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People attend a rally to urge the Biden administration to cancel all federal student loan debt in Washington, D.C. on April 4, 2022.

People attend a rally to urge the Biden administration to cancel all federal student loan debt in Washington, D.C. on April 4, 2022. (Photo: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

'Pick Up the Pen, Joe': DC Protest Calls on Biden to Cancel Student Debt

"If Biden restarts payments on May Day we know that nearly eight million people will be pushed into default," said one Debt Collective organizer. "We don't need to pause this crisis, we need to end it."

Kenny Stancil

Hundreds of people converged in Washington, D.C. on Monday for a national day of action to demand that the Biden administration cancel all outstanding federal student loan debt via executive order.

"All he needs to do is sign an executive order. What is Biden waiting for?"

"All it takes is a signature," said the Debt Collective, a debtors' union that organized the "Pick Up the Pen, Joe" demonstration, which was supported by a coalition that includes dozens of progressive advocacy groups and labor unions. Following speeches and performances in front of the Eisenhower Memorial, the crowd marched outside the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).

Monday's rally and march in the nation's capital had a simple message for President Joe Biden: Use your executive authority to wipe out the roughly $1.6 trillion in federal student debt that is holding back more than 45 million federal borrowers in the United States.

The day of action comes less than a month before the pause on federal student loans is set to expire on May 1. The White House is reportedly mulling another extension of the current repayment freeze, but the Debt Collective remains focused on demanding full cancellation—characterizing Biden's modest yet unfulfilled campaign promise to eliminate up to $10,000 for certain borrowers and Democratic lawmakers' calls for wiping out at least $50,000 per borrower as insufficient.

"Biden has the power to cancel all federal student debt with the stroke of a pen," Debt Collective said in a video promoting Monday's protest. "Not $10,000, not $50,000—all of it. All he needs to do is sign an executive order. What is Biden waiting for?"

Last week, more than 1,000 professors nationwide endorsed the coalition's demand for Biden to cancel all outstanding federal student debt, and on Monday, Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education tweeted that doing so would be "for the good of all higher ed."

The moratorium on federal student loan payments was first enacted at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and has been extended multiple times, including most recently in December following weeks of sustained pressure from economic justice advocates and progressive lawmakers.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently estimated that the two-year pause on student loans held directly by the federal government has saved nearly 37 million borrowers almost $200 billion collectively through April and warned that if Biden refuses to prolong relief—or use his executive authority to eliminate student debt—many are likely to struggle with monthly bills.

Progressives have stressed for months that extending the repayment freeze only postpones economic hardship for millions of borrowers—many of whom are struggling to make ends meet amid widespread price gouging and disappearing federal relief programs.

A Data for Progress survey released last month by the Student Borrower Protection Center found that just one in five likely voters with student debt are "very confident" in their ability to make payments if the moratorium is lifted in less than 30 days.

"If Biden restarts payments on May Day we know that nearly eight million people will be pushed into default," Thomas Gokey, an organizer with the Debt Collective, told The Hill on Sunday. "We don't need to pause this crisis, we need to end it."

That message was shared by progressive champion Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and national co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) 2020 presidential campaign who spoke at Monday's rally and stressed that if it can afford to bail out Wall Street, the federal government can support working-class people struggling to pay back student loans.

Biden, who has suggested erroneously that he lacks the executive authority to broadly cancel student debt without legislation, asked the DOE last year to prepare a memo on the subject.

In October, it was revealed that the Biden administration received the memo last April 5—almost one year ago to the day—thanks to documents and internal emails obtained by the Debt Collective through a Freedom of Information Act request. Despite repeated demands from dozens of Democratic lawmakers, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has not yet made the concealed memo public.

Legal experts say the Higher Education Act of 1965 clearly empowers Cardona to eliminate student debt for all 45 million federal borrowers nationwide. Section 432(a) of the law states that the education secretary has the authority to modify loan terms and "enforce, pay, compromise, waive, or release any right, title, claim, lien, or demand, however acquired, including any equity or any right of redemption"—a provision the DOE has invoked to unilaterally eliminate more than $17 billion in student debt for hundreds of thousands of borrowers in the past year.

"This doesn't require years of congressional legislation. This doesn't require some lengthy, bureaucratic process."

The Debt Collective, as Common Dreams reported last year, has drafted an executive order for the president directing Cardona to "cancel all obligations to repay federal student loans," which would save borrowers hundreds of dollars per month and boost the nation's gross domestic product by more than $173 billion in the first year alone.

Recent polling shows that a majority of adults in the U.S., including those without education loans to repay, support student debt cancellation.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who has urged Biden to eliminate "all student debt" in the past, told The Hill that she thinks "inaction is going to be really dangerous for us in the midterms."

"Enthusiasm is really low," Omar said of Democratic voters. "It's important to listen to the people who have sent us to represent them... and I know that student debt cancellation is a priority."

Speaking with Teen Vogue before the day of action, Debt Collective organizer and press secretary Braxton Brewington said that "when a few dozen of us gather together and we start to say [the amount of] our debt, you quickly realize you only need a few people to get to a million dollars. You only need a few people to get to a billion dollars."

"The idea of economic disobedience starts to really come alive when people say, 'What if we withhold our payments?' They start thinking about their debt as financial leverage," said Brewington.

Teen Vogue reported that "toward the end of the day, the collective will facilitate a debt burn and invite participants to write down something that represents their debt on a piece of paper—whether that's their actual personal dollar amount, the average debt burden of a given community, or the national total of $1.6 trillion—and then light it on fire, together."

"A piece of paper with a number on it literally holds so much power over you to the degree [that] people are willing to sell their homes, they're willing to not have kids, to not get married. Some [are] even willing to hurt themselves or take their own lives," said Brewington. "The idea of burning something that has so much power over people—erasing that in an instant—I just think is super powerful. It makes a statement and it also really starts to shift how you mentally think about debt."

"A lot of right-wing economists will hem and haw over how debt abolition works, but that only is when it comes to the 99%," Brewington added. "We know the 1% [and] corporations, they walk away from their debts all the time. Loans are forgiven in a moment. The debt burn symbolizes this is actually how quickly it can go away. This doesn't require years of congressional legislation. This doesn't require some lengthy, bureaucratic process. It can actually disappear."

If Biden refuses to cancel student debt, the Debt Collective has called for a nationally coordinated refusal to make payments.

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