Occupy Sandy

Occupy Wall Street: The rebels found their cause

November 14, 2012: 9:58 AM ET

A year after Occupy Wall Street was removed from Zuccotti Park, offshoots Strike Debt and Occupy Sandy are making waves in debt and hurricane relief.

Occupy Wall StreetFORTUNE -- Occupy Wall Street -- the movement of the 99% -- had supposedly petered out this summer. At best, it was regarded as a grassroots hodge podge that forced a national conversation about economic inequality. At worst, it was written off as an angry mob with an ill-formed mission that hadn't changed the status quo.

Either way, Occupy had been a force, no matter how nebulous, that invigorated tens of thousands of citizens and inserted itself into the national dialogue. What was needed to save the group, argued John Cassidy in the New Yorker, was "some way to build upon these successes while maintaining the energy and enthusiasm that O.W.S. has unleashed."

In the year since Occupy Wall Street was ousted from Zucotti Park, the group is showing a renewed sense of purpose, with two organized offshoots that are making the establishment take notice. The two groups -- Strike Debt  and Occupy Sandy  -- show how the Occupy movement has indeed built upon the infrastructure it formed in Zucotti Park and how the movement's energy is producing the sorts of radical results that seemed unimaginable just a few months ago.

First, there's Strike Debt, an Occupy offshoot that has a plan to pay off the loans of ordinary people by working loopholes in the fixed income markets and the tax code. (To raise money and awareness, the group is hosting a Rolling Jubilee this Thursday, featuring comedians Lizz Winstead and Janeane Garofalo. The event has received tons of press in the mainstream  and alternative media.)

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The seeds for Strike Debt's loan forgiveness program were planted last year in Zuccotti Park, when it was still a tent city full of protesters and Occupy's de facto headquarters. "Many people in the park were students and grad students," says Alexis Goldstein, an Occupy organizer who helped write a 325-page comment letter on the Volcker Rule as part of the splinter group Occupy the SEC. "They had hundreds of thousands in loan debt and couldn't find jobs."

After talking about the many ways that loans shackle people and endanger their financial stability, members brainstormed about how to use the Occupy philosophy of mutual aid to get rid of debt. Lucky for the organizers who formed Strike Debt, Occupy had attracted people from all walks of life, including lawyers, ex-bankers, and former ratings agency employees.

Strike Debt's first project was a 100-page pamphlet called the Debt Resistors Operations Manual, a practical and easy-to-understand guide that covers consumer credit issues ranging from how to obtain one's credit score to understanding how a payday loan works and what makes it exploitative. Then it decided to do something that actually hacked the byzantine world of debt brokerages.

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After months of work with lawyers and the IRS, Strike Debt came up with a way to buy debts that are trading for pennies on the dollar and forgive them with no tax consequences for the borrowers. In a test run, Strike Debt bought $14,000 worth of loans for just $500 and simply erased that debt. "If you're a debt broker, once you own someone's debt you can do whatever you want with it — traditionally, you hound debtors to their grave trying to collect," writes Occupy friend and host of the Rolling Jubilee David Rees in his blog. "We're playing a different game. A MORE AWESOME GAME."

Much has been made of the fact that Strike Debt can't forgive whole loans, but rather the bits and pieces of loans that have been sliced, diced, and repackaged by the banking industry. For this reason, it's entirely possible that debt will be forgiven in such a scattershot way that it doesn't greatly impact any one individual. But Strike Debt has done something powerful and radical even if they don't step in and pay off a whole credit card tab. The group is cleverly manipulating the rules to broadly bail out Main Street, a trick that many powerful people believe only Wall Street should be allowed to perform.

Whereas Strike Debt was a months-long, painstakingly researched operation, Occupy Sandy rolled out fast and messy in the hours after Hurricane Sandy's storm surge receded. But the ad hoc group of Occupy members who began sending food and blankets out to New Yorkers in destroyed areas quickly gelled to meet the unfolding, massive need. It surveyed the devastation and quickly assessed that people would need food and water, flashlights and batteries, lots of blankets to fight the cold, and basic supplies like household cleaners and diapers. As Occupy members fanned out across New York and New Jersey, they relayed in real time via social media and text message the changing needs of people who had no power, no heat, no water, and little help from well established organizations such as the Red Cross.

MORE: How Con Ed turned New York City's lights back on

"Everything that was needed for the relief effort was so similar to what we'd been doing in the park," says Goldstein. While the Occupy movement camped out in Zucotti, it had a kitchen operation off site that cooked and served hot meals three times a day. It came up with a process to receive, sort, and distribute donations and supplies. It created a communications system that included mapping and data collection. Occupy organizers also could rally a network of supporters to act in a coordinated fashion. These are the very things that have made Occupy Sandy such an effective relief organization.

"The relationships we built through Occupy Wall Street are a huge reason why we've been able to scale so fast," says Samantha Corbin, an Occupy Sandy site coordinator. "And we can quickly gather information about where to send services and supplies because our model is to ask what people need rather than project what we think they'll need."

New York City officials recognize that Occupy Sandy has arguably the best information and distribution network in the relief effort. When politicians wanted to repurpose backpacks full of Gatorade and sports bars from the cancelled ING New York City Marathon to give to Sandy victims, they worked with Occupy Sandy to fill them with more food and to distribute them to places in need. More recently, officials from the Mayor's office have started sitting in on Occupy Sandy planning meetings.

Occupy Wall Street was once criticized for producing a flurry of activity and few tangible results. But clearly that won't be Occupy's ultimate legacy. Last year we were watching the infrastructure being laid for an organization that would soon creatively respond to real-world problems in ways that the big institutions that we let run so much of our lives could and would never devise.

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