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Best Telethon Ever: Strike Debt’s Scrappy, Brilliant People’s Bailout

“Hello, my debt is $40k.” As we entered the People’s Bailout last night at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge, a volunteer invited us to make a name tag — but instead of writing down our names, we were supposed to fill in the amount of debt we’re struggling under. Although my student loan debt isn’t something I’m used to speaking openly about, and the naïveté with which I mortgaged my future to get a master’s degree in a field where master’s degrees aren’t so much a requirement as a stigma still embarrasses me, I grabbed the Sharpie and wrote, “$40k.” For the first time since I started making my just-barely-feasible loan payments, being honest about my debt brought me relief instead of guilt.

I didn’t expect the People’s Bailout to be such a personal experience for me. Organized by Strike Debt, an Occupy Wall Street offshoot dedicated to fight predatory lending and challenge big banks’ power over the vast majority of Americans through credit card, medical, educational, and mortgage debt, the event was a benefit for the organizations Rolling Jubilee project — an ingenious plan to buy up distressed debt and forgive it. Since debt can be bought for just pennies on the dollar on the secondary market, Strike Debt realized that if they raised $250,000, they could relieve a whopping $5 million of it. To aid in the effort, they planned the People’s Bailout as a live — and live-streamed — telethon, featuring performances by a boatload of entertainers sympathetic to the cause. Although I always supported the cause, I’ll admit that it was those big names (Jeff Mangum’s in particular) that convinced me to make my donation and come down to LPR.

But what I experienced after I filled out my name tag and stuck it among the others on a wall of personal debt made the night about much more than rare performances. There was something of Zuccotti Park in the air, with handwritten financial horror stories blown up to poster size and stuck on the wall of LPR’s bar area, as Occupy-related organizations tabled and handed out flyers. Outside the venue, anarchist performance-art icon and perennial presidential candidate Vermin Supreme greeted attendees by asking, Mr. Rogers-style, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Strangers working for one cause or another introduced themselves. Performers who jokingly alluded to violent revolution against the 1% or pointed out that corporations control not just Republicans but both major political parties got the loudest applause (well, except for Mangum). Even the air was permeated by that faint mix of body odor and residual (or maybe not so residual) marijuana that anyone who spent much time in Liberty Square will forever associate with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Along with the hyped performances, the telethon’s hosts — Get Your War On cartoonist David Rees and The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead — introduced a staggering array of people and groups working for economic justice in the wake of OWS. There were organizations founded to fight for single-payer healthcare, representatives of the heroic post-hurricane Occupy Sandy effort, and even a cadre of radical nuns whose support of Strike Debt grew out of their religious commitment to helping the poor. Speakers educated us about the big-bank system and told the story of families devastated by debt and foreclosure. They reminded us that it’s crazy to feel guilty or embarrassed about what we owe when the larger economic system has dictated a reality where over 75 percent of US households are in some kind of debt. With unbilled acts ranging from the best mariachi band I’ve ever seen to an adorably nervous little girl in a matador costume, the event felt like a real, weird, scrappy, public-access telethon in the best possible way.

That’s not to say that those headliners weren’t a highlight. Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio’s stripped-down performance was a treat made even more special (and People’s Bailout-appropriate) for its slight imperfections. I never expected to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Rabbit Hole director John Cameron Mitchell front one of my all-time favorite Elephant 6 acts, The Music Tapes, but the combination worked beautifully. Janeane Garofalo got in a great, charmingly scattered mini-set that included an in-depth analysis of the Whole Foods checkout line, while stand-up comedian and Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell writer/correspondent Hari Kondabolu got big laughs with a bit about harvesting the organs of “free-range rich people.” And after a somewhat physically punishing four hours packed into a sold-out space, Mangum did indeed take the stage to play a few songs with Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto. He sported a brand-new beard, which is sure to send some corner of the indie-rock blogosphere into convulsions, and thanked the organizers for the months of hard work that went into the Rolling Jubilee and People’s Bailout. The duo ended their set with a jarring performance of “Oh Sister,” an aggressive and uncharacteristically profane Neutral Milk Hotel rarity that Mangum said he hadn’t performed for about 15 years.

If there was anyone left in the audience who was still just there to see Jeff Mangum, then they got their donation’s worth, too. But for my money, Strike Debt did a whole lot more than trot out a few well-known artists to raise funds for some abstract cause that no one would remember the next morning. What they did was bring together a couple hundred people from around New York — and, I assume, several thousand from around the world — in the realization that the debt that unites so many of us is more than just a faintly embarrassing personal problem. A few hours into the night, Winstead and Rees announced that the telethon had surpassed its $250k goal. As of this morning, the Rolling Jubilee has passed the $280k mark; if you missed out last night, you can still contribute at the project’s website.

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