A few dozen people gathered in Brooklyn Inlet Park on the Williamsburg waterfront Sunday to talk about debt, have a picnic, and set some things on fire.
The mood was festive — there was cake and lemonade, the air was crisp and clear, and the towers of Manhattan glittered across the East River.
But the purpose of the assembly was somber: to talk about the ways that different kinds of debt is strangling the people gathered there, and millions more across the nation.
Nick Mirzoeff, an NYU professor, explained that the Strike Debt group grew out of the Occupy movement over the summer.
“Over the course of the movement we came to a set of realizations that debt was a way to organize people and to clarify what the movement itself is,” Mizroeff said. “Because it connects a very direct lineage between us as individuals — the way we as the 99 percent have debt, whether it be student debt, mortgage debt, credit card debt, medical debt, or worst of all, the person who can’t get into debt. if you can’t get into debt you can’t get any of those things: you cant be educated, you can’t buy a car, you can’t buy a house, you can’t go to school.”
Between his mortgage and credit card debt, Mirzoeff said,”I’m out debt when I’m dead. My daughter will close that up. And that’s not a life that I want to bequeath to her.”
Sarah Quinter, another organizer with Strike Debt, said that after months of weekend meetings in Washington Square Park, the group was ready to debut its first public action.
“We wanted to do a debt burning reminiscent of the draft card burning of the 1960s to demonstrate our refusal to be conscripted into a life of debt, which is becoming a ubiquitous feature of American life,” Quinter said. “Since debt is such an isolating experience, we wanted to create an experience that could be the beginnings of community, where we could listen to each other’s stories and be together and talk with one another. We’re hoping this is just the first of many actions.”
So after mingling and chatting for a half an hour, the group gathered in a circle to tell their stories and burn the symbols of their debt.
Madeline Nelson told the circle that she has worked hard to avoid going into debt.
“But there’s one thing that I can’t really get out of is medical debt,” she said. “Why is that? I pay for health insurance every single month. And yet I keep getting these statements that say ‘We can’t pay for that procedure, because the doctor didn’t ask us beforehand.’ Or ‘We can’t pay for that one because you were out of town when that illness happened.’ And this builds up.”
Nelson brandished a medical bill.
“Here we have something from Easy Choice Healthcare,” she said, setting the bill on fire. “Fuck you, Easy Choice Healthcare!”
A recent college graduate described plunging into debt after discovering that she has a potentially fatal genetic blood disorder.
“I had health insurance, but I had to pay copays,” she said. “When you have to go to the doctor three or four times a week, that’s about my rent payment. There were times I didn’t go to the doctor, because I couldn’t afford to go.”
Soon, she said, she was putting medical bills on her credit card.
“My husband and I began having conversations like ‘Which one of us is going to eat lunch this week, because we don’t have any more money,” she said. “I didn’t have any bills to bring with me [to burn], but I do have this referral from a doctor. It’s a referral to see a specialist that wasn’t in my health insurance plan, so I couldn’t afford to go see him because the cost of seeing him was more than my rent. So that’s what I’m burning.”
Brad Young, facing $150,000 in education debt, described discovering his passion for research and teaching. “But to get that education and pursue what I’m passionate about, I’m punished with $150,000 in debt,” he said, as he set fire to a statement from his student loan company. “The society doesn’t want people to be educated. And I think that’s wrong. As a society we should work together to educate each other. That’s what being in a society is about.”
Strike debt has more projects in development. This week they’re releasing a Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual, and, much further down the line, they’re planning a “Rolling Jubilee” to buy cheap debt, forgive it, and pay the gesture forward.
In the meantime, organizers hope others facing debt will adopt the symbolism of the debt burn, which they designed to be easily replicable. They’ve already got more planned: The next debt burns are scheduled for September 17, the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and will take place both in Manhattan and California.
On Sunday, after about a dozen people had told their stories and burnt bills and collection notices to cinders in a coffee can, the group walked down to the rocky shore and tossed the ashes in the East River.