New Orleans We’ve talked about some of this before, but it’s such a great story, it’s worth retelling for any who haven’t heard it. I was reminded of the great effort by US debt activists reading a piece recently in Mother Jones that hit all the right notes quickly from start to Occupy to increasing success now in getting student loan reductions.
They start the story with Thomas Gokey and his almost $50,000 in student debt. That was all news to me that I hadn’t heard before, so either they did some good research or it made a better origin story, but no matter, it’s a winner this way, regardless. Anyway, Gokey did an art project of sorts trying to get rid of his debt and somehow finagled the Federal Reserve to give him shredded old currency equal to his debt. He did a project with it, but no soap, no sales. Any way still carrying the weight, he connected with the Occupy movement and read the debt opus by the late anthro-anarchist David Graeber, and he was all in. The way Jones tells the story, Gokey and other activists he met there started getting on the blower and…
Gokey began cold-calling brokers, asking to buy about $50 worth of unpaid debts, which are sold for pennies on the dollar. The brokers, used to cutting deals for tens of thousands of dollars, usually hung up. It took nine months, but eventually he found one who agreed to sell about $400 worth of credit card debt. Gokey scratched out a personal check; in return, he was emailed a spreadsheet with personal information on nine people: Social Security numbers, account numbers, and balances. Their $14,000 in debts were now Gokey’s to do with as he pleased.
From there he and his buddies founded the Rolling Jubilee, from the Biblical admonition to forgive debt every cycle of years. The collective and some film folks, along with some rock bands and comedians, raised $750,000 and bought $32 million in debt on the secondary market, wiping out the debt of 9000 folks. Rock n’ rolling Wall Street!
An NYU law student, now lawyer, comes into the picture and, as organizers call it, found a handle. The Higher Education Act allowed “borrowers to contest repayment if they were lied to during enrollment.” The Debt Collective started spreading the word so folks would apply for relief. The first target was a higher-ed hot shop, Corinthian Colleges, which led to their bankruptcy after a “debt strike.” Luke Herrine, the NYU lawyer, found another handle called “settlement authority” giving the Department of Education the tools to modify or cancel claims against debtors.
It’s not yet a totally happy ending, but it’s a huge win in the “dare to struggle, dare to win” category of constant campaigning.
The two-year [pandemic] payment freeze has created relief for debtors and, collective members say, proved that the federal government can get along fine without student loan revenue. While cancellation hasn’t come yet, the Debt Collective has already reframed the student debt crisis in a way that only Occupy activists would have dreamed possible. But they’re also clear that a mere extension of a payment pause, or even the partial cancellation that the Biden administration appears close to announcing, would be insufficient: They’ve seen too much pain and gathered too many stories from thousands of debtors over the past decade. Gokey, now 43 years old, still has about $30,000 to pay off himself. “This debt has sort of destroyed my life,” he says. “It has taken our lives from us. But what we’ve built has given a lot of life.”