Aaron Cohen, OC-Based Human Trafficking Fighter, Now Has Eyes Set on Helping to End Personal Debt

Article by Cindy Cafferty

Weekly readers first met Aaron Cohen in a 2007 article detailing his escapades to rescue victims of labor and sexual slavery. Subsequent web and print articles kept readers updated, and offered greater detail than can be afforded here, on the (then) Costa Mesa resident: his work with California anti-trafficking actions, local humanitarian awards received and the release of his book, co-authored by Christine Buckley.

Cohen now resides in Laguna Niguel. Part time. As a soldier in the war against human trafficking, his travels make him somewhat a global transient, with a local domicile to hang his trademark black hat during his brief times of reprieve. Cohen's sole focus since 2002 has been the antislavery movement. Until now.

Now, Cohen is focusing his energies on Strike Debt, a debt resistance campaign and offshoot of Occupy Wall Street.

Strike Debt's position is that basic necessities like housing, education and healthcare shouldn't force people into debt. Create leverage through resistance; alleviate debtor's burden. They nailed down resistance with their rebel-inspired project, the Debtor's Resistance Manual, a resource guide for navigating the credit industry, including advice on how to escape debt and how to partake in opposition.

"The idea of buying debt had been floating around for a couple of years," said Laura Hanna, filmmaker and Strike Debt organizer, "I went and had a drink with a friend, and we were talking about it. We were talking about individual friends who we were trying to help, who had been hurt in 2009."

Cocktail hour conversation evolved into further discussion, debt research and an idea that Hanna and her Strike Debt cohorts melded with action, creating a new concoction: a macro-movement that assists on a micro-level.

They proffered their potion to a tax attorney for review and emerged with the Rolling Jubilee, the fundraising effort that fuels Strike Debt's relief efforts, erstwhile initiating a social experiment.

"It was like any other idea that gets floated around and doesn't turn into anything," explained Hanna, "except that it did. And we decided to do it."

Strike Debt decided to do something collection agencies have been doing for years: venture into the murky market of debt brokers usually inhabited by third-party debt buyers looking to cash in. They buy debts, currently medical debt, sold by lenders at a steep discount--a de facto collection agency with a twist: instead of collecting on the purchased debts, they abolish them.

"They approached it very systematically, approached professionals in the industry and began the process of buying specific debts for pennies on the dollar," said Cohen. "They experimented initially; it worked, and they're still going."

Cohen, a noted authority on all things jubilee, the ancient tradition of canceling debts and freeing slaves--he became interested in the subject as a graduate student at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa-- played pivotal roles in the Drop the Debt and Jubilee 2000 campaigns.

What makes the Rolling Jubilee unique, according to Cohen, is that it's specifically designed to accommodate changes in the jubilee and the debt market, and initiate a new debt dialogue in the process.

As the Rolling Jubilee got, well, rolling on the East Coast, Cohen caught wind of it here on the West Coast. He jumped in and joined the new jubilee campaign.

Rolling Jubilee has collected nearly half a million dollars, in large part due to their November 2012 launch benefit in New York and equally stellar fundraiser this January in San Francisco. Two separate star-studded, streaming events on two separate sides of the country, nearly half a million bucks collected and $10 million worth of troubled medical debts abolished, in under six months: Not bad for a newbie.

With chapters springing up nationwide, the movement is gaining momentum with the public and traction in the press, too. They've garnered the attention of mainstream and alternative media alike, with stories from the New York Times, Village Voice Media and Fortune, the latter concluding, "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."

That's exactly the point.

"What makes the Rolling Jubilee so successful, is that it has opened up the political imagination," said Hanna, "it has opened up a space where people began thinking about the fact that their debt is on sale for 5¢ on the dollar. Just not to them. Fuck that."

Hanna hopes the movement will propel people to look at debt differently: as a collective problem rather than an individual burden and as a hurdle that can be overcome with collective resistance. She doesn't just want to abolish debt, she wants to give consumers leverage for fighting debt altogether. Cohen and Hanna both hope that Strike Debt, working in tandem with the Rolling Jubilee, will provide arsenal for what has become an all-out debt war.

With an estimated $11 trillion of consumer debt floating around, the activists understand that their war will be hard-fought. They know that the Rolling Jubilee can't, realistically, save everyone. And with belated, nearly nonexistent, government debt assistance and a financial market that may be onto them soon, they know that the Rolling Jubilee will have to do just what its name entails: roll with the punches and stay standing.

"What's happening on the government level is too little, too late," said Cohen. "The beauty of the Rolling Jubilee is that it's right here, right now. And right on time."

Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >