Damn the Debt: Lessons and Tactics from Debt Resistance Movements

Devon Douglas-Bowers

An active debt resistance movement is seizing hold across the United States. Currently, the debt strikers number over 100 students who are refusing to pay back the student loans they borrowed to go to the now-defunct for-profit Corinthian Colleges. The move has attracted media attention and could potentially provide a platform for a larger student debt movement to expand from here. However, students of history take note: this isn’t the first time there have been debt resistance movements in the United States. And the lessons we learn from prior movements can just as easily be applied to today’s situation.
Shays’ Rebellion

While Shays’ Rebellion is something that many people don’t have much knowledge of besides it being a rebellion of farmers against the government, the issue of debt was very much centered around it.

The rebellion came about due to post-Revolutionary War economics. After the Revolutionary War ended, merchants sought to expand their profits via trading with other areas, namely the Baltic states, the Mediterranean, and France. The Baltic was unable as while New England “generally sent surplus grains, fish, and lumber abroad,”[1] these commodities were already produced in the Baltic in large numbers and the commodity that New England could offer, beef, usually spoiled along its journey. The Mediterranean was blocked off due to Barbary pirates attacking merchant ships and France was a no-go as they weren’t able to get enough credit to be able to transport their goods.

The situation was made worse when American merchants attempted to trade with the British controlled West Indies and the British “excluded New England importers from the lucrative British West Indies market and left the Americans with few means to repay English merchants for the commodities they had purchased.”[2] The West Indies situation is extremely important as immediately following the Revolutionary War, “British tradesmen continued the prewar practice of offering large cargoes to American merchants on credit.” US merchants took out large loans from the British with the assumption that that they would be able to take advantage of the West Indies market and make enough money to pay off their debts that way. When this proved impossible, the economic situation became critical as the merchants were at major risk of defaulting on their loans which could have severe economic repercussions not just with regards to trade with the British, but also domestically.

In order to continue with their business, the merchants pressed shopkeepers to which they had loaned to for funds and in turn the shopkeepers pressed the farmers to pay back their loans. Most farmers were used to paying back their debts with crops rather than cash and thus didn’t have much cash on hand. This quickly landed many farmers in court where their land was at stake or in debtors’ prisons. While the shopkeepers were desperate, such actions only heightened in tensions between the urban middle-class merchants and the poor farmers.

In response to this, New England farmers began to organize and resist their debt burdens. The first order of business was to push for reform, via town meetings and county conventions, in favor of state-issued paper money and tender laws, rather than the bullion coins used in that day. This was rejected wholesale by the business class and since many New England legislators were located in coastal cities and needed the support of businesses, they too, rejected the call for reform in 1785 and 1786.

While the meetings were going on, the farmers also wrote petitions to their respective state governments. For example, in Massachusetts, between 1784 and 1787, yeomen in seventy- three rural Massachusetts towns sent petitions to the General Court of Boston and in New Hampshire, from January 1784 to late September 1786, “yeomen in forty-one towns forwarded complaints to the state assembly.”[3]

The tactics of the farmers began to take a turn in late 1786 as the protests were doing virtually nothing to get the reforms the farmers needed. During that time protesters armed themselves “and proposed ‘moderating government’ by planned attacks upon the court system.” However, this rebellion didn’t last long as in Massachusetts, the governor called Congress to raise up forces and even though they were only able to raise one thousand troops, the rebellion was quickly put down.

Almost 150 years later, another debt resistance movement would take place, also centering on farmers and the oppression they dealt with. However, the tactics would change with the times as unions made by and for the oppressed advocated for them.
The Resistance to Sharecropping

Sharecropping is something that, along with convict leasing, is rarely mentioned in many history classes. The general myth is that after the Civil War ended, slavery ended with the passing of the thirteenth amendment. The reality is quite different as the oppression of African-Americans didn’t end, but rather took the form of convict leasing[4] and also sharecropping. Sharecropping was essentially debt slavery [5] and, as M. Langley Biegert notes in the Journal of Social History, many blacks thought that sharecropping was “often little better than the old system of slavery” and some even went so far as to “[argue] that it was even more dehumanizing than slavery.”[6] In order to combat this system, sharecroppers- both black and white alike- began to organize against their oppression.

In July 1934 in Tyronza, Arkansas, eighteen sharecroppers and tenant farmers “met in a local schoolhouse to discuss the idea of forming a union for non-landowning farm workers,”[7] as people were being evicted from farms due to the New Deal incentives to cut back on farm production. In response to this, the workers decided to stand up for themselves on a collective basis, across racial boundaries, and formed the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.

It should be noted that something such as this was not an easy decision to make as the risk of retaliation was quite real as can be seen in the case of former slave Bryant Singfield. Singfield “tried to organize farm workers in Phillips County who were trying to negotiate new labor contracts.” [8] He had been kicked off of the plantation he was had worked on as a slave due to his outspokenness, after which he began to organize the former slaves who had decided to stay on the plantation as contract workers. He was quite successful and some people felt emboldened enough to even go beyond the demand for collective bargaining. This greatly angered the planter class and so they targeted Singfield, who, along with other protesters, were rounded up by white planters and never heard from again. However, the members of the Union made their decision and quickly began agitating for workers. One of their notable early actions was the Missouri Sharecropper Demonstration in 1939, where the Union advocated on behalf of sharecroppers.

Many sharecroppers and tenant farmers who worked in Missouri worked in the Bootheel region which was prime real estate for cotton farming. However, in 1939, “the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would deliberately breach the levee that protected the richest cotton land in the Missouri Bootheel in order to relieve pressure on the levees guarding the city of Cairo, Illinois.”[9] This aided in the acceleration of getting rid of sharecroppers and tenants and switching instead to day laborers and increased mechanization. While the New Deal did set up the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which was to give checks to sharecroppers and tenant farmers, the checks were given to the planters who would keep money and evict the workers. This was made all the easier by the fact that the final arbitrator of any disputes between planters and workers was settled by the county committees which consistently sided with the planters.

In response to this, members of the Union engaged in wildcat cotton-picking strikes in the autumn of 1938. This in and of itself didn’t do much, however, it was a serious form of debt resistance as if the sharecroppers didn’t work, they were unable to pay on the debts that they owed. By refusing to work, the sharecroppers were effectively engaging in an act of debt resistance.

The Union became more involved upon receiving calls of aid from members. To this end, the Union ultimately helped to organize a roadside demonstration where they demanded a living situation akin to those living on land from the Farm Security Administration which “was compelling because it preserved the social worlds of small farmers on independent homesteads, an aim that continued to resonate with landless people despite the dramatic economic changes that made such an outcome less and less possible.”[10] Overall, many of the protesters just wanted their own farms. This would allow for them to work independently rather than having to endure the suffering of sharecropping.
Lessons Learned

So, why does any of that matter? What are the lessons that we can take from these movements and apply to today?

With regards to Shays’ rebellion, we can apply two things: (1) have a clear, coherent message and stick to it and (2) escalate the situation over time. With regards to a clear message, the best thing that student debt activists can do it to all get on the exact same page so that there is one message that is repeated again and again. This will only help as it serves as a guiding light, a goal that is to be achieved.

In escalating the situation, there is obviously not be a call for violence as that is completely unneeded for this movement and so when it comes to turning up the heat, it just means that the activists should, over time, up the ante, doing things such as blocking roads and disrupting traffic as can be seen in the Black Lives Matter movement. It should also be noted that the farmers engaged in a diversity of tactics, doing some simultaneously, and that that should also be on the table. One should not stop protesting or slow down protesting when negotiations begin, but rather work to increase the volume of the collective voice.

The sharecropping protest should keep us reminded that while having leaders can be a good thing, they can also be targeted by the establishment whether in terms of disappearance as is what happened to Singfield, or co-optation. This can also been seen as an argument for horizontal organizing, especially when one takes into account the wildcat strike that took place. A second lesson we can learn is that activists should have each others backs and that when one group is crying out for help, we respond quickly and swiftly. Finally, individual activists should also be able to keep their autonomy and engage in actions that they see fit and can work within the context of their situation.

These lessons may be able to help the student debt movement as it would allow for people and groups to have their own autonomy to develop new protest tactics all while staying on message and to, no matter what, speak with one voice. Horizontal organizing, as seems is quickly becoming the norm for modern protests, also aids in the movement as there are no leaders to attempt to corrupt and it makes sowing dissent and discord all the more difficult. If we are to win this fight, we will have to use every tool available to us, so let’s get started!

This was originally published on Occupy.com.

Notes

[1] David Szatmary, Shays’ Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984) pg 20

[2] Szatmary, pg 19

[3] Szatmary, pg 38

[4] Devon Douglas-Bowers, Slavery By A Different Name: The Convict Lease System, The Hampton Institute, http://www.hamptoninstitution.org/convictleasesystem.html#.VTGqoZPsYZx (October 30, 2013)

[5] Devon Douglas-Bowers, Debt Slavery: The Forgotten History of Sharecropping, The Hampton Institute, http://www.hamptoninstitution.org/sharecropping.html#.VTGqqJPsYZx (November 7, 2013)

[6] M. Langley Biegert, “Legacy of Resistance: Uncovering the History of Collective Action by Black Agricultural Workers in Central East Arkansas from the 1860s to the 1930s,” Journal of Social History32:1 (1998), pgs 76-77

[7] Biegert, pg 73

[8] Biegert, pg 79

[9] Jarod Roll, “Out Yonder on the Road”: Working Class Self-Representation and the 1939 Roadside Demonstration in Southeast Missouri, Southern Spaces, http://www.southernspaces.org/2010/out-yonder-road-working-class-self-representation-and-1939-roadside-demonstration-southeast-mis#section3 (March 16, 2010)

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