Occupy Wall St. Offshoot Aims to Erase People’s Debts

NYT notes: A group of professors, documentary filmmakers, corporate dropouts and others had spent months protesting Americans’ debt burden when a novel idea arose: What if they could just wave a magic wand and make some of it disappear?

The group, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement called Strike Debt, is trying to buy some of the debts that people have accrued — which lenders often sell for pennies on the dollar to third parties who either try to collect on it or bundle it up for resale. Strike Debt, however, is not looking to collect on them; instead it plans to give some debtors the surprise of a lifetime.

“Basically what we’re going to do is exactly the same as what a regular debt buyer would do, with one big difference,” said Thomas Gokey, an artist and teacher. “Rather than collect the debt, we’re just going to abolish it.”

The group is holding a fund-raiser on Thursday at the Greenwich Village nightclub Le Poisson Rouge, and says it has already raised $129,000 through online donations — enough to buy $2.5 million worth of defaulted loans, thanks to their steep markdowns. The people who incurred the debt in the first place will get a certified letter informing them they are off the hook.

The fund-raising effort has its own name, Rolling Jubilee, a reference to the biblical tradition of a jubilee year, in which all debts are forgiven and all indentured servants are given their freedom. Its more recent origin is the Occupy encampment in Zuccotti Park, where a group of protesters started talking seriously about the problem of burdensome student debt. That conversation eventually broadened to a consideration of the role of debt in American society, and Strike Debt was born.

Since then, some of the group’s projects have been rebellious, like producing the “Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual,” an explanation of the credit industry and how to outmaneuver it, including advice on how to fight, or even ignore, creditors. Rolling Jubilee, by contrast, works within the financial markets.

Mr. Gokey said he was initially wary when approaching professional debt buyers to help conduct the transactions.

“I said, look, we’re revolutionaries, you might not like what we’re trying to do,” he said. “And they said, ‘Well, I’ve got kids; they’re going to college; they’re winding up massively in debt.’ So they said they’d be happy to help us get started.”

Since then, the Rolling Jubilee has even won praise from Forbes, the business magazine, which said it was “Finally, an Occupy Wall Street Idea We Can All Get Behind.

The event on Thursday will include shows by politically minded humorists like David Rees, author of the “Get Your War On” comic, and Lizz Winstead, a co-founder of “The Daily Show.” In between there will be short acts by musicians and magicians, as well as “radical nuns, an all-female mariachi band and a speed lecturer,” says Laura Hanna, a filmmaker and advocate, who added, “We see this as our coming-out party.”

Last week near the nightclub, several of the advocates had what they described as a very productive meeting in a bank, or rather, in a bank’s A.T.M. lobby. It was the only place they could find to get out of the cold.

The group’s first purchase will be medical debt, but it hopes to move on to tuition debt and credit card debt. Members acknowledge that the most wildly successful fund-raiser will not come anywhere near the amount that American consumers owe, estimated at more than $11 trillion.

“This is a long-term thing,” said Christopher Casuccio, who graduated with about $100,000 in student debt. “We all know it’s going to take years to transform the economic system.”

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