Keegan O’Brien, of Boston, front, joins with members of the Occupy Boston movement, students from area colleges, and union workers as they display placards and shout slogans during a march through downtown Boston, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011. The march was held to protest the nations growing student debt burden. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
When Occupy Wall Street sprang up a year ago, one of its most captivating features was that it was one big tent, an overarching idea linking together a long-fragmented left. Today, bereft of the encampments—all the little tents—there’s no denying that Occupy isn’t as powerful a connector as it once was. Given this knowledge, Occupy organizers have been searching for a next step: a way to marshal the political energy that still exists without starting from scratch or denying all that their movement has achieved. This process has recently given rise to an initiative called Strike Debt.
Debt, a growing number of organizers believe, has the potential to serve as a kind of connective tissue for the Occupy movement, uniting increasingly dispersed organizing efforts around a common problem (debt) as opposed to a common tactic (occupation). Already, organizers on the East and West Coasts have taken up this idea. Activists from Occupy Boston are rallying around the city’s indebted public transit system, calling attention to the way state subsidies have been replaced with profit-hungry private capital by chanting, “Our trains, our tracks—get this debt off our backs!” Occupy activists in San Francisco are planning a debt burning for September 17, one that unites foreclosure fighters, student debtors and other drowning citizens under the motto “Hell no, we won’t pay!”
“Debt is the tie that binds the 99 percent,” Occupy organizer Yates McKee has written: from the underwater and foreclosed-upon homeowners who were first pummeled by the economic crisis, to the millions of debt-strapped students who are in default or on the brink, to all those driven into bankruptcy by medical bills, to workers everywhere who have been forced to compensate for more than thirty years of stagnating wages with credit card debt, to the firefighters and teachers who have had to accept pay cuts because their cities are broke, to the citizens of countries where schools and hospitals are being closed to pay back foreign bondholders. Given the way debt operates at the municipal and national levels, the issue affects us all—even those who are fortunate enough to be debt-free, as well as those so poor they don’t have access to credit. Debt is one of the ways we all feel Wall Street’s influence most intimately, whether it’s because of a ballooning mortgage payment or a subway fare hike or a shuttered clinic.
“This is why we’re not talking about a debtors’ movement, but a debt resistance movement,” says 28-year-old Chris Casuccio, otherwise known as “Winter,” a Strike Debt member whose student loan debt has swelled to more than $100,000 since he graduated. “The simple fact is, not everyone owes money directly to the banks and governments. Debt resistance is more inclusive, more accurate, and moves from the personal to the structural. When we say ‘debt resistance,’ we think of people forced to go into debt to survive, but also everyone else who is affected by their towns, cities and countries owing money to Wall Street—not to mention both those excluded from credit altogether and those thrown to payday lenders and other predatory scams.”
Since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, debt has been a kind of subterranean theme of the movement. This makes sense, given that the protests were born of the economic crisis (which was all about Wall Street bundling mortgage debt and betting on who would default) and led by young people being crushed by educational debt. An alarming number of them are stuck in a vicious circle: toiling at low-wage gigs to pay off loans they took under the false promise that the debt would lead to meaningful and fairly compensated employment. Young people are supposedly investing in their future when they go into debt to get an education, but once they sign on the dotted line, the banks have enormous power over their lives. “In a very neat trick, our future is now owned by them, as we are forced to make decisions about our existence in light of our debt,” explains Amy O., an Occupy organizer from San Francisco. “We take a job we wouldn’t otherwise want because it pays well, has good benefits, et cetera.”