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OWS and ‘Strike Debt’ Taking Aim at the Ties That Bind the 99%

Yates Mckee Sep 25

ONE, we are the zombies! TWO; we are indebted! THREE; this occupation is… om-nom nom-nom…”

Playfully infusing a familiar Occupy Wall Street chant with the mindless noshing of zombies, last June around 100 costumed protesters undertook a “Night of the Living Debt” march around the New York University campus and Washington Square Park. The event was organized by All in the Red, an initiative of student activists that grows out of the nocturnal marches that began earlier this summer in solidarity with the massive popular mobilization in Quebec against austerity-related tuition hikes. Equipped with an arsenal of felt red squares, red banners, red balloons, red confetti and pots and pans, the young organizers — recent graduates of the OWS Summer Disobedience School training program — undertook the first coordinated march in New York to translate student-specific struggles surrounding tuition and education debt into a broader discourse concerning the perpetual condition of indebtedness in which the 99% currently finds itself. With its necromantic pop-culture reference, the march suggested that zombie-like servitude to Wall Street creditors is a basic condition of life for the majority of the population — a point driven home with a cathartic “debtors’ die-in” at the conclusion of the event.

The Night of the Living Debt march was just one sign that debt is emerging as a connective thread for OWS organizers and their allies as they begin to build toward the movement’s one-year anniversary on September 17, variously known as S17, Black Monday and Occupy Year One. Many organizers in OWS plan to use the media spotlight surrounding the day and its build-up to build what Sandra Nurse calls a ”launching pad” for a new kind of political movement in the United States — a movement of debtors identifying themselves as such.

This is not an entirely new focus. Some of the most prominent initiatives of OWS, and the Occupy movement more broadly, have revolved around the foreclosure crisis, and the Occupy Student Debt Campaign (OSDC) succeeded in drawing national attention to the student debt crisis with 1T Day in April, marking the fact that outstanding student debt has reached $1 trillion. However, these organizing efforts have tended to treat different sectors of debt as single-issue campaigns in isolation from one another. And yet when one looks back to early OWS platforms, such as the 99% Tumblr, one finds that indebtedness of all sorts was already a self-conscious motivation for many participants and sympathizers. As the one-year anniversary approaches, a key question for many organizers is how to forge alliances among groups suffering from and organizing against different kinds of debt-servitude. As OSDC organizer Pamela Brown put it in a June article on Alternet: “We are faced with a broken American social contract, and have reached a critical moment for the 99%. Under these circumstances, it seems obvious that a political movement to build a new dream should take debt as its focus.”

A major development last spring was the staging of the first New York City Debtors’ Assembly in Washington Square Park on June 11. The format was simple, and the facilitation was minimal. Seated around a banner reading “Strike Debt” and adorned with the red felt square familiar from student struggles in Quebec, those assembled were invited to publicly share their “debt stories” with a cardboard “debtors’ mic.” Over two hours, several dozen people from a wide range of backgrounds and generations delivered emotionally charged, first-person testimonials about the experience of debt-servitude to Wall Street and its intermediary institutions. Whether speaking of the ruinous effects of student, credit card, healthcare or mortgage debt, almost all of the speakers remarked that this was their very first time speaking publicly about their status as debtors. To speak as a debtor, and to address others as debtors, was an empowering process in its own right. The simple act of speaking openly built community and solidarity based on a shared experience of breaking with debt-shame — the insidious sense that to be indebted is an individual moral failure rather than an enforced condition of life under contemporary capitalism. As Shyam Khanna, one of the attendees, put it, the assembly created a space for “debtors to find each other, for debtors to become a political subject.”

The Debtors’ Assembly was an important development in the overall trajectory of OWS. Lacking a general assembly or a spokescouncil that is empowered to make movement-wide decisions, OWS as it currently stands is a disparate network of working groups, affinity groups and project groups that sometimes overlap and other times work in isolation. Some have lamented that this “structureless” condition contributes to a deadly lack of focus and diffusion of energy, leading some to claim that Occupy as a both a trope and movement has itself been exhausted. Others have seen the post-May Day interregnum as a fruitful period of reflection and reinvention on tactics, strategy, alliances and goals.

How Debt Became the Focus

Among the most interesting post-May Day experiments were a series of outdoor, outward-facing “thematic assemblies” hosted on a weekly basis at Washington Square by the group Occupy Theory (OT), which also publishes Tidal magazine. Avoiding the unwieldy decision-making apparatus of the Zuccotti-era General Assembly, as well as the often insular culture of OWS working groups, the OT assemblies emphasized open-ended reflection on specific political problems. Among the participants in the thematic assemblies were members of Occupy University, Free University Think Tank, F The Banks and the OSDC. One late May assembly focused on the concept of global solidarity in light of the intensifying student struggles in Quebec. From an organic process attuned to developments in New York and around the world came a decision to devote the subsequent assembly to “Education and Debt,” with a focus on building a political movement specifically around the intersection of these terms.

The initial OT Education and Debt assembly — which preceded the full-scale NYC Debtors’ Assembly by a week — was remarkable for the kind of space it opened up. It wove together the testimonial format with a highly focused conversation about the strategies, tactics, messaging and coalition-building required to make the condition of indebtedness the galvanizing focal point for a full-scale political movement rather than a single-issue campaign. As indicated in the notes from the meeting, which were circulated online throughout OWS social networks, several major questions that have long preoccupied OSDC are in the process of moving to the forefront of OWS as a whole.

Debt is the tie that binds the 99%. Almost everyone in the United States is a debtor of some sort. Even those excluded from mainstream credit systems are still preyed upon by lending institutions, exemplified by payday loan sharks and pawn shops scattered throughout poor neighborhoods. Rather than a supplementary facet of the overall economy, the personal debt system is a primary engine of Wall Street profits, and it is prone to crisis. Indeed, the student-loan bubble is regarded by many analysts as analogous to the subprime mortgage bubble that led to the crisis of 2008, with a trillion dollars in unpayable loans bundled together and resold by banks through elaborate financial instruments. The debt system is a highly tangible way in which the predatory logic of Wall Street affects the lives of families and communities. And yet, as Chris Kasper of the OWS Arts and Labor group put it in the inaugural assembly, “Even as it connects us all to global capitalism, debt isolates, atomizes and individuates. The first step is breaking the silence, shedding the fear and creating a space where we can appear together without shame.”

Messaging in the Making

Speakers in the first assembly drew analogies to the notion of “coming out” in the gay rights movement, in which a new sense of political identity was forged by collectively embracing an otherwise stigmatized individual condition — “Silence = Debt,” a play on the famous ACT UP slogan about AIDS, “Silence = Death,” has been put forward as a meme, alongside the slogan “You Are Not a Loan.” Another well-received propaganda project to emerge from the debt assemblies has been a sticker reading “Hello, My Debt Is…,” designed to resemble a nametag. A large banner has also been produced featuring this design; participants in the debt assemblies are invited to sign the banner with the dollar-amount they owe to creditors, with each signature highlighted by a safety-pinned red felt square of the sort typically affixed to the clothing of protesters.

According to artist Leina Bocar, creator of the participatory banner: “The felt square is increasingly recognized in New York as a signature not only of student struggles, but of debtors more generally. It mediates between the intimate scale of the body and the collective scale of the banner, the assembly, and indeed the movement as a whole.”

Looming over these discussions of debtors’ movement has been the question of a debt strike, a deliberate withdrawal of consent by debtors from the system designed to keep them paying in perpetuity. Millions already do not and cannot pay their debt and are in effect on strike. These de facto debt-strikers constitute what has been described as an “invisible army of defaulters” with massive political potential. Debt strike — or debt refusal, as OSDC describes it in an online pledge — is a significant alternative to the notion of debt forgiveness, which has been advocated by some groups rallying around the Student Loan Forgiveness Act. In the words of OSDC member Christopher Casuccio, “Forgiveness, while certainly a noble idea, implies a guilty debtor asking to be freed from its sin. Refusal, on the other hand, is an empowering, collective challenge to an illegitimate and predatory debt-system.”

However, organized collective refusal is a project requiring long-term research, organizing and support. To simply call for a debt strike without thorough groundwork is unlikely to resonate with debtors already living in fear around their credit ratings and day-to-day survival.

An alternative messaging framework that has emerged from these assemblies has been “Strike Debt” — variously telegraphed as #strikedebt and DEBT. Playing on the metaphorical possibilities of the word “strike,” in the words of Amin Husain, “Strike Debt opens imaginative space for a wide spectrum of thought and action without limiting a politics of indebtedness to any predetermined model.” Striking debt here can mean many things; it conjures images of a physical blow against a specified target, or crossing out the tabulation on which crippling debt is registered. Some Strike Debt propaganda depicts the striking of a match, evoking the image of burning debt-statements, an echo of draft-card burning protests of the 1960s and 1970s. The iconic Quebec red square supplemented with the DEBT sign has started to go viral on Facebook.

The call to strike debt also incorporates OWS principles of mutual aid. To strike debt would involve legal, financial and cultural infrastructures of support and care for those suffering from indebtedness or deliberately taking the risk of debt refusal. Mutual aid in this sense would be the prefigurative opposite of Wall Street’s atomizing, predatory and fear-mongering debt system. An intriguing possible pilot project is a “debt fairy” campaign in which groups of private citizens would pool resources to purchase defaulted debt for pennies on the dollar from banks (who typically sell to collection agencies) liberating the debtor from their burden. While not a structural solution — and not applicable to student loans — it could, if implemented on a larger scale, become what David Graeber imagines as a “moving jubilee,” capable of both garnering media attention around debtors’ struggles and taking business away from the intermediary companies that profit from hounding and penalizing those who are unable to pay.

As debt provides a gateway into a radical conversation about the capitalist system itself, strategic and analytical questions arise about the role of the state — questions that have always haunted OWS as a movement grounded in anarchist principles. What can we learn from the debt cancellation forced upon the Icelandic government by citizens earlier this year? How do we connect the dots between “personal” debt and the public debt of municipalities and governments subjected to corporate bondholders and credit-rating agencies? How do we link struggles against budgetary austerity with the grievances of the indebted? As Andrew Ross asked on Democracy Now! last fall, “How might debt be rethought as something socially productive and collectively managed, rather than as an engine of predatory profiteering for the 1%?”

Can we think beyond existing models of public finance, planning and infrastructure toward something closer to the ideal of “the commons”? Activist and New York University professor Nick Mirzoeff speculates, if “slavery” to debt were abolished, what would a subsequent “Reconstruction” process look like? For ordinary people to delve into these questions is empowering in its own right, and for OWS they will continue to be explored through public assembly and direct action of the sort that began at Liberty Square last September.

The physical tactic of occupation first deployed on Sept. 17 of last year, is unlikely to be replicated, but the spaces of education, empowerment and imagination created by Occupy remain open. Debtors — which is to say, the 99% — are poised to step out of the shadows and into that space, providing it with the content and focus required for what was once a precarious encampment to evolve into a sustainable social movement.

An earlier version of this article appeared on waginingnonviolence.org.


Student Debt By the Numbers

  • Total amount of student debt in U.S.: Over $1 trillion
  • Average amount of student debt per person: $24,301
  • The amount of past-due student loan balances: $85 billion
  • Percentage of families with education debt in 2010: 19.2 percent

(Sources: Bloomberg Business Week, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, New York Times, Federal Reserve Bank of New York)

Beyond Student Debt

  • Total amount of credit card debt in the U.S.: $693 billion
  • Total amount of automobile debt in the U.S.: $730 billion
  • Average amount of credit card debt per household: Almost $16,000
  • Percentage of low and middle-income Americans who use their credit cards to pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses: 50 percent
  • Percentage of 19 to 29-year-olds having difficulty paying medical bills or medical debt: 36 percent

(Sources: Federal Reserve Bank of New York, PR Newswire, Huffington Post, CNN Money)

— Karen Okamoto & Tony D’Souza