Occupying Student Debt, With Books as Shields [VIDEO]
About a hundred protesters from Washington, DC-area colleges and high schools and the Occupy DC movement marched to Sallie Mae headquarters and the Department of Education building on Thursday as part of a National Day of Action for Education.
At least 70 colleges nationwide pledged to send 100 students each to rallies that decried the skyrocketing cost of tuition, the unsustainable burden of student debt, and the abusive policies of privatized student loan companies.
“People go without food to pay their student debt,” said Stef Gray, a member of occupystudentdebt.com*, who is herself $65,000 in debt and grew up on food stamps. “Don’t you dare call me lazy or entitled just because I want survival.”
Protesters armed themselves with books—literally. They held large foam-board shields emblazoned with the covers of works from A Hundred Years of Solitude to The Communist Manifesto to Good Night Moon.
Cale Holmes, a high school student at the DC demonstration, said he wanted Education Secretary Arne Duncan to have a “good reading list,” so he offered to send him regular-sized copies of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
Tim Tuten, a representative from the Department of Education, accepted the books and addressed the protesters via mic check, a repetition tactic common to the Occupy movement. Tuten said Duncan had asked him to listen to the protesters and receive any documents they had. He also took a copy of the protesters’ “Students’ Declaration of Grievances and Demands.”
When egged on by a protester to give a specific date that Duncan would respond, Tuten surprised the crowd by promising that Duncan would read and respond to the declaration within a week, or by March 9.
Protesters mic-checked readings from the document, which included demands to improve budget transparency in both public and private educational institutions, de-privatize the student loan industry, reassess how much families must contribute to education, and provide a path toward citizenship for undocumented students.
Speakers also shared their personal testimonies.
A George Washington University student named Isaiah said he has $66,000 in loan debt to Sallie Mae.
“And I’m not even done,” he said. “Sallie Mae is a bad actor. They don’t pay their fair share, but they expect us to pay more than our fair share. It’s predatory.”
Tiffany Loftin, a University of California–Santa Cruz grad, said she’s struggling to pay back her $35,000 worth of debt.
“I have been unable to pay it back with one mom, no dad, and two younger siblings who were not able to go to college because they can’t afford it,” she said.
A young veteran said he enlisted in the Army as a 17-year-old so he could pay for college, but he still can’t afford it even after a tour of duty in Iraq. “How many of our soldiers have passed away to pay for college?” he asked.
An American University faculty member also spoke during the rally.
“When I was growing up and went to college, education was considered a public good,” she said. “My parents went to an outstanding university for free. I paid, at an equally good university, $250 a semester. When I finished my PhD, I owed $7,000, and paid with interest $13,000. I am heartsick to hear students coming out of school with over $100,000 in debt, of which perhaps $50,000 will go in interest to financial institutions like Sallie Mae.”
Holmes, the high-school student, summed up the mood of the crowd: “My education is not something to be bought and sold.”
*Correction: A previous version of this article identified Stef Gray as the founder of occupystudentdebt.com, which she is not.
Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett. Kellan Schmidt is a journalism intern with Campus Progress.
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