Last month, hundreds of people attended a Zoom meeting to make President Joe Biden pick up a pen. The meeting was a virtual Debtor’s Assembly and Strategy Session hosted by the Debt Collective, a membership-based union made up of debtor and their allies. Tamara Anderson, a member, sang in a clear and confident voice to rally the others in the room:
not gonna let capitalism turn me around
turn me around, turn me around
not gonna let capitalism turn me around
i’m gonna keep on walkin’, keep on marchin’
fightin’ til it all goes away
Digital post-it notes on the screen displayed attendees’ answers to the question: what would student debt cancellation mean for you? “These are our individual whys,” explained facilitator Dr. Richelle Brooks, a longtime member of the Debt Collective and the founder of ReTHINK It, an organization dedicated to addressing antiblackness through education and mutual aid. One of the cards on the shared screen read that debt cancellation would offer “freedom and a future”; others read that it would allow for homeownership, retirement, or “the first good night sleep of my adult life.” Brooks reminder everyone why they had signed on that afternoon: “Student loan debt, it’s literally a threat to the survival of poor people, of working-class people,” Brooks said. “We say debt cancellation; we don’t talk about forgiveness. And there’s a reason for that…we’re here not asking for forgiveness. We want these ideations to be our reality.” Then, the organizers asked: how will we win?
“You Are Not a Loan”: The Debt Collective Over the Past Decade
The Debt Collective has its roots in Occupy Wall Street, the 2011 encampment movement protesting economic inequality and corporate power. Following on the heels of the 2008 financial crisis, the movement offered a way for people to conceptualize the nation’s extreme wealth concentration and widespread inequality. The movement’s galvanizing slogan—“we are the 99 percent”—summed up activists’ commitment to create a collective sense of class unity by identifying the super-rich as the source of mass suffering. The spirit of this refrain has lived on in US movement spaces, such as Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns and the Sunrise Movement.
Around the time that Occupy began, outstanding student debt owed in the United States exceeded one trillion dollars. Demands to cancel student debt were championed by Occupy activists—and lived on as Strike Debt. This group, founded in 2012, took on the debt economy by launching the Rolling Jubilee Fund, a nonprofit entity that collected donations in order to purchase outstanding debts for pennies on the dollar—and then erase them. One year after its launch, the fund had paid less than half a million dollars to forgive thousands of people from close to $15 million dollars in loans. In 2014, the Debt Collective emerged as a membership-based union for debtors.
The Assembly addressed highlights of this history. Debt Collective organizer Hannah Appel, once an Occupy activist, went over the origins of the Debt Collective’s strategy, its positions, and its political goals. “Alone, our debts are a burden,” Appel stressed, “Together, organized, they make us powerful. Our collective debt can give us leverage over the systems that exploit us.” Soon after its formation in 2014, the Debt Collective was able to put this slogan into practice: organizers collaborated with students at Corinthian College, the largest for-profit college chain in North America, which was undergoing extensive legal investigation for fraud. They began organizing together towards two goals: a pilot student debt strike, and use of a new legal instrument called “borrower defense to repayment,” which would allow students at for-profit colleges to legally contest their debt with the US Department of Education. In 2015, the group of students, self-christened the Corinthian 15, went public with the nation’s first student debt strike.
Successful strikes require a variety of tactics. When workers go strike, their pay is typically withheld, and even their job can be at risk. A striking debtor faces a different set of risks: not just garnished wages, but garnished tax returns, seized social security or disability benefits, and credit damage. The Corinthian 15, Appel explained, “turned ‘can’t pay’ into ‘won’t pay’—a politicized, collective action.” Their public refusal spurred hundreds more to join the strike; tens of thousands of others used the Defense to Repayment tool, after which the “borrower defense rule” eventually became an official regulation under the federal Department of Education later that year under the Obama administration. Under Obama, Appel reported, these efforts resulted in the elimination of $600 million of student debt; under Trump, over $1 billion more. Under the Biden administration, this little legal clause has won close to $4 billion dollars in debt cancellation.
Because these legal protections only cover those who borrowed to attend for-profit colleges, the Debt Collective aims are bigger: their current goals are to abolish all student debt and to win free college for all. In 2019, three Democrats proposed to enact these exact measures by leveraging a tax on Wall Street speculation. The Debt Collective was acknowledged as the source of inspiration for this ambitious legislation.
Today, outstanding student debt in the US has reached $1.73 trillion—more than a 90-percent increase in a decade. On January 20th, 2021, the Debt Collective launched the Biden Jubilee 100, a group of 100 strikers refusing to repay their loans until the president eliminates all federal student loan debt by executive order. Organizers feel that the time is ripe for large-scale collective action: payments have been paused for two years, more than half of student debtors are at risk of falling into delinquency according to the federal General Accountability Office, and over seven million borrowers were in default before the pandemic. “Millions of us already weren’t paying, and most of us—all of us—haven’t paid over the past two years,” Appel explained emphatically to the crowd. “It shows us that the government doesn’t need our money.”
The Political Promise of Debt Cancellation
Cancelling student debt is not just a progressive pipe dream. Student loan forgiveness is a wildly popular policy, one which a majority of Americans support today. A recent survey found that outstanding student loan debt represents a larger financial burden on US households than credit card, housing, or automobile debt, and causes borrowers to put off other life milestones, such as having a family, starting a business, buying a home, or paying down other debts. The results of the survey also made clear that even though it is an issue that affects more than 45 million Americans, student loan debt is correlated with social factors such as intergenerational wealth, race, and gender—making cancellation a pressing equity issue.
The widespread nature of this experience is, perhaps, one reason why so many Democratic presidential candidates invoked student loan forgiveness during the 2020 race. Some of the candidates proposed paltry reforms, such as refinancing schemes. But after Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren advanced more ambitious measures such as debt forgiveness and tuition-free community college in their campaigns, Biden followed their lead in part. Biden promised on the campaign trail to “immediately” cancel at least $10,000 dollars in student debt per borrower, and to forgive all federal student loans incurred by borrowers earning less than $125,000 per year who attended public colleges or universities and all borrowers who attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Over a year into Biden’s presidency, these promises have been broken. The administration has done little besides repeatedly extending student loan repayment pauses and writing off debts of small groups, such as the $5.8 billion in debt previously held by borrowers with disabilities. Many in Congress want more. Some congressional Democrats have publicly called for forgiving up to $50,000 per borrower. Others advocate full cancellation. The White House has cast doubt on the President’s authority to do so by executive order, while passing the buck back to Congress.
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Hiding behind bureaucratic technicalities impresses few. “There is just an expectation that a president has to deliver on things,” Debt Collective Press Secretary Braxton Brewington emphasized in an interview with NPQ, “that’s why we elect you…Joe Biden is indebted to us.” As of now, the White House is turning down the chance to keep important promises made to tens of millions of people who are disproportionately affected by debt. As Brooks has written, “Black women must be thanked in tangible practices that address the ways in which oppressive, racist, and sexist policies further marginalize us. Policies must be changed.” Cancelling student debt would be one small step towards rectifying these structural inequities.
To call the question, the Debt Collective has done the president’s work for him by already writing the executive order. Their current campaign contends—alongside other advocates such as the Student Debt Crisis Center and the Student Borrower Protection Center—that the president does indeed have the authority to sign it away. A recent information request by Debt Collective organizer and co-founder Thomas Gokey revealed that the Biden administration had, in fact, received the memo on the ability to eliminate debt by executive order, and is avoiding publishing the results.
At the Debtor’s Assembly, Councilmember Kendra Brooks of Philadelphia spoke about why her city council last year called on President Biden to cancel all debt and support free college, as no cancellation will be complete without reforming the predatory and overpriced costs of college in the first place. “We need to close the racial wealth gap,” Brooks urged. Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui of Cambridge, Massachusetts, reported her city’s similar resolution: “In Cambridge, I’ve seen our constituents, and how debt—how student debt—affects them all the time,” Siddiqui recounted. Graduates of public high schools in Cambridge who enroll in two-year or four-year college “end up dropping out after an average of one and a half to two years” after taking on loans, she explained. Many of these students, often immigrants and people of color, “are left with debt instead of a degree.”
Legislative change does not typically happen because of individual good intentions. Ending injustice requires organizing. The Debt Collective’s strategy is two-pronged, consisting of both legislative pressure and movement building. With these tactics, they hope to build a long-lasting coalition that can achieve economic transformation.
Become Uncollectible: Organizing for Justice in a Financialized World
The Debt Collective is focused on student debt cancellation in the present, but their horizon is more ambitious. Overall, Brewington said, their goal is “transforming the economy, so that people don’t have to go into debt in the first place.”
How does one get there? Consciousness raising is one way, which is a strategy that the Collective has excelled at—staging demonstrations, protests, and political education across the country. Exposing the realities of finance capitalism and the interconnections between debtors and their creditors is no easy feat. But in some sense, Brewington argued, this might be an easier task than, say, organizing a union at every Starbucks store in the country because finance is so concentrated. “It’s the IMF, it’s the World Bank, it’s JP Morgan, it’s the US government,” Brewington said, “It’s like 10 corporations that control finance.” The small number of culprits make for a discrete list of targets, but it doesn’t make organizing any less challenging, as debtors are still isolated and dispersed through the networks of finance that traverse the globe.
Cancelling debt is, for the Debt Collective, a form of abolition. Believing that human beings should not be criminalized for poverty leads to the insight that both prison systems and punitive financial ones depend on one another. “You can really use a debt framework for all of it,” Brewington said, “a lot of the policing and carceral incentive for municipalities to police people comes from debt.” Extracting money from individuals to pay for social services shifts the risk onto the individual, whereas in a debt-free world, governments would not depend on systems that indebt people for funding.
Ultimately, reframing the role of debt in capitalist society would also mean taking reparations seriously. “We spend 95 percent of our time talking about debt that should be eliminated, just because it’s so pressing,” Brewington said. “We only spend five percent of the time talking about the debt that is owed.” Reconsidering debt in terms of what formerly enslaved populations are owed for generations of oppression, or even what countries in the Global South are owed for the climate crisis, is the future of forms of anti-capitalist organizing that are clear-eyed not only about national forms of exploitation, but international ones as well. The Debt Collective wants to put the power of collection back in the hands of the people.
The Struggle Ahead
Student loan payments are set to resume on May 1st, so the Debt Collective will spend the next few months organizing not just to extend the pause again, but to stop payments for good. Before ending the Assembly, members chanted a quote by Black Panther activist Assata Shakur, responding enthusiastically to Dr. Richelle Brooks’ joyful calls:
It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love and protect one another.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
“And our debts!” she added. The work ahead is daunting, but the Debt Collective is taking one step at a time towards freedom for a generation of debtors—and helping people think of themselves as owed that freedom and more.