Utne Blogs > Economy

Happy Birthday, Rolling Jubilee

by Suzanne Lindgren

Tags: Thomas Gokey, Rolling Jubilee, Strike Debt, Occupy Wall Street, activism, economy, community,

Medical Debt is a Hard Pill to Swallow
Rolling Jubilee is one year old—what’s happened so far?

“Our message to the 1 percent is: We don’t owe you anything,” says Thomas Gokey, one of the minds behind Rolling Jubilee. It’s the first anniversary of this “bailout of the people by the people,” which kicked off last November 15th with a People’s Bailout telethon.

The basic idea behind the bailout? Buying bad debt on the secondary market for a fraction of the amount owed, then forgiving it. The effect is dual, relieving everyday people of burdensome debt while exposing systems that cause debt and those that profit from it. If someone gets cancer and can’t hold down job, then recovers but can’t pay the medical bills, is the debt fair? If students take out loans on the advice of their parents, then graduate and can’t find living-wage jobs, is it their fault they can’t make the monthly payment? These are the kind of questions Rolling Jubilee prompts us to ask.

62 percent of all bankruptcies are due to medical debtSo far, Rolling Jubilee has focused its efforts on dispelling medical debt. This revival of jubilee, an Old-Testament-era practice, sprang from the Occupy movement. After leaving Zuccotti Park, a crew of Occupiers started Strike Debt and hatched a plan for the Rolling Jubilee. The anniversary date is significant, says Gokey. “It’s the one year anniversary of this project, but it’s the two year anniversary of the eviction of Zuccotti Park.”

While it took some time to work out the logistics behind raising money and eradicating debt, Strike Debt’s jubilee gives the lie to anyone who claims Occupy fizzled. The original goal was to raise $50,000 and abolish $1 million in debt. A year in—with the recent purchase of two portfolios amounting to $13.5 million in debt—they’ve freed thousands of debtors across the country from a total of $14.7 million.

Talking to Thomas Gokey, I get the impression that this is just the beginning. “The true measure of success for Rolling Jubilee,” he says, “is whether we can spark a large-scale debtors’ movement. While buying up the debt eliminates the profit for lenders, it’s not a real solution.”

A debtor’s movement would mean more people questioning their debt and, ultimately, refusing to pay. One thing anyone can do, says Gokey, is dispute their debt. “Debt should not be treated as a commodity, and we have no moral obligation to pay an investor who bought our debt for pennies on the dollar. This debt is not just morally illegitimate, it’s often legally fraudulent. When forced to prove it in a court of law, nine times out of ten the debt buyer cannot prove the debt is actually owed. We encourage everyone to dispute every debt.”

Get Wall St. Out of Health CareEventually, Gokey and others hope Rolling Jubilee can branch beyond medical debt to student and housing debt. Already, the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Strike Debt is using eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages and prevent foreclosures. In New York, Strike Debt is operating a debtors’ clinic where people can get advice specific to their debt. Across the nation, but especially in New York and the Bay Area, Strike Debt is working to find solutions to student debt.

To mark the anniversary of Rolling Jubilee, Strike Debt chapters in Portland, New York, and the Bay Area are hosting celebrations and debtors’ assemblies. Why join in? “We need to band together to evict Wall Street from our lives,” says Gokey. “No one can do this as individuals, we need to work collectively.”

Read an interview with Thomas Gokey about Rolling Jubilee’s start or watch Jeff Mangum and Guy Picciotto play the People’s Bailout.

Photos by The All-Night Images, licensed under Creative Commons.