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The People's Bailout: Occupy Wall Street To Erase $1 Million In Debt—Maybe Even Yours

It might be Occupy’s most radical idea: buy up overdue debt on the secondary market and cancel it, leaving lucky people across the country debt free. It’s so crazy it just might work.

Before they became known for hurricane relief or even encampments in public parks, Occupy Wall Street was an intellectual leftist movement with connections to the anti-austerity protests in Greece and Spain. They’ll be returning to those roots this week with an imaginative new action campaign that will strike at the heart of what ails the economy, strike a blow against economic business as usual, and maybe even strike fear in the guts of the 1%, by buying up consumer debt and then forgiving it.

Total American consumer debt, from medical debt to student loans to credit cards, currently stands at a record $2.74 trillion. When payers fall behind on this debt it becomes delinquent, and banks often clear it off their books by selling it to third-party debt collectors for pennies on the dollar. These collectors then try to get you to make good on the full amount plus interest with often unfair or abusive results.

Or, if you’re lucky, the Strike Debt Campaign’s Rolling Jubilee could buy it. Thomas Gokey, an artist and adjunct professor at Syracuse University, has been organizing on debt resistance for over a year. Last April he purchased about $14,000 worth of delinquent credit card debt for less than $500. Becoming the legal owner of the debt gave him the right to erase it from people’s credit reports.

The Rolling Jubilee is kicking off nationwide on Thursday, November 15, with a telethon, live at a New York City club and streaming on the web, featuring members of Sonic Youth, Fugazi, TV on the Radio, and more. Their goal is to raise $50,000, which should be enough to buy and cancel $1 million worth of debt.

Because the debt has been packaged and sold, there is no way to buy a specific individual’s debt: It’s lost in that sea of $2.74 trillion. So, if you’re hoping to have your debt forgiven by Occupy, it’s a total crapshoot. But if they raise enough money, many people around the country are suddenly going to find that—miraculously—the collection calls have stopped.

Strike Debt has collaborators that produced a Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual (which, full disclosure, I contributed a few edits to) that combines practical financial advice with tactics for undermining the consumer-credit fueled economy that keeps most of us making payments to the Man.

The point of this stunt is to make clear, by turning the tables, the way in which the rules of the economy are rigged against ordinary people—and to begin to fight back. Big corporations and the United States Treasury have lots of options to restructure their debt; average people underwater on their homes and behind on their car payments don’t—until now.