‘Night of Living Debt’ rally sends a chilling message
BY GERARD FLYNN | Debt zombies rose from their slumbers across New York City Friday for a “Night of the Living Debt” in Washington Square Park. With faces coated with white makeup and daubed with fake blood, they raised a frightening cry about the crippling costs of higher education and the burden many graduates face from student-loan debt, which recently topped the trillion-dollar mark nationally.
Organizers borrowed the zombie theme from a book by anthropologist, David Graeber, who “likens the process [of acquiring a student loan] to a horror movie, in which the zombies or vampires attack the humans as a kind of recruitment policy.”
The march was also the fourth in a weekly Occupy Wall Street “Casserole,” held in solidarity with striking Quebec students, who are protesting tuition hikes and Bill 78, an inflammatory law limiting protest.
Performance preacher and activist Reverend Billy Talen, used the occasion to exorcise the debt demons of several students.
“Debt is everywhere,” he told the crowd of more than 200.
“We are consuming and we are being consumed,” he said, adding that debt globally has soared beyond $180 trillion.
He called on every city in the United States to deliver free or affordable education, like the City University of New York system.
“Whole generations of leadership came from CUNY because the opportunity was there to have. That should be part of the actualization of the American Dream,” Reverend Billy said.
Flanked by a large detail of police on foot and scooters, the protesters, banging pots and pans, then marched along surrounding streets, many wearing labels showing their student debt burden.
Blithe, an arts graduate from Carnegie Mellon University, said her student debt, which amounts to more than $30,000, is having a draining impact on her life force.
Going out to eat or spending on clothes must be weighed against the burden of paying off her student debt, she said.
“It’s a burden on my life,” she said. “It really limits what I do and where I go.”
Tourists from North Carolina who sat at a restaurant along the cash-strapped zombies’ route expressed sympathetic words for the protestors and the Occupy movement, while offering scathing ones for lending and higher-education institutions.
Camielle Greenup said her son, who graduated six months ago with a bachelor’s degree in science and is unemployed, faces the daunting prospect of paying off $40,000 in student loans, and mounting pressure to do so from his creditors. She called the price of higher learning “too much.”
“Their prices are gouging these students,” she said. “They talk you into these loans until you are so far in debt you could have a mortgage.”
The protest came as President Obama called on Congress this week to act before a July 1 deadline that will see the fixed rate on federal student loans more than double from its current 3.4 percent, affecting more than 8 million students.
Although the march was mostly peaceful, police made one arrest as the protesters returned to Washington Square Park, where Sarge, a member of O.W.S., was taken into custody.
Her arrest provoked tense scenes between officers and some demonstrators, as well as claims that police are pursuing a policy of singling out prominent members of the Occupy movement for arrest at similar protests.
As the march ground to a close around 9:30 p.m., one onlooker, Joel Klein, standing with his wife under the Washington Square Arch, fondly recalled the days when he paid $1 dollar a year to attend Queens College.
He also pondered the case of students in the crowd who complained about their student debt, yet attended elite institutions like nearby New York University, when there were less expensive and “excellent” public options in the CUNY system.
He said that if education can’t be free, it should be “affordable.” When asked what affordable education might mean in an age of skyrocketing higher-education costs, he said, “Affordable in which we can live and pay our educational bill and still have the right to have a quality of life as a human being.”