, I was not exactly a novice when it came to politics. I had marched against the Iraq war and had been involved in labor unions. On one union committee at a university where I taught, I had served as an official representative of part-time teachers. In that role, I participated in and helped to organize a strike. This campus experience, though, was limited to ameliorating the specific conditions that my colleagues and I were working under. After Occupy, my interests expanded, and I began to think and read more widely about theory and strategy.
First, I wanted to know more about capitalism, what was happening to it, and whether mass indebtedness, especially of students, represented something new. Several of my colleagues in Occupy had mentioned a concept called “financialization.” I started reading about it and learned that it was the process whereby banks, lenders, and other financial entities had gained more power and influence in recent decades. “The credit system,” the Marxist political theorist David Harvey wrote, “has now become . . . the major modern lever for the extraction of wealth by finance capital from the rest of the population.” In a previous era, capitalists made money by making things and selling them while paying workers a fraction of the profits. By the 21st century, that was still true. But Harvey argued that another model of extracting resources was gaining ground: the rich were now as likely to profit by lending money at interest than by producing and selling goods and services.
Putting people in debt had become essential to capitalism’s survival. This was one reason that public college was now a debt sentence. By 2011, 40 million people had student debt. Higher education had been financialized: it had been turned into a consumer product. For the ninety-nine percent, that meant that most families could not send their children to college without signing on to a potentially ruinous financial arrangements that had not existed two decades earlier.
The recent mortgage crisis was perhaps the best example of financialization. Bankers, lenders, and servicers had profited from the growth in mortgage lending and from the rise in prices prior to 2008. But those profits had not come from buying houses and then selling them to families who needed homes. Instead, mortgage loans had been cut up into pieces called “securities” and sold to investors around the world. Those investors were essentially betting that US homeowners would continue making their payments.
As the housing market heated up, lenders distributed more loans on increasingly predatory terms, especially to black and brown borrowers who were many times more likely to be sold what were called “sub-prime” mortgages–loans with adjustable rates that skyrocketed once the economy started to crater. When millions of borrowers found themselves unable to keep up with payments, the profit streams for all those securitized mortgages dried up, which led to the financial crisis. The rest of the story is familiar: government bailed out overleveraged banks and saved investors from losing their fortunes while millions of ordinary people lost everything. Occupy Wall Street was partly a response to this debacle.
As part of reading and thinking, I began to ask myself questions like ‘should the Left seek to seize state power by electing candidates,’ or ‘is the two-party system hopeless?’ I wondered: ‘how could the federal government be made to work in favor of ordinary people?’ I also asked: ‘How can people living under financialized capitalism protect themselves from harm in the short term?’ These questions were not new. People had been asking them for decades or longer. But they were newly relevant to me after the rise and fall of Occupy.
I was not alone. The movement inspired a resurgence in public debates about political strategy. A panel discussion that had taken place at NYC’s Bluestockings Bookstore exemplified the moment. To a packed house blocks from Zuccotti Park, socialists from the baby boomer generation, Doug Henwood and Jodi Dean, debated with self-identified anarchists in their twenties, including Natasha Lennard and Malcolm Harris. At the time, Lennard was a freelance reporter for the New York Times and Harris was the editor of a magazine.
A main issue discussed that night was whether Occupy’s horizontalist approach was the right one. Lennard and Harris insisted that it was, while Dean and Henwood disagreed. The anarchists argued that being anti-capitalist in the early 21st century primarily meant opposing the state rather than seeking to take it over. Dean and Henwood were adamant that, if occupiers were serious about deep social and political change, they needed to develop a concrete program and a strategy for making demands on the political system as it currently existed–and that included electing candidates to office. The debate prompted a heated discussion.
I was uncertain about where I came down on the question. I was in agreement with much of what Henwood and Dean said. I knew, for example, that we were not going to get student debt cancelled without a big, national program and a plan for getting elected officials to support such a policy. But I was sympathetic to Occupy and, as a result, to whatever impulses and ideologies had given rise to it.
To my ear, the older panelists also sounded somewhat patronizing towards the anarchists. At one point, Henwood dismissed what Harris was saying by making a vulgar gesture with his hand. For their part, Harris and Lennard were speaking to their own peer group in a language they knew well. The event, broadcast online, was watched and discussed in activist circles and the positions taken by the two young writers were widely considered to be the right ones.
The stakes were not the same for all the participants. Whereas Dean and Henwood were well-established in professional fields (Dean was a professor and Henwood a writer and radio show host), the anarchists were taking a risk by speaking out in favor of the movement. Harris had been arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge a few weeks earlier. And Lennard was fired from her job at the Times once video from the Bluestockings event found its way to her employer. As a freelance reporter, she was supposed to be investigating the movement, not promoting it. The story of her firing was picked up by various progressive outlets which celebrated her bravery. “She Chose Occupy Wall Street Over Her Job,” read one headline.
While fascinated by the history how capitalism had become financialized as well as by political strategy debates, I was even more interested in simply continuing the work that I had started in the OSDC and in seeing where it led. It was not easy to know how to continue organizing after the Student Debt Pledge had fallen flat and after Zuccotti had been raided, especially because there was so much disagreement among occupiers about how to move forward. I was still a member of various email lists that had been set up during the encampment. I continued communicating with my colleagues that way while also making new acquaintances. Since reading and responding to email was a permitted activity at my various temp positions, I stayed connected to the movement while on the job.
Post-Zuccotti, communications between activists were mostly managed by a group called Interoccupy which acted as a kind of organization for organizers. Conference calls between activists began taking place soon after the eviction of the park. Joan Donovan, one of the Interoccupy coordinators, sent regular emails listing the calls. An email sent in early 2012, for example, listed the following conversations that anyone could join: Occupy Oregon Foreclosures, Tools for Movement Collaboration, California Foreclosure Moratorium Campaign, Bank Accountability, California Foreclosure Prevention Act, Occupy Homes National Training, Occupy Movement Weekly Press Briefing, Global Noise Planning Meeting, International Anti-War Meeting, and Occupy Colleges. With these calls, Interoccupy enabled a period of productive brainstorming among former occupiers. That winter, for example, Thomas Gokey, whom I had met at the launch of the Student Debt Pledge, wrote to propose the creation of a kind of online platform for people in debt. He described it as a “tool that anyone could use to organize debt strikes.” I replied and said that I thought a central hub where debtors of all kinds could meet and make plans was exactly the right idea. We agreed to continue talking about it.
Online discussions eventually turned into face-to-face gatherings. Those former occupiers who were trying to figure out how to keep the movement alive began meeting together at various activist spaces around town, including at 16 Beaver Street, an address in the financial district where I attended countless meetings. Determining next steps for a disbanded uprising whose goals and tactics were still being debated was not easy. Tensions often erupted online and in person over the purpose of the new groups that were forming. Some who were committed to horizontalism insisted that former occupiers could not move forward on any project before everyone came to unanimous agreement. This “consensus” standard was difficult to meet given that it was impossible to know who “everyone” was in the context of a movement whose base of operations was gone and where no formal membership lists existed. Other activists rejected consensus and argued instead for legible processes, such as majority-rule voting, to determine leadership roles and activities. Those who wanted such structure sometimes claimed that horizontalism was just a cover story used by those who wanted to be in charge without rules or accountability.
Struggles over leadership and basic procedures seeped into even the most banal of tasks. The process of making decisions about where to hold a meeting, for example, could lead to arguments. During one email exchange, someone posted a list of venue requirements for the next in-person gathering:
1. Has some seating
2. Has outside option
3. In the shade (if outside)
4. Not in Manhattan
While not meeting in Manhattan was a generally agreed upon principle (few could afford to live there), the list raised other concerns. One former occupier wrote to say that meeting outside was dangerous for her health. “The problem is really pollen and sitting on grass is simply not an option for me right now,” she explained. “This is a health issue. If you do hold the meeting outside, someone like myself will not be able to attend.” In response to this message, a discussion ensued about whether or not a pollen-free meeting place was a reasonable request and, if so, how to meet it.
Such exchanges, which could go on for days, exemplified many of the obstacles that activists faced in the post-Occupy era. In this case, someone needed a special accommodation for her allergies, but she was not willing to select a meeting location herself. Or perhaps she did not think she was authorized to do so. By expressing her desire publicly, though, she was suggesting that some unnamed others were in a position to meet her requirements. It was unclear, at least to me, who those people were and from where they derived the authority that she had implicitly granted them.
Over time, some activists assumed a management role to help assure that decisions got made and that meetings could, at the very least, take place. Most of us were pleased with this development. But others objected to the creation of “unaccountable bosses” who had supposedly given up on the principles that had served as a foundation of the movement. Before it was even clear what they wanted to do together, how vanquished occupiers chose to organize themselves took on a deep and abiding significance.
Something else may have been happening as well. Some suspected that undercover cops had joined our email lists for the purpose of keeping former occupiers confused, disbanded, and at each other’s throats. One of the government’s tactics for disrupting social movements, I was informed, was assuring that the smallest tasks created conflict and distrust. Whether this type of intervention was taking place or not, I attended meetings much less frequently once arguments about process started to supplant the work of deciding what to do next and then doing it.
Some activists managed to keep the focus on inequality and, in particular, on the foreclosure crisis that was still roiling the country. Less than a month after Zuccotti was raided, former occupiers launched a campaign to protest evictions. Millions were being kicked out of their homes by banks that had been rescued by the federal government. One event took place in East New York, a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood. Chanting “banks got sold out, but our families are getting kicked out,” hundreds risked arrest by taking over a vacant house which had been foreclosed on by Countrywide, one of the servicers that had been accused of illegal behavior in the run up to the crisis.
Activists began renovating the property, preparing it for a family that planned to move there from a homeless shelter. Similar occupations took place in 20 states around the country that day, part of a national effort called Occupy Homes. The Nation magazine called the campaign “the most promising new front in the Occupy Wall Street movement” while pointing out that the Obama administration’s effort to help underwater homeowners had been “woefully inadequate.”
I participated in another post-Zuccotti campaign whose goal was to stop subway and bus fare increases while educating the public about who was profiting from the hikes. In a theme that had become familiar, New York’s public transportation system was in debt. For years, the state had reduced funding to the vital service, leaving the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) cash strapped and desperate. The agency had recently announced that the price of each ride would increase every two years, perhaps indefinitely. But dramatically higher fares would still not make up the budget gap. Starting in the early 2000s, the MTA had also borrowed hundreds of millions from Wall Street. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, the agency found itself on the wrong side of a deal that made bankers and investors rich while the MTA was forced to cut dozens of subway and bus lines to pay its debts. The city blamed the crisis on the rising cost of health care and other benefits for transit workers. But former occupiers knew the truth.
Some of us launched a campaign to fight back against both the state’s underfunding of public transportation and the city’s lies about the origin of the MTA’s debts. Conceived by Ingrid Burrington and Jesse Myerson, the No Fare Hikes campaign produced videos and other materials which explained how the transit system had become indebted to Wall Street. We named a lack of public funding–not unionized transit workers–as the culprit. We also pointed out that banks were profiting while low-income people, those who most relied on public transit, were lining Wall Street’s pockets with their fares.
What could angry New Yorkers do? No Fare Hikes advocated a way for people to help each other that was straight out of Occupy Wall Street. We suggested that those riders with an unlimited subway pass “swipe” others through the turnstile as they were leaving the station. Though short-lived, the solidaristic “Swipe Back” campaign permanently altered how I behaved underground. For years afterward, if I had an unlimited pass, I made sure to offer a ride to anyone waiting on the other side of the gate.
As post-Zuccotti campaigns were unfolding, members of the OSDC kept in touch. Though it was no longer attracting signatures, the Student Debt Pledge of Refusal proved more durable than we had imagined. The idea of mass student debt relief had sparked imaginations. Throughout 2012, those of us who had helped to organize the Pledge were invited to give talks at conferences or at other events. These invitations suggested that our effort had mattered, so we gave periodic presentations on our past work and kept talking about the future.
One of those events took place that spring at the New School where Andrew Ross appeared on a conference panel. He spoke about the OSDC and our enduring vision of a student debt strike that could win free public college and debt relief. He emphasized that student debt was not just an issue for middle-class people. “The burden of student debt is magnified at the low end of the spectrum, among low-income families,” Ross said.
Low-income students are now priced out of public education and being thrust into the for-profit sector. Ninety-eight percent of students carry debt in that sector. This is a case of reverse redlining and predatory lending. Low-income families are vulnerable prey.
“Redlining,” I had learned by reading about housing markets, was an historical practice inscribed in federal law where lenders assured their profits by refusing loans and charging higher interest and fees to black people, a strategy which kept neighborhoods racially segregated. Ross mentioned it to draw a comparison between discrimination in mortgage lending and in higher education where poor students of color were being lent money to enroll in costly, low-quality for-profit colleges–an inclusion in the system that looks like expanded access to education but is actually just the same discrimination in a new guise. (Though I did now know it at the time, his mention of for-profit schools would seem prescient a few years later.)
The New School event was far from a rehashing of familiar themes. One of the other speakers introduced a concept that I hadn’t considered in much detail before. Samir Sonti connected student debt abolition to the idea of the public. “The federal government is the only body that could cancel student debt,” he said.
Every other industrial country in the world provides free or very affordable access to college. It’s worth thinking about public higher education as a way to talk about how the public sector can mitigate inequality. Winning free college could be a way to talk about what government is supposed to be all about. If we build some momentum on this, we might be able to shift the conversation on a number of issues.
I was intrigued by Sonti’s comment that a student debt campaign may be a way to build momentum. Getting the federal government to spend money on debt relief, he suggested, could demonstrate that the state could and should do even more. Once free college became a reality, why not free health care, affordable public housing, and more?
The idea of reclaiming the public sector ran counter to what had been the dominant current in Zuccotti. A movement that had been rooted in a rejection of the state was now sparking conversations about how the federal government could and should provide things that people needed. It was not surprising that Occupy ultimately led to that kind of thinking. The OSDC’s push for mass student debt relief had not been in line with the “make no demands” ethic of the Occupy partly because our proposal could only be met by the federal government.
Though the state was the only entity that could provide mass debt relief, I was also convinced that Occupy’s focus on the government as a site of repression had merit. What had happened to the encampment was a clear illustration. When the cops raided Zuccotti, beating and arresting people in the process, they inspired wider public awareness of police brutality, something that many from middle-class backgrounds had not had to think much about before.
Many of those involved in Occupy took note when a black teenager named Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman that winter. A neighborhood watch captain who dreamed of being a police officer, Zimmerman attacked Martin while the 17-year old was walking home from the store with a bag of candy and a bottle of iced tea. Zimmerman told a police dispatcher that he thought Martin looked suspicious, and then he went outside and shot him.
In response to the killing, a movement erupted that called itself Black Lives Matter. In cities from coast to coast, protesters marched, shut down freeways, blocked transit systems, and forced the issue of racism in the criminal justice system to the front pages.
Black Lives Matter was celebrated in Occupy circles. We saw it as another expression of righteous rage against the system. In March of 2012 large numbers of New Yorkers, including many former denizens of Zuccotti Park, attended a rally in Union Square. The BLM event honored Trayvon Martin while protesting the legal system that had recently acquitted Zimmerman of all charges. Dubbed the “Million Hoodies March” in reference to the sweatshirt that Martin had been wearing at the time of his death, the rally took over the square and spilled out onto the surrounding streets. Hundreds of hooded protesters then marched through Bowling Green to the famous bull sculpture near Wall Street.
Surrounded by metal bars since Occupy, protesters tore away the fencing and climbed onto the structure. As police closed in, one of them called out, “I am Trayvon Martin!” This act prompted debates within activist circles about what the anonymous protester had intended and whether his words had been appropriate. Former occupier, Stan Williams, told a reporter that he was troubled. “The Wall Street bull has nothing to do with Trayvon Martin,” he said. Whether Williams was right or not, it seemed like currents were starting to cross. I wanted to know what would happen next.