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At the Debtor’s Assembly

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Like most folks I talked with, I had only a vague idea of what “Strike Debt” was before showing up today to the Nov 11 Debtor’s Assembly in Love Park. Like them, having enough crippling debt in my life, the event piqued my interest.

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Pretty quickly, before it even started, I got a good gist, looking over the literature on the table in front of the sound system, and asking random questions. Apparently, Strike Debt is a new movement coming out of Occupy Wall street, focusing on the predatory lending system and the ‘debt servitude’ of the 99%.  The latter is both individual (as we know, from  medical bills, credit cards, school loans, and on and on) ; and collective, in terms of our cities and communities’ own ‘debt servitude’. Reading these paragraphs here and there before the first speaker, I thought, here is a heartland issue of the Occupy movement. If this really takes off, it could be powerful.

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A bit after 2 in the afternoon, the first speaker came on, to a gathering crowd of about 45 or so.

The format was simple enough: debtors sharing their stories with each other.  As one of the organizers explained,“ We’re getting into the mainstream media, just by doing what we’re doing, coming together and sharing our stories, just like this!”

Early on, an older African American man spoke, setting the tone for many of the messages that would follow. “I admit, I voted for Obama. I just don't think he’s powerful enough to go against the businesses who financed his election. I’m saying this with the hindsight of 20 or 30 years ahead of you, you the young people, they want you to give up! They want to wear you down with all this debt burden! So stay involved with Occupy and the things you’re involved in. You are the future!”

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Other stories that followed were hard to listen to because they just brought back to me all my own debt anxiety. These are the things we try not to think about but over which we lose sleep at night, so there is a level on which this Debtor’s Assembly was really not enjoyable.

One woman is a cancer survivor, who lost all her possessions in hurricane Katrina. Her story was heartbreaking.

Another speaker from a more prosperous background spoke of the slippery slope we can all fall into- he did fine paying off his school loans, as long as he had a job. But then he lost that job. And his loans required him to report how much he made...working for temp agencies made that impossible, and so...they turned him over to a collection agency.

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As the event moved on, we heard how debt affects us all. And depending on how far we are up or down the socioeconomic hierarchy, it plays out very differently. While some families have an “asset cushion”-- that is, the more prosperous family that can catch you as you fall behind--one debtor described the ways in which his own family is more of a “network of ticking financial time bombs”—that is, all it takes is one job loss or medical emergency, and everything changes. “Strange,” he said, “in a country which values democracy, there’s just no sense of economic democracy.”

Other speakers compared the economic system of profits and debt servitude to industrialized feudalism.

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There were a few props and moments of theater. One person was in a stockade, with a giant “Master Card” below, remade to read “Master Fraud”.  Another debtor could be seen walking around with giant chains and a ball that read “debt;” several people carried signs with them on which were written the staggering figures they owed. And as one person spoke, he tied his debt sign to a bundle of helium balloons and released it to the air as a symbol of of what must happen: release.

I heard from a few announcements that this Debtor’s Assembly is only the first in Philly, and I started to get more of a sense of the structure of this campaign. On the table were copies of  the “DROM”, the Debt Resister’s Operations Manual, with chapters on the different types of debt, ideas for grassroots mutual assistance, and forms of debt  resistance (what  these are I have yet to read).

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A sister initiative of the DROM manual is “The Rolling Jubilee.”   Just as the banks sell debt for about 5 cents, and debt collectors demand the same for about a dollar, the Rolling Jubilee, based in NYC, will fundraise to buy as much debt up as it can, and instead of using it for a profit, will just abolish it on the spot. NYC Strike Debt will have a variety show and telethon of sorts this week on the 15th, Thursday, which will be live streamed at events across the country. In Philly, it was announced, a viewing will be at the Friends Center.

It was as the event wound down that I left with the feeling that...this could be big. The issue is one that affects us where we most hurt, and as one of the signs read, “Debt is the tie that binds the 99%.” Perhaps we are seeing it catch, something along the lines of the famous “bank transfer day” of a year ago, something tangible to everyday debtors; this is a form of resistance in which everyday people can engage and feel ownership, and come to from their own stories of debt servitude.

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Pictures by Rich Gardner

Text from http://occupyphillymedia.org/content/debtor%E2%80%99s-assembly