36 students were arrested, but the criminals were inside
With fists in the air, the students silently marched towards 7th and Pennsylvania Avenue. Many even locking arms as they moved forward together. As we walked through the intersection together, I looked around me at the 300 students marching towards Sallie Mae to demand student loan debt forgiveness only days after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announce it had surpassed one trillion dollars.
The days leading up to this moment were spent at USSA’s 43rd Annual Grassroots Legislative Conference (LegCon) were the same students were attending workshops, Legislative Briefings, Lobby Clinics, and enjoying Awards Dinners. The workshops ranged from “Sallie Mae Sellouts: Taking Back Our Education” to “Radicalism in the Student Movement”, where students learned a history of action by the student movements before ours and how corporations have come to have such a large voice in our democracy. One of the recipients of an award being named after her skipped giving a speech altogether and instead just told the students: “Give ‘em hell.”
As we crossed through the intersection, students stayed disciplined and held our march that had been organized into rows of five and been silent and we reached the front doors of Sallie Mae on 7th Street. We found our friends waiting outside, blocked by security for the building, as they waited for a meeting with anyone from Sallie Mae. The students, lead by USSA President Victor Sanchez, sitting on the ground were assembled peacefully, having locked arms and taken on silence as well.
Those of us that had marched there quickly broke into our assigned roles: 7th Street was blocked off at D street and Pennsylvania as students sat down to block the road; over 100 started to picket outside of two entrances; and students began handing out leaflets to everyone coming out of the Metro stop and walking on the side walks. When all our systems were set up and running smoothly, USSA’s Vice President Tiffany Loftin lead a mic check to introduce speeches from AFT president Randi Weingarten, current students, and recent graduates facing student loan debt.
“The teachers of America have your back,” Weingarten said. “You did everything right. As a country, it is just plain wrong for us to say, ‘go to college,’ and then not make sure it’s affordable. Sallie Mae won’t even have the conversation.
“You are right to do this civil action,” she affirmed.
After an hour and a half of picketing, speeches, and police threatening arrest it finally began. All those sitting at the front door of Sallie Mae asking for a meeting with anyone from their office were arrested one by one until the space they had been in was left completely empty. For an hour and a half, Sallie Mae was happy to call the police on the students (the Department of Homeland Security even made an appearance) but refused to have a single employee come talk to us. By the end of it, 36 of my friends from around the country were arrested but the real criminals were inside the building.
As the last person facing arrest was piled into the back of the police van, we reminded everyone that we weren’t done and that we’d be taking the fight to the Hill, where students had scheduled lobby visits with Representatives and Senators from around the country. As 300 of us marched there together, we still locked arms and chanted together. As beautiful as the symbolic gesture is, student loan debt in this country has bound our entire generation together – the average student graduates $25,000 dollars in debt, 1 out of 5 students is forced to default on their loans within 3 years of graduating, and the national student debt level is now above a trillion dollars.
36 students got arrested for asking to meet with Sallie Mae about this growing bubble as we fight to save our futures and our economy. Will you stand with us?