At 9:34am on Monday, April 4, I pulled up to the east side of the Eisenhower Memorial Park, just north of the Department of Education. In the back of my borrowed hatchback, I carried a load of supplies that would help set the stage for a direct action dreamt up by the Debt Collective, a union of debtors fighting for the abolition of all immoral debt. The day’s focus: the fact that Joe Biden could, with the flick of a pen, erase all $1.7 trillion of federally held student loans.
Last year a friend put me in touch with the Debt Collective and I agreed to help them plan and initiate an action — creative action planning is something I’ve helped with the last few years, alongside my work as a music teacher. We partnered with the Dream Defenders who were in town from Florida, and we had the honor of the presence of grassroots D.C. orgs, Harriet’s Wildest Dreams and the Palm Collective, along with the support of Metro DC’s Democratic Socialists of America and several local YDSA chapters.
The night before the event, Mvmt Catalyst helped us broadcast a “bat signal” where we would rally the next day. Day of, the crowd was grounded in the celebration of Black Joy; Dr. Shamell Bell, the Debt Collective’s Visionary Escalator, led a Radical Joy Intervention featuring the Queen of Krump, The Duchess of Throne, and Dion Cardell of Throne Dance Arts Academy. The centering of Black Joy was essential to us because Black students graduate with more student debt that white students and as fees and interest accrue, Black borrowers and Black women in particular, end up paying significantly more for the same degrees than white borrowers do.
We pulled out every creative tactic we could think of. We hired two brass bands (Crush Funk Brass and Dream City Brass), had interactive art and music supplies (including “kick-the-can” on a string), and brought hand-painted banners and posters.
Some folks made their own posters on site and some dressed up like Squid Game contestants. We even borrowed a Joe Biden puppet, created an oversized Executive Order for him to sign with extra pages for people in the crowd to sign, and hoisted a gigantic pen.
We were not arrested. And my guess is, we didn’t make your favorite flavor of the six o’clock news. But we still got results: President Biden announced two days later that he extended the moratorium on student loan repayment through August 31.
In the DC protest scene, intentional arrests are a common tactic that can almost guarantee a greater level of coverage by national press like CNN, MSNBC, the PBS NewsHour, and even Fox and Sinclair Media’s right-wing propaganda machines. Personally, I was convinced to participate in this tactic in 2016 protesting Citizens United and have since been arrested another handful of times, always on what is called a “post-and-forfeit” charge.
In preparation for this type of direct action, we attend a know-your-rights training where a lawyer introduces us to the extreme terrain of DC’s ~30 arresting bodies. We learn that, as a result of our temporary loss of freedom, we receive “earned media” for our cause; if 100+ of us do it, we might even make some six o’clock news. We learn that, if we surrender and follow their instructions, that the police will process us and let us go with almost the equivalent of a traffic ticket. We also learn about the necessity of having a team of non-arrested allies dedicated to keeping track of us as we are processed through this absurdly complicated arresting territory.
We further prepare by making sure we only have what we need during arrest: a government issued ID and $50 bail. Most of us “forfeit” this money so we can get released from custody and not have to return to court. If someone does not have an ID, they risk indefinite detention and possible deportation. We are discouraged from bringing our phones, as the police can open and search through them unless they are turned off before entering the “arrestable area” of the action (which usually means blocking a doorway, hallway, traffic, and/or sitting on some fancy stairs). The arresting process can be unpredictable, but generally I have found it consistently uncomfortable and tiresome. For people of color, arrests like this can be especially traumatic and dangerous.
These days, I’ve soured on DC’s “arrestable actions,” as have others in my orbit. We realize that paying fees to the police directly harms local Black communities by increasing the police’s access to funds. For example, if 100 people are “arrested,” and a vast majority post-and-forfeit the bail, that is about $5,000 in the pocket of the police just to give journalists an easy headline: “XXX activists arrested blocking YYY on behalf of ZZZ cause.”
I raise this not to call out organizers or organizations who use these tactics, but to prove the lack of imagination that most journalists exhibit when covering justice-demanding protests in the District. The press forces a Catch-22 on activists: In order to give us a modicum of attention for our thoughtful and creative protests demanding voting rights, climate action, health justice, racial justice, an end to war, and so on, we must enter an extractive relationship with vast policing bodies in D.C. We must “earn” our headline by wasting our time, surrendering ourselves to the police state, damaging our personal well-being, and effectively fundraising for the police.
On April 4th, student debt protesters came to town, purposefully not seeking to risk arrest.
We got the necessary permit from the park police for our rally space and followed the map they drew for us, which indicated where we could place our stage, crowd, and hospitality area. Then, 30 minutes before the program, the park police forced us to break down, flip the orientation of, and reassemble our stage and hospitality area. While we got a parks permit, we chose not to get the optional permit to take the D.C. streets, which helped us avoid Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) presence. Then, we celebrated despite the shadows of oppression looming over the crowd and the contradictory orders of the police.
During the action, Braxton Brewington, a Debt Collective representative, asked, “Who here was scammed by a for-profit college? Look around,” and paused while many attendees in the crowd raised their hands. Pointing to the Department of Education, Braxton continued, “This building beside us is facilitating that pain.” (Watch the livestream of the full rally and beginning of the march here and here.)
Our purpose was to capture the imagination of debtors in this country, and even around the world. We brought with us art, joy, humor, dance, music, breath work, sacredness. People told their stories with unpracticed raw power in what we call a Debtor’s Assembly. We marched around the Department of Education several times, armed with vuvuzelas, bucket drums, and chalk. We finished the action with a “debt burn” (don’t worry, it’s just magician’s flash paper).
This anti-oppressive and solidarity-building day was captured by grassroots media makers who understand that we deserve to have our stories and our dreams shared. We were largely ignored by the six o’clock news, other than to announce that Biden extended the moratorium on student debt collection until September 1.
My friends who attended said that this action felt different.
Instead of leaving angrier than when they arrived, they left with cups refilled. Johnny from Dream City Brass told me, “Honestly, I’m scared of you. To be clear, I’m impressed with the bravery of this group of people — taking the street without the police [MPD] guiding traffic takes guts.”
The next day, it was leaked to the press that the Biden administration was going to make an announcement extending the student loan payment pause until August 31. Let’s be clear: our organizing forced him to kick that can another couple months and our movement is gaining momentum. We cannot be ignored.
While many mainstream news outlets reported on the extension and put the president’s face front and center, some stories referenced the action and featured photos of debtors demanding action and making clear that the White House only acted because of grassroots pressure, not because Biden had a change of heart.
The April 4th demonstration was the culmination of years organizing for student loan cancellation that began at Occupy Wall Street. The same week debtors were in D.C., there were sympathy actions across the country: in Tennessee, Illinois, Massachusetts, Colorado and beyond.
The six o’clock news and mainstream media tucked this mass, nation-spanning, highly creative — arguably effective — action out of sight. This is my challenge to journalists: Redefine what “earned media” is and give long-term grassroots organizing and creativity the platform it deserves. Stop making us “earn” headlines through arrests. Allow our movement for debt abolition to capture the attention of the masses with our art and soul — we will not disappoint.
Alice M-A is a part-time music teacher, part-time creative escalation-organizer located in the DMV. She earned a Masters of Public Policy in Environmental and Energy Public Policy in 2015, becoming far too educated for her own good. Now Alice M-A uses her degree to challenge extractive societal structures that poison life and destroy our shared home.
Sending a special thank you to everyone whose organizing experience over the years informed this action & the excellent team who put it together: everyone on staff with the Debt Collective and our local movement co-leaders in DC. Keep changing the world!