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National “Rolling Jubilee” campaign strives to liberate people from debt

By Anna-Claire Bevan

A group of former Occupy Wall Street activists has abolished nearly $15 million of medical debt as part of a debt cancellation initiative to liberate debtors at random.

Since November 2012, Rolling Jubilee, which is part of the Strike Debt group, has raised $700,000 by crowdsourcing money to buy consumer debt at a discount for “pennies on the dollar”.

“We wanted to expose the illegitimacy of debts we are forced to take on to meet our basic needs,” says Thomas Gokey, a Strike Debt organizer. “We have no moral obligation to pay a debt to an investor we never borrowed from who purchased our debt on average at 4 percent and then claims we owe them 100 percent.”

The original goal was to raise $50,000 and abolish $1 million, but the campaign exceeded expectations. By buying secondary debt in installments, the team has so far spent $400,000 wiping out $14.7 million, and still has another $300,000 to use.

According to Rolling Jubilee, 77.5 percent of all American households are in debt and 62 percent of all bankruptcies are caused by medical illness.

In the past 15 months, more than 3,800 people have benefitted in 46 states and Puerto Rico, each receiving a letter informing them that their debt has been paid off.

Rolling Jubilee concedes that $14.7 million is a tiny fraction of the secondary debt market and does not advocate this project as a solution to the global problem of debt.

“We have received thousands of emails from people who are devastated by the debt required to pay for basic needs: in particular, housing, medical care, and education. Everyone knows someone who is in serious debt – the problem is real, the problem is widespread, and there are no workable alternatives on the horizon.”

Rolling Jubilee now plans to eradicate other types of debt such as student loans and recently published a Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual, which contains practical information and ideas to help individuals dealing with debt.

Critics believe the strategy to be naïve and accuse Rolling Jubilee of diverting attention away from broader scale remedies. However, the former Occupy Wall Street activists say they just want to create a dialogue about real solutions to debt, which they hope can transform the economic system so that it works for everyone.

Anna-Claire Bevan is a British journalist based in Guatemala City. She writes about political, environmental and social issues for magazines, newspapers and websites in the US, the UK, Guatemala and Spain. Anna originally set up her first blog Vida Latina as a result of her travels in Latin America and frustrations at the lack of media coverage that this area of the world receives.

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