UPDATE: This story was revised October 18 with new information including an updated number for the total amount of funds raised by the protest. It was originally posted on October 14 and ran in The New York Observer print edition Wednesday, October 19.
“George Soros money is behind this!” Rush Limbaugh told his listeners two weeks ago, feeding speculation that the “99 percent” agenda espoused by the Occupy Wall Street protesters has filthy-rich backers—a claim picked up by Reuters and heatedly debated in the media. Soros money? If only. Around the time Reuters was walking back its headline, “Who’s Behind the Wall Street Protests,” later revised to “Soros: Not a Funder,” protesters were voting on whether to spend $3,000 on brooms and trash cans to clean up the occupied plaza in order to avoid eviction by the city.
Back in July, when local activists hammered out the logistics of the Occupy Wall Street protest, they were planning for little more than an urban camping trip. Committees were established to handle security, medication and sanitation. Nourishment was a major concern. Fundraising was an afterthought.
Still, onlookers are rightfully eager to follow the money. Politics have been so dominated by financing for so long that a major movement without major backers seems unthinkable. Last week, Republicans announced a new Super PAC determined, according to The New York Times, to “raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to defend the party’s majority next year”; meanwhile, President Barack Obama raised more than $42 million for his re-election campaign over the last three months.
Donations are flowing into Occupy Wall Street as well, though on a much smaller scale; as of Tuesday the protest’s general fund has raised approximately $294,000, according to members of the finance committee on Tuesday (although the committee is still refining its balance sheet in advance of giving it to a CPA). That’s enough to keep the demonstrators well-fed and livestreaming, but it’s not Soros-level treasure.
More than 4,000 donations ranging from $5 to $7,000 and totaling about $214,000 have been collected online. About $1,000 in cash comes in every day through the empty five-gallon water jug at the ersatz cafeteria in the middle of the plaza and three duct-taped paint buckets stationed at the information booths. Michael Moore gave $1,000 after a book signing. An anonymous donor gave $5,000 after a fundraising pop-up art show, entitled “No Comment,” held at the historic JP Morgan Building. The General Assembly, the group’s open legislature, voted en masse to decline a donation from music mogul Russell Simmons, who wanted a hand in helping the protest shape demands (spawning a rumor that he’d asked the protest to endorse an album in exchange for $20,000). The total on-site donations, cash and check, is about $80,000. And that’s just the general fund; more has been raised for tangential projects. Staffers of the free paper The Indypendent garnered $75,690 to print The Occupied Wall Street Journal via the crowd-funding site Kickstarter; another group has raised $2,971 on the crowd-funding site IndieGoGo to send “radical barbers” and “progressive tailors” to make over the protesters.
Meanwhile, organizers have had a crash course in money management. “It’s radical finances,” Victoria Sobel, the 21-year-old Cooper Union art student who served for a few weeks as Occupy Wall Street’s unofficial CFO, told The Observer Sunday during an evening rendezvous at the protest’s off-site conference room and facilities, McDonald’s.
The group resisted temptation when it came from Mr. Simmons. But how can the decentralized movement, encompassing many varieties of purist from anarchist to libertarian to vegan—one protester told The Observer she maintained a strict alkaline diet—remain uncorrupted? Occupy Wall Street has to keep its books clean in order to avoid going the way of Al Capone. But it’s also had to justify working with the banking establishment to its radical congregants, 24 of whom were arrested over the weekend during a mini-run on the LaGuardia Place Citibank. It’s a delicate line to walk, especially when every major decision and any purchases over $100 have to be approved by the General Assembly, sometimes twice. The sanitation working group recently brought a simple proposal: the purchase of storage bins in order to tidy up the park. It passed, but only after a member of the assembly attached a friendly amendment stipulating that the bins should be certified Fair Trade. When attempting to purchase Fair Trade storage bins, the sanitation committee discovered they do not exist. The proposal had to be passed again.
The movement is also large enough that many people in positions of responsibility don’t know each other, adding to the difficulty of establishing a financial infrastructure. When we first met Ms. Sobel, a young protester seated nearby couldn’t help but overhear. “Hey, are you on Finance?” he asked. “I’m at the info booth, and we like, get a lot of money? What should we do?”
The movement has also inspired unaffiliated websites, claiming to be collecting funds for Occupy Wall Street. There are more than 200 occupation-related campaigns on the fundraising website WePay; some are rumored to be fraudulent, others merely unauthorized. The organizers behind OccupyWallSt.org started raising a separate fund for their own expenses, for $6,000, causing a kerfuffle with the finance committee. Meanwhile, people at the camp are “always trying to steal the buckets,” Ms. Sobel said, and well-meaning protesters as well as opportunists have been seen walking around with their own buckets.
Fortunately for the activists, a mutual friend introduced Ms. Sobel to Elaine Brower, a peace activist who lives in Staten Island and works in the city controller’s office. Ms. Brower is the treasurer for October 2011, a movement which had been planning to occupy Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. for the ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, independently of Occupy Wall Street—although the groups eventually started collaborating.
“Thursday, the 23rd,” Ms. Brower said, consulting her notes when The Observer called. “We sat in McDonald’s—that seems to be the official headquarters over there—and I’m trying to explain to them the ups and downs of accounting and financing.” Ms. Brower detailed the difference between a not-for-profit and a nonprofit to Ms. Sobel and organizers Chris Biemer, Pete Dutro, Darryl Price, and “Robert,” and warned them not to personally accept money because of the risk of taking on unwanted liability.
“I love the whole lateral decision-making process,” Ms. Brower said, referring the protest’s hyper-democratic means of deciding action—“but without any type of leadership they could really get themselves into trouble.”
Ms. Brower arranged for a fiscal sponsor, the nonprofit Alliance for Global Justice, through which the Friends of Liberty Plaza can receive tax-free donations, about a week into the protest.
But the group was still playing catch-up. There was only one venue for fundraising, which was tied to the personal bank account of Mr. Biemer, a 23-year-old Florida transplant and member of the local chapter of Food Not Bombs, the non-profit known for canvassing grocery stores and restaurants for discarded food to repurpose for the homeless. Mr. Biemer was heading up the food committee for Occupy Wall Street, whose original plan was to solicit food donations and find free leftovers by dumpster diving. But on July 29, he wrote an exhaustive letter on the group’s website in which he estimated that the amount of peanut butter sandwiches needed to feed the expected 20,000 people—figuring a typical peanut butter sandwich requires two tablespoons of peanut butter and the stuff is available in 45-lb. tubs—they’d need about $1,000. “Despite some outreach efforts, the total amount of money raised by the Food Committee so far equals $0,” he wrote. “So, we need money.”
Mr. Biemer registered an account at WePay.com to accept donations for food, with the expectation that it would never exceed $2,000 and thus avoid inviting an audit. But after the protest started, they were getting so much donated food that there was no need to dumpster dive, and on the fourth day, Mr. Biemer’s WePay account had collected about $10,000.
In the first week of the protest, around the time they realized they had money, the protesters realized they needed to spend money. Tarps, coffee and other staples that weren’t being regularly donated were in high demand, as were dry socks and underwear after it rained. There was a march planned for Saturday, the protest’s first big weekend, and organizers needed funds to cover bail and medical supplies such as gauze, which was soaked in vinegar and handed out to marchers in case of tear gas. The money was sitting in Mr. Biemer’s account, but there was no legal entity to transfer it to. Meanwhile, some wondered whether it was ethical to spend money people had ostensibly donated for food on other necessities instead. At the same time, protesters on site were grumbling about the funds. “People were really freaking out,” Ms. Sobel said. “’Where’s the money? How much is there? Why can’t I see it?’ I was extremely discouraged. We were kind of screwed.”
Considering the time crunch, Ms. Brower offered to move some money through October 2011. Mr. Biemer overnighted a check made out to the nonprofit for $5,000 and Ms. Brower delivered the cash Saturday morning so an invigorating breakfast could be bought for the plaza in advance of the march. “I told Victoria to make sure she locked it up somewhere,” she said. The money did get locked up, in a safety box at One Police Plaza, after Ms. Sobel was arrested with the remaining $4,300. It was returned when Ms. Sobel was released, with a receipt and a raised eyebrow.
Since then, Occupy Wall Street has opened two bank accounts in the name of its unincorporated association, Friends of Liberty Plaza. The first was at the Lower East Side People’s Credit Union—the most ethically-palatable solution within a reasonable commute. CEO Linda Levy was surprised to see the protesters walk into the bank. “We asked how they had found us, and they said they found us on the internet,” she told The Observer. “We were actually really pleased that they decided to open an account with us. The fact that they would pick us to have their account would reflect that we’re not like other banks. A lot of times there are progressive movements that complain about the banks but they still keep their money in the banks.”
The credit union has made “Occupy Wall Street” an honoree at its upcoming 25th birthday party, she said.
About two weeks ago, Occupy Wall Street was approached by another financial institution: the union-owned Amalgamated Bank at 52 Broadway, four blocks from the protest’s headquarters at Zuccotti Park. The finance committee members were having trouble making it up to the Lower East Side by 4 p.m. in order to deposit, so they opened a second account at Amalgamated, which has a big, red, branded banner in the window: “Amalgamated Bank Supports UFT and the Occupy Wall Street Movement.” (Another possible wrench in the process: Amalgamated is under a consent order by the FDIC for not discharging delinquent loans in a timely manner. If it doesn’t satisfy the FDIC’s requirements, it could be in line for receivership.)
But even as things tighten up on the accounting side, the General Assembly, which now attracts a thick crowd that takes up half the park, is becoming comically inefficient. The group has no sound permit for a PA, so each committee’s proposal must be amplified by the “human mic,” in which a speaker says a few words at a time which are repeated by the audience seated immediately nearby, then echoed in concentric rings. A scribe also transcribes the proceedings on a laptop which is projected onto a screen. And at the opening of each assembly, facilitators remind the crowd the hand signals: up spirit fingers for yes, down for no, and arms crossed in front of the chest to indicate a serious objection.
With waves of new protesters still arriving, it’s more likely that someone will block each motion. As a result, some groups are raising their own funds–creating resentment and potential legal implications. Suspicion isn’t limited to finance. “They’re having secret meetings,” one protester, who is establishing the plaza’s internet café, said of the media group. The arts and culture committee and media working group dominate the plaza as groups like Labor, Library and People of Color attract smaller numbers—although everyone seems to love the food committee.
The General Assembly passed a resolution to spend a hefty $3,000 to clean up the plaza Thursday when the N.Y.P.D. essentially angled to evict the protesters in order to “clean the park,” the same pretext that was used in June to shut down the union-instigated Bloombergville, an occupation near City Hall to protest budget cuts and layoffs. The body also recently approved a $25,000 budget for the media working group.
But due to the tedious approval process, expenditures are mostly happening only in small increments—petty cash expenses taken out of the on-site cash buckets. Meanwhile, funds are accumulating online. The amount donated per day keeps increasing. A technical team is building an accounting system using open source software, which will embed a balance sheet on the website for anyone to have a look.
“I’ve been trying to warn them to make sure that all of this is really kept aboveboard,” Ms. Brower said. “We know that the government is going to be looking at this at some point. Like, they have buckets around for donations. You really shouldn’t have buckets around. It’s just not a good thing. It’s a temptation and it doesn’t look right.”
We were assured the committee is replacing the buckets with lockboxes, we told her.
“Accepting cash in that situation could lead to problems!” she said. “When money comes into play, it brings out the worst in people.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Ms. Brower used her own Haiti-based 501c(3) to help out Occupy Wall Street; on two occasions, Ms. Brower used the October 11 association to cash checks for Occupy Wall Street. The Observer regrets the error.
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