Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Occupy, this time for the people's debt

By Douglas Rushkoff, Special to CNN
updated 9:51 AM EST, Wed November 14, 2012
Demonstrators symbolically
Demonstrators symbolically "burn" student loan bills in Los Angeles during a protest of rising student loan costs.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Douglas Rushkoff: The Occupy movement, in its second term, aims to relieve your debt
  • He says Occupy involved itself on the ground with Superstorm Sandy, providing needed relief
  • Now, he says, the movement is holding telethon to raise money to buy, and then forgive, debt
  • Rushkoff: Banks were bailed out with tax money, Occupy aims to bail out the people

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist and the author of "Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age" and "Life Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World, and How We Can Take It Back." His forthcoming book is "Present Shock."

(CNN) -- Much like President Obama, the Occupy movement is alive and well and entering its second term, thank you very much. It's no longer about squatting in public parks, getting on the news, or -- in some cases -- getting arrested. No, instead this decentralized, bottom-up, anti-Wall Street effort is taking aim at your medical, student and other loans: It aims to relieve your debt.

Just as Obama appears to have left the lofty rhetoric of "being the change" behind him as he confronts the more practical realities of working a financial plan through an intransigent Congress, the occupiers have given up on winning media mindshare or public support and have turned instead to direct action that helps real people. In its Act 2, Occupy is just occupying the space where it's needed.

Remember, Occupy does not have leaders, an administration or some central office. It's not a single body with a mission control that makes particular decisions. It began as a one-day demonstration in New York, "Occupy Wall Street," spawned by an announcement from the anti-corporate Adbusters magazine, and then mushroomed into similar encampments around the United States and in other parts of the world.

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

Although police eventually shut down these demonstrations, the social and Internet infrastructure of the movement remained intact. People met one another over the course of the demonstrations, forged relationships online and continued working in their own ways. Different members in different places have chosen to concern themselves with particular problems. Those that resonate with others in the loose collective end up getting support from the various websites and Facebook pages already associated with the Occupy movement. While there is no "official" Occupy movement, when an effort gains support from enough of the trusted Occupy networks, it can be considered a de facto Occupy action.

Most recently, the movement came to the rescue of hurricane victims with Occupy Sandy - a bottom-up, people-driven recovery effort that rivaled FEMA for its ability to bring aid to the people who needed it. The Occupy brand credibility, so to speak, as well as its existing networking infrastructure gave activists a great head start in connecting donors, organizers and providers to victims in the worst-hit areas.

Now, a growing contingent within the greater movement is refocusing on Occupy's original victims, the hundreds of thousands of people burdened with all sorts of debt. Many of the debtors owe many times the original amounts they charged up on their credit cards, medical bills or student loans.

Occupy Sandy
Citizens United releases new movie
2011: Occupy Wall Street begins

Such debt is bought and sold on a debt market for pennies on the dollar by debt collection agencies and others capable of pressuring the debtors most effectively. (The reason debt is sold for such a small fraction of its acute value is that most collectors will not be able to recoup the money. They might buy $10,000 of credit card company from a bank or reseller, but most likely only be able to collect a tiny portion of it from the debtors, who either go bankrupt or simply broke.)

In the belief that much of this debt is comprised of unjustified fees, inappropriate credit products or even outright fraud, an offshoot of Occupy called Strike Debt is working to erase it all...by purchasing it, and then forgiving it. Yes, seems it's that easy: Buy debt for a tiny fraction of its face value in the same way that credit agencies buy debt. But then, instead of attempting to collect that money, simply erase it. Families struggling to pay for the compound interest on their 1990s medical bills, for example, simply find out that it's been relieved.

The whole debt-rolling operation, known as Rolling Jubilee, begins on November 15, with a variety show and telethon in New York City entitled The People's Bailout. Occupy-friendly celebrities from comedian Janeane Garofalo and Daily Show writer Lizz Winstead to music legends such as Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo and Fugazi's Guy Picciotto will perform for a live and -- of course -- streaming audience while the website accepts donations. According to their estimates, every $25 will abolish an estimated $500 worth of debt. According to David Rees, one of the founders of Strike Debt and a leading voice in the Rolling Jubillee, "As a test run, we spent $500, which bought $14,000 of distressed debt. We then ERASED THAT DEBT."

Of course, in a perfect world, debtors would have the opportunity to erase their own debt at this rate. Or, at the very least, on hearing that their debt has been relieved, the rescued debtors would want to pay back the movement so that more debt could be relieved. Currently, legal restrictions and privacy policies prevent this sort of traction from developing. But if you're in a tight debt situation and learn that it has been mysteriously and anonymously forgiven, you might want to consider doing the same for someone else by contributing.

I understand why people might object to this scheme and can already envision the comments forming below this piece as I write. Isn't this moral hazard? Didn't those people get in their own debt? Why should we bail out people who have gotten into trouble like this?

The best answer, of course, is that we already bailed out the banks and creditors -- with tax money. Why not bail out the actual people? And the Occupiers are not focusing on home loans taken out by aggressive real estate speculators, but the personal debt that has already been well documented to be ripe for abuse and fraud by lending institutions and their agents. (The easier answer is that if you don't like this idea, simply do not take part. If you find your debt occupied and relieved, you can surely find banks and credit agencies willing to accept your payments.)

More significant, at least from my perspective, is how actions such as Occupy Sandy and Strike Debt reflect a movement coming of age. True to form, Occupy is making no demands of government, of banks or of anyone else. The occupiers did not involve themselves in the recent elections -- as if electoral politics were just too many steps removed from getting anything done.

Instead, they simply occupy the space around those in the greatest need and fill in for what's missing.

The opinion expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 8:17 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT