Occupy Wall Street made a name for itself demanding systemic change that would help the country's "99 percent," but at least one offshoot of the movement has evolved into quietly helping individuals on a financial level in the years since its inception.
In conjunction with its third anniversary, which passed quietly this week without much media attention, the Occupy splinter organization Strike Debt and its project Rolling Jubilee announced they had purchased and forgiven nearly $4 million of student debt — the latest in a string of debt purchases made by the groups.
The purchase helped relieve the debts of nearly 3,000 individuals across the country, while at the same time drawing attention to what the group calls predatory practices by for-profit colleges and the Department of Education.
Strike Debt, the name of the debt forgiveness movement, bought $3.8 million in private student loan debt from lenders for students of Corinthian Colleges, a private for-profit college company that runs campuses around the country. The group spent just over $100,000 to buy the bundles of debt, using funds it collected during a telethon and viral campaign.
"It was very small donations, people would give $5, and say, 'I'm completely broke but I want to help,'"Laura Hanna, one of Strike Debt's organizers, told VICE News. "Our original plan was to raise $50,000 and prove a point, that $50,000 could simply buy $1 million of debt, to demonstrate that it wasn't worth it. It's taken some time to do it."
Starting at the end of 2012, through the Rolling Jubilee project Strike Debt began purchasing medical debt for thousands of people, since buying more than $18 million worth. The organizers used their next batch of funds to go after private student loan debt.
"We knew we wanted to focus on issues around for-profit education and looking at education as a commodity. The basic challenge is that we shouldn't need debt to finance basic necessities,"Hanna said.
"We can't solve the entire problem (of student debt) but we can help along the way while trying to fix the systemic problem,"she said.
Strike Debt volunteers worked with industry experts and pro-bono legal counsel to purchase the debt from debt collectors. They then sent letters to nearly 3,000 Corinthian Colleges students notifying them that at least one of their loans had been forgiven and they needn't worry about paying it back.
Corinthian has been investigated by the federal government for its recruitment tactics and job placement rates, and was recently hit with a federal lawsuit from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau accusing the company of predatory loan practices. The CFPB has asked the courts to grant relief for more than $500 million worth of private student loans taken out by Corinthian Colleges students.
Kent Jenkins, a spokesman for Corinthian, criticized the complaint, saying in a statement to VICE that fewer that 40 percent of its students took the private loans with an average interest rate was 9 percent, which it called "well below market rates." He said they forced students to repay them while still in school to "help them develop the discipline and practice"of repaying their loans each month.
Corinthian Colleges is currently in the process of selling off a large number of its campuses.
Strike Debt organizers pointed out that they were only able to buy the debt for private student loans, not the federal government-backed loans that most students at not-for-profit colleges take out to pursue education.
"While medical debt is widely available to debt collectors on secondary markets, most student debt is not, because it is guaranteed by the federal government and cannot be erased in bankruptcy,"the group said in a statement.
In order to help individuals in debt to the federal government, as well as those with medical debt or credit card debt, the group is launching the next phase of its project called The Debt Collective, a website and organization they hope will unite individuals and give them collective bargaining power.
Individuals can sign up on the website and input their debt and the region of the country they're in. The group will hold meetings and calls to discuss tactics it could use to fight lenders, including "strikes" in which people refuse to pay or are late in paying their debts.
"We want it to be a virtual factory floor where we're thinking about how can we build collective power in the face of financial markets that are almighty and powerful," Hanna said. "We're looking at how fragmentary the labor force is and labor rights are at this point, and looking at old models of unions and how much of that can apply."
Photo by Flickr/Michael Fleshman