The United States of Debt



Upon entering the Eastside Arts Alliance in East Oakland, it’s clear that this a special kind of conference. On the welcome table is a stack of name tag stickers, the kind that usually read “Hello, My Name Is…” But these stickers read: “Hello, My DEBT Is…”

These badges are stuck onto the shirts of many of the seventy-some people here, filled in with dollar amounts or words like “terrifying.” They’re participating in something called a Debtors' Assembly. It’s organized by Strike Debt Bay Area, the local chapter of a larger movement that came out of Occupy Wall Street.

Economic anthropologist Hannah Appel is one of the main organizers. She says there were a lot of seemingly disparate issues coming together under the Occupy banner that started to coalesce. “There were groups organizing around student debt. There were, you know, the health care for the 99%,” she says. “Even though they seem separate, the effect of all of these is the same: the effect is debt.”

One reason it's been hard to unite around this issue is that people often feel ashamed and isolated when it comes to their debt — even though it’s something that most people have in common. To make this point, the Oakland’s Debtors' Assembly starts with an exercise where people close their eyes, and then stand up if they have certain kinds of debt. By the time the exercise is over and people open their eyes, they can see that almost every single person in the room is on their feet. “All of us feel this pain of this debt,” the exercise facilitator says. “We are not alone by ourselves, and we are not ‘a loan’ to these banks.”

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