Occupy Maine protesters in Portland set sights on student debt

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PORTLAND — A small group gathered on Monument Square Wednesday evening under the Occupy banner to protest what they said was a student loan system out of control.

About 20 activists wearing screen-printed patches reading “Hello, my debt is … ” began their protest with a call-and-repeat chant outlining the event’s purpose.

“Tuition as collateral. How are you going to collect on that?” protesters shouted before declaring that the protest would end with “debtimonials.”

U.S. student debt, which reached $1 trillion this year, is the next bubble, Rachel Rumson said while her young son blew soap bubbles nearby. “And it’s going to burst.”

Rumson’s personal debt, according to the patch on her chest, is $130,000, the product of a University of Southern Maine education and the interest that has accrued since she graduated.

An adjunct professor of sociology and psychology at Kaplan University until a week ago, Rumson said she could not afford to pay her loans on her teaching salary. She has had her loans deferred or in forbearance for all but a year since she graduated, she said. She does not expect to ever pay them off.

Compound interest on loans results in so much debt that it forces some people into poverty, Rumson said. A teenager about to enter college “has no idea what $80,000 is,” she said.

“Of course we weren’t coerced into signing on the dotted line,” USM junior Jake Lowry, an English major, said. “But I feel like our generation was the generation that was told … to go to college and study what you love and you’d have a job waiting for you.”

In an era of high unemployment and an uncertain economy, that turned out not to be true, he said: a “bait and switch.”

Lowry argued that rising higher education costs make college increasingly inaccessible, and that the possibility of widespread student loan default is a risk not just to individuals, but to the country as a whole.

“Risk has been socialized and profits have been privatized,” he said. “Banks get bailed out” at the public’s expense.

Wednesday’s protest – similar ones were held in cities throughout the country – was the latest in a series since the Occupy Maine movement was forced, with some relief from protesters and city officials alike, to vacate Lincoln Park in February.

The loosely linked movement has since held a handful of low-key protests in Monument Square, where Portland’s group began after Occupy Wall Street arose in New York City in September, and also protested outside a fundraising event for President Obama in March.

On Wednesday, though, within roughly half an hour of its vocal start, the protest had devolved to a lot of just standing around. Some protesters wandered off the square, while the city carried on around them.

— Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3446 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

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About 20 activists joined in an Occupy Maine protest in Portland’s Monument Square on Wednesday to call attention to rising student debt, which surpassed the $1 trillion mark this year.

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