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Occupy Student Debt!

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By Cryn Johannsen on November 21, 2011


Today, November 21, 2011 is the beginning of the National Campaign to Occupy Student Debt. According to an official statement, the pledge consists of three things:

1) A debtor’s pledge to refuse loan payments.The pledge will take effect after a million debtors have signed.

2) A faculty pledge of support for the refusers

3) A non-debtors’ pledge of support for parents and other public sympathizers

Since there are tens of millions of student loan debtors, and the group is aware of that fact, the pledge of signatures from debtors at a million is symbolically important.

Given the number of individuals who are struggling or unable to pay their student loans, it is likely that the group will surpass that many signatures. This pledge, in my view, is a far better approach then the problematic call for loan forgiveness. Of course, that is a popular idea, but the language is a poor choice, and occupiers and activists for student loan debtors should consider that fact.

Think about it. When one hears the term “forgiveness,” what comes to mind? First, it sounds like the person has committed some sort of sin. In this case, it sounds like borrowers are on their knees begging for a bailout. That is not the case at all. Second, it also gives off the impression that the relationship between the lenders and borrowers is somehow balanced. That is far from the truth. Lenders have full power. After all, they have written the laws to ensure that they have the upper-hand.

This lending relationship is the worst of its kind in U.S. history. This debt is non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. Even if one is dead, lenders will chase you beyond your grave. Even worse, if you default on your federal loans, they can garnish your (a) disability checks, (b) paychecks, and (c) even Social Security checks. In a word, student loan debt is destroying the lives of millions of people.

Based upon the cries for help from debtors, it is easy to see why suicide among student loan debtors has increased. I recently received a heart-wrenching note from a mother whose son, in part, committed suicide because of his student loan debt.

Even sickness and injury do not allow debtors relief if they are struggling with their loans. In fact, if you happen to become severely injured or suffer from a chronic disease, it is essentially impossible to have your student loans discharged. Last February, ProPublica revealed the Department’s labyrinthine system that disabled borrowers must face. At that time, the Department of Education promised to look into the situation and make much needed changes, but it has since backed off.

In a conference call with the White House in late October, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Director of Domestic Policy Melody Barnes detailed the administration’s plan to lower monthly student loan payments.  When it comes to sheer numbers of borrowers, Barnes stated that for this academic calendar year alone (2011 – 2012), approximately 36 million people have taken out student loans.

Sadly, many young individuals who take out loans do not consider that they might be in a devastating car wreck or become gravely ill as adults. When it does occur, they are certainly not prepared to contend with lenders who are unwilling to work out reasonable repayment plans. Instead, they are harassed on a daily basis by their lenders.

Given these circumstances and the unjust nature of this lending system, it is not surprising that many occupiers are coming up with plans to combat the student lending crisis. As an activist for the indentured educated class, I have suggested two things.

The first one is for lawmakers to consider: a debt jubilee. Of course, since dominating political institutions are informed by a vicious, destructive neo-liberal agenda and DC has truly been overrun by people who wish to “starve the beast” to the point of utter collapse, such a possibility is, unfortunately, woefully out of reach. The second option is a debtors strike. Moreover, this political approach would be all inclusive. Of course, it would include the student loan debtors, but it would be a call of action for everyone with debt.

If a system continues to grind people into indebted, unemployed, citizens, such radical action becomes necessary. The situation for many Americans, with our without college degrees, has become dire. That is why we occupy, and that is why we are denouncing a system that has been created to benefit a tiny percentage of the world’s population. A debtors strike could be global and have enormous ramifications. Financial institutions will only respond to threats against their capital. Otherwise, they will continue to turn more of us into indebted, jobless nothings. The time is now. Take the pledge.

Cryn Johannsen is the founder and executive director of All Education Matters (AEM). She is currently writing a book about the student lending crisis and how this mess can be fixed. Read her full HyperVocal archive here, and make sure to follow her on The Twitter @cjohanns.

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