DETROIT -- The Republican presidential candidates are debating at a university in the heart of the economically depressed state of Michigan Wednesday night. They will not receive a warm welcome from Occupy Detroit members.
Protesters rallying against the big banks Wednesday afternoon at Wayne State University in Detroit, 45 minutes south of where debate will be held, said the GOP contenders were wrong to cast issues like student debt as a simple matter of personal responsibility, not corporate greed.
Occupy Detroit's event was designed to target the banks, not the GOP candidates, but its supporters didn't have kind words for either. Most of the major Republican candidates who will be debating tonight are against easing student loan debts, while many Occupy Detroit protesters have called for outright loan forgiveness.
"Personally, I wouldn't waste my time listening to what the candidates have to say," said Samuel Molnar, 22, an undergraduate studying public affairs who had no plans to watch or protest the debate.
"All I've heard from the Republican candidates," he added, "is here's your plan to change Social Security."
While Molnar has been able to avoid racking up student loan debt during his three years in college thanks to a scholarship, some of his fellow students weren't so lucky.
About 20 of them gathered outside a Chase bank in dreary weather to protest against what they saw as the banks' excessive profits on student loans. Chanting "school is not for profit, that's bullshit, get off it," they handed a Chase security guard a flyer and waved to honking cars as they passed by on Woodward Avenue.
Wayne State is a place where people from this downtrodden city and its suburbs can go to get an education and, hopefully, come out with a job. But the students protesting on Wednesday said they felt like they had been sold a bill of goods.
Emily Eisele, a 26-year-old who graduated in August, said she was $62,000 in debt, with about $42,000 of that owed in high-interest private loans. She was just laid off from a job at a non-profit because the organization lost its grant, and she's currently making ends meet by working a job in construction, mixing concrete.
"I'm the first person in my family to get a bachelor's," she said, describing her parents, a bricklayer and a human resources professional, as "blue collar, middle class." Her younger brother had been turned off from college altogether, she noted, in part because of her experience.
"I felt like that's what you do, that's the way forward. I had this spirit of self-sufficiency," she said. Now, with few prospects for steady employment, she said, "I'm this close to defaulting and I feel like my life is ruined."
"I don't think that Republicans would say that poor students shouldn't go to college," she added. Still, she said, "it's treated just as an issue of personal responsibility. Like most financial problems in American culture, if you're poor it's an issue of your willpower: You're failing, you're weak, you just want handouts, is what you're gonna hear."
Arthur Bowman, a 21-year-old from Detroit who said he was the only black undergraduate in the school's physics department, said he was already about $25,000 in debt and expected to ring up another $25,000 time he finished Wayne State.
Asked if he thought the Republican candidates were taking his concerns about student debt seriously, he laughed and said, "Hell no. Not at all."
"If Herman Cain is any example, the Republicans believe that we should all just go get jobs," Bowman said. "And the fact that we have to take out student loan debt in order to pay for our schooling is our fault, because we don't have good enough jobs to pay for ourselves. It's a ridiculous point of opinion that basically believes the market should take care of everything, as always."
The protesters from Occupy Detroit took larger issue with Wall Street than the Republican candidates. The big banks, they said, are profiting off of years of higher education cuts in Michigan that have forced universities to hike tuition and cut student aid.
"The tuition increases are a direct result of the state deliberately taking actions over the last ten to 20 years to reduce revenues," Molnar said. "A direct result of the austerity measures."
He hopes the federal government will embark on a massive public works effort to create green jobs. But in the wake of this summer's deficit debate, he said, he doesn't hold out much hope that President Obama will be much better than the Republicans on that count.
"Obama kind of proved that he's either weak, or he's a liar, with the deficit," Molnar said.
The Republican primary debate will be held at Oakland University in Rochester, a nearly all-white city 45 minutes north of Detroit. A different group of students there plan to protest the Republican candidates directly, and Molnar said those students had been in touch with Occupy Detroit to coordinate efforts.
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