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Rolling Jubilee, Occupy's Latest Web-Enabled Institutional Hack

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, November 15 2012

Tonight, people from Occupy Wall Street are going to do what they do best: Set a stage and, from that stage, make a ruckus.

An offshoot of Occupy called Strike Debt is going to kick off a new initiative, called Rolling Jubilee, dedicated to raising money online and then spending it on troubled debt offered by its owners for pennies on the dollar — medical debt, to start. Where other purchasers of bad debt might hire a collection agency in an attempt to collect some or all of what's owed, Strike Debt will forgive the debt. To get things going, Rolling Jubilee will host a live-streamed fundraising event at the tony New York venue Le Poisson Rouge, featuring comedian Janeane Garofalo, Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead and others.

Rolling Jubilee is a prime example of what Occupy has become, and what it will continue to be, in the minds of the occupiers who are still taking actions that get noticed in the media. In September, the day before Occupy Wall Street celebrated its one-year anniversary, I sat down with Zuccotti Park veteran Drew Hornbein. Hornbein, known to many as "Drew from Internet," has been involved behind the scenes in the development of an IT infrastructure for Occupy that includes email lists, website templates, and a social network.

"Occupy is, and I would argue, always has been, a networking engine," Hornbein told me then. "It is networking a nonheirarchical system to allow a decentralized network that allows groups with similar passions to interact and groups that don't realize the overlap."

Put another way, Occupy is a way for radicals to meet each other and learn the skills they need to do whatever they figure out how to do next — like hack the system that turns various types of personal debt into a commodity that is then bought and sold.

"It really all started because people were talking to each other in the park," said Thomas Gokey, one of the organizers behind the Rolling Jubilee. "This idea has been floating around activist circles for several years now."

David Graeber, a key figure in the creation of Occupy, describes "jubilees" in his book "Debt: The First 5,000 Years."

If this was something radicals have wanted to do for a long time, I asked Gokey, why is this happening now and not years earlier?

The answer is, in part, that the problem is relatively new. It wasn't until the early-to-mid 2000s that the current collateralized debt market reached the scale that would eventually lead it to play a role in the near-collapse of the American economy. But it's also because the Occupy network, rather than having died off in the year since Zuccotti Park was emptied, has been maturing during that time. Activists have met each other and learned who to trust. People have become radicalized, lost their fear of arrest, suffered failures, and enjoyed a success or two. Occupy is now no longer an occupation but a network, connected by technologists like Drew Hornbein and agitators like Graeber or Adbusters' Micah White, through which people with ideas for things to do meet each other and start work.

Thanks in part to the way social networks and email allow people scattered across the globe to stay in touch, and thanks to the privilege that the ever more Internet-focused modern media environment gives to the kind of slick online presentation that someone with a lot of skill can produce without using a lot of money, radical nonviolent activism can scale in a way it hasn't been able to scale before.

"It seems to be the kind of thing where it really isn't the kind of thing that an individual can do," Gokey said. "It really was getting this network of people together in the park creating the conditions to actually make it possible."

That network, in this case, spans several clusters of people. Gokey got involved thanks to people he met in "the park," meaning Zuccotti, and lobbied the existing Strike Debt project to take the "jubilee" concept on as a priority. Adbusters' Micah White spoke with Gokey and tapped a visual designer who had worked on a previous project, Occupy the Boardroom, with a third designer. Both of them joined. Another technologist was referred to Astra Taylor, a co-founder of Strike Debt, by a mutual friend. They all work with a fourth person who coordinates web development and who knows the New York City-based Occupy TechOps group thanks to past collaborations.

And that's how "the network" slapped together a professional three-person web development team for something Gokey refers to without irony as nonviolent resistance. It's an intervention, in their minds, into one of the many ways people give their tacit agreement to an oppressive system by interacting with it. That kind of worldview is not widely held, even if the people who do hold it argue that more people would agree with them if they just stopped to think on it a while.

That's another way Rolling Jubilee hints that something is changing thanks to the sudden ability of activism to scale. In the early days of Occupy Wall Street I marveled at an online fundraising machine that kept Zuccotti Park's occupants well fed for the duration of their time there. When I asked the Rolling Jubilee organizers about their use of online fundraising — they've already raised about $210,000 online, largely, Gokey says, in small-dollar donations — and and they responded as if I was asking them why they use email on their mobile phone.

"Online crowdsourcing is an obvious approach to fundraising nowadays," Crux Capellini, one of the members of Rolling Jubilee's tech team, wrote to me yesterday in an email. "What's been fun is that the RJ team is filled with an array of creative folks who have pulled together not only a beautiful website, but also a concert and a telethon. The main event hasn't even happened yet and we already have $170,000 in donations. We've clearly struck a chord or two."

Just because this project is native to the Internet does not mean it exists in some wholly virtual world. Instead, Rolling Jubilee has reached its tentacles in to the legal and commercial framework of the debt market. The money raised goes to The Rolling Jubilee Fund, a nonprofit with a charter to collect money and then spend it on buying and abolishing debt.

Behind the quintessentially Occupy spectacle at tonight's event at Le Poisson Rouge, Gokey told me, is a 501(c)4 nonprofit. They've even incorporated in Delaware. As with many things Occupy, chaos and a particularly activist vocabulary hides what is in reality a very efficient apparatus. Ask an occupier about logistics and they sound less like an activist and more like a member of whatever institution they're trying to disrupt that day. When I spoke with Gokey yesterday, he alternated between a discourse on nonviolent resistance and the musings of someone who works at a corporation that's about to enter the debt market.

"We are doing," Gokey said, "what our lawyers tell us to do."