With the Rolling Jubilee, Debt Activists Strike a Nerve


Long before the curtain goes up on the Rolling Jubilee’s kick-off telethon tonight, it was clear that the event’s organizers have struck a nerve.

The Rolling Jubilee, a project of the debt-activist group Strike Debt, an outgrowth of Occupy Wall Street and the people behind the Debt Resistors Operation Manual, is based on a diagnosis that Americans are struggling under an ever more complex and stifling architecture of student debt, medical debt, credit card debt, and mortgages.

The solution proposed by Strike Debt is based on the biblical institution of a the jubilee, a year in which debts were wiped clean and indentured servants released from their bondage. The Rolling Jubilee will buy debt on the debt market, where it can be had for pennies and the dollar, and then, rather than hounding the debtors for repayment, it will simply forgive the debt.

In the weeks leading up to tonight’s telethon, the project has gone viral. Everyone from BoingBoing to the New York Times has written admiringly of the project.

“We were surprised by the level of success early on, because we hadn’t been very overt about publicizing it,” says Aaron Smith, one of the organizers. “The main inflection point in the reaction came when David Rees, who’s taking part in the telethon, advertised it on his blog. It got picked up by Will Wheaton, and took off from there.”

The project’s PayPal link went live overnight, and when organizers woke up the next morning, there were already thousands of dollars in donations.

The campaign’s debut telethon, which features performances from Lee Ranaldo, Jeff Mangum, Janeane Garofalo, Guy Picciotto, Tunde Adebimpe, and others, was equally popular. Tickets for the event, held tonight at 8 p.m. at Le Poisson Rouge, sold out quickly. (You can still watch it livecast on the Rolling Jubilee website.)

Business journals like Fortune have registered their approval of the project.

But if the Rolling Jubilee has led the Occupy alumni of Strike Debt to find themselves with some strange bedfellows, they’re okay with that.

“The fact that they’re talking about us is in itself a victory,” says Suzanne Collado, one of the Strike Debt organizers. “They’re participating in the political exercise that we’ve laid out.”

Inside ARM, the trade publication of the debt collection industry, wrote about the Rolling Jubilee, provoking comments from debt collectors ranging from the unimpressed to the opportunistically open-minded.

Organizers say that all the publicity has actually brought a number of debt industry insiders to approach Strike Debt with offers of help. Religious groups are also signing on. For the moment at least, it appears that the Rolling Jubilee is a big tent, an idea whose appeal extends well beyond those with the revolutionary ambitions of Strike Debt.

“It’s certainly possible for people to participate in the jubilee without having the same philosophical bent we do,” said Smith. “If people are coming at this from other political leanings, that’s okay, because it’s opening up an important dialogue about debt that we need to be having.”

Strike Debt set an initial goal of raising $50,000, which they calculated would allow them to buy and forgive $1 million in debt. Before the telethon even started, they were already already approaching four times that figure.