And the topic we all love to debate/sob over: student debt.

As student debt reaches one trillion dollars this month, less than two years after education debt surpassed all over forms of debt for the first time in U.S. history, I ask, in a two-part series for Guernica magazine, how did we get here, and is there anything to be done?

  • Part I discusses my personal experience with student debt and emphasizes the magnitude of the problem, particularly since Sallie Mae has become a powerful institution that has helped take away bankruptcy protection on student lending.
  • Part II looks at the economic philosophy surrounding student lending, mainly the Reaganite idea that education is an individual, not social good, and asks what solutions we might look toward–and what shifts society would do well to make, ideologically–as the problem reaches new heights.

Thanks for reading. As always, your comments are welcome on the Guernica website!

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Why Nobody Sh*ts In Jail

Keith Gessen’s brilliant, hilarious, insightful post on the New Yorker’s website about getting arrested for protesting on Wall Street:

“But there simply cannot be any rule, or any carceral logic, or any arguments whatsoever, for filthy toilets. And sitting there, with the stench from our filthy toilet filling the room, and with the filth in our filthy sink making me less eager than I ought to have been to drink from it, despite being thirsty, I became angry—really, honestly, for the first time. I thought for the first time, with genuine venom, of the hypocrite mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire, who shut down the Occupy Wall Street encampment for reasons of “health and safety” but has not deemed it worthwhile to make sure that the toilets in facilities that he has control of meet even the most minimal standards of health and safety, such that, while I watched, about forty men, eating a total of a hundred meals, over the course of a day and a half, refused to perform a single bowel movement. This was its own form of civil disobedience, I suppose, and if I’d had my wits about me maybe I could have organized a meeting of all the inmates at Bloomberg’s residence, on East Seventy-ninth Street, so that we could all take a giant shit on his front stoop.”

The Police As A Proxy For Power, from WagingNonviolence

My piece on police and OWS, published on WagingNonviolence.org:

On Monday night, a student protest at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY), began as a peaceful march and demonstration against tuition hikes. But it quickly escalated into a situation where police were pushing students and faculty out of a public forum of CUNY’s Board of Trustees. The incident was terrifying for many of us present, though it fortunately did not result in any serious injuries. The greater damage, perhaps, was emblematic of a pervasive problem in the Occupy movement: the police became a proxy for the “one percent,” and instead of protesters finding ways to directly challenge the powerful elite, they ended up taking their anger out on police officers.

At Baruch, the Trustees were expected to vote on a five percent tuition hike—which they approved almost unanimously. The protesters, who included CUNY students, faculty, and supporters from other universities, learned once they arrived at Baruch that they would not be allowed into the public forum. (Only people who had registered in advance would be permitted, and even then, only 150 spots were allotted. It seemed to me that someone should have looked into this in advance.)

As the protesters pushed their way into the lobby of Baruch, security guards tried to usher them into an overflow room where they could watch it televised, but that wouldn’t suffice. People huddled in the lobby, trying to decide what to do: hold a general assembly to voice grievances about rising tuition, or go into the overflow room. But some people couldn’t give up on the idea of entering the Trustees meeting. They waved their IDs desperately at the security guards, saying, “I’m a student here! Why can’t I go in if the meeting is public?” Soon, a line of police officers formed in front of the protesters. The cops held their batons horizontally in front of their chests.

“Why do you have your billy clubs out?” shouted the students in unison, using the people’s microphone. “This is a school, not a jail. This is a peaceful protest.” Read more

Former Police Captain Ray Lewis Joins Occupy (And Gets Arrested In Uniform)

As if the violent police raid of Occupy Oakland on October 25 wasn’t disturbing enough, California has seen yet another incident of unwarranted police brutality at its UC Davis campus, where a police officer was filmed pepper-spraying a line of completely nonviolent, seated students.

In New York City, the immense success of N17 was somewhat overshadowed by a growing antagonism between the New York Police Department and the protesters – and by a massive police force throughout the day, who arrested hundreds of people that morning, and later, forcefully pushed student marchers out of the streets and attempted to blockade thousands of them. While the police had never exactly been friendly toward the occupiers in Liberty Square, Monday night’s eviction demonstrated just how much power the NYPD can wield. They carried out their raid under the cover of night, letting no journalists near enough to witness. Occupiers who chose to stay in the park were pepper-sprayed and arrested.

One former police captain from Philadelphia, Ray Lewis, was so disgusted by the images of police brutality he was seeing on the news that he traveled to New York City to show his solidarity. He got there right after the eviction occurred; a few days later, on N17, he found himself standing alongside protesters who were trying to shut down the New York Stock Exchange. While wearing his uniform, he refused to budge from the entrance to the NYSE, and was arrested.

On Sunday night, November 20th, a group called the Think Tank gathered in Liberty Park to debate the relationship between police and the Occupy movement. Captain Lewis participated in the discussion, and also shared with me some insight into the lives of police officers that provides clarity on the abuses of power we are seeing now.

Rachel Signer: What made you come here to support Occupy?
Ray Lewis: I have tremendous empathy for anything that suffers, and I saw a lot of suffering going on here with the Occupiers. Their conviction to stay here, in those conditions, inspired me. I couldn’t remain in my cozy environment. Read more

Occupy Debates Next Moves On Day Following Eviction

My dispatch for The Nation on post-eviction craziness at OWS:

At 9am, the occupiers were bleary-eyed but full of fight. After a dramatic night, in which they were abruptly forced out of the park – while watching their possessions shoveled into a truck and their friends arrested or pepper-sprayed – they were beginning to get their energy back. About two hundred protesters gathered at the intersection of Canal and 6th Avenue, and a group lifted themselves onto the top of a wall, where they sat, almost triumphantly, holding a banner that said “OCCUPY WALL ST” and placards saying “I will never pay off my student loans,” “I will never pay off my debt,” and “I will never get a job in this economy.” Read more

Release America From Its Occupation By Student Debt

One of the issues most prominent on the 99 Percent tumblr blog is the burden of student debt. Unlike other forms of debt, student loan debt will never disappear; it is carried by the debt-holder until he dies and even then can be passed on to a spouse or next-of-kin. And student debt is also a massive industry that brings in significant revenue for banks, collecting agencies (often owned by those very same banks), and the U.S. federal government.

A student debt refusal Working Group has been in the works at Occupy Wall Street for a few weeks now. It is headed by Andrew Ross, a professor of labor studies at New York University who has published several books on free trade economics and precarious labor in a neoliberal world. The idea is to institute a nation-wide debt strike, create awareness about the issue, and fight for a tuition-free (or at least, cheaper) public tertiary education system. Most European nations charge minor fees for tertiary education. This year CUNY, New York City’s public university, is getting ready to raise its annual tuition by about $300 every semester for five consecutive years. In 2009, the University of California Board of Regents raised that system’s tuition by thirty-three percent (against much student protest). Read more

Some Preoccupations About Occupy Wall Street

I was one of the dismissive ones at first. I was even, I am a bit sorry now to say, on Ginia Bellafonte’s side when she wrote, in The New York Times, that “the group’s lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgeably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face – finding work, repaying student loans, figuring out ways to finish college when money has run out.”

A former graduate student who is underemployed and struggling to repay student loans myself, I connected personally with Bellafonte’s lament. I even bought into her critique of the protesters for using Macbooks and iPhones to do their organizing. (Later, when many people basically told me that anyone who got behind that critique obviously had his head up his ass, I started to wonder if I should be embarrassed about my earlier position. I’m not entirely, though.) My skepticism was kind of a recoil from previous bristles with this kind of activism. I love anarchism as a way of living and as a utopian vision, but I have participated in horizontal activism before and seen ugly Ego rear its head and tear the whole thing down. When Occupy started, and even as it began to prove its tenacity, I wanted to believe in radical politics but I desperately needed proof.

I still do. Though I’ve now visited Zuccotti Park about fifteen times, sometimes spending hours absorbed in Working Group meetings or participating in and documenting the General Assembly, I am still looking for something that will help me truly believe that this will lead to change. Read more