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A Student Debt Strike Force Takes Off

Debt—and the shame that surrounds it—is the tie that binds the 99 percent. Can young people reimagine it as something productive, rather than a tool for profiteering?

“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 month around 100 costumed protesters undertook a small but significant “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 which grows out of the nocturnal marches that began last month 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 percent currently finds itself. With its necromantic pop-cultural 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 of September 17, variously known as S17, Black Monday and Occupy Year One. More than just a commemorative ritual or one-off day of action, many organizers in OWS plan to use the media spotlight surrounding the day and its buildup as 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 percent Tumblr, one finds that indebtedness of all sorts was already a self-conscious motivation for many participants and sympathizers of the movement. As the one-year anniversary approaches, a key question for many organizers is how alliances might be forged among groups suffering from and organizing against different kinds of debt-servitude. As OSDC organizer Pamela Brown put it in a recent article:

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 in the past month was the staging of the first NYC 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,” affixed with the red felt square familiar from student struggles in Quebec, those assembled were invited to step up to publicly share their “debt stories” through 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 debt, credit card debt, health care debt, or mortgage debt, almost all of the speakers remarked that this was their very first time speaking publicly about their status as debtors.