LIBERTY PARK—The money trail behind the burgeoning movement of protestors occupying Wall Street leads not to a money market or an off-shore account, but to a giant soup pot stuffed with dollar bills.
Cash continued to pour in Thursday, the 20th day that activists have been camping out at Liberty Park, also known as Zuccotti Park, in the heart of New York’s financial district.
The protest has grabbed the nation’s attention and sparked similar actions in over 200 other cities, including New Haven. In the process it has begun drawing online donations from supporters fed up with the influence of corporations in politics and the country’s unequal distribution of wealth.
With success this week has come some modest cash to fuel a movement fundamentally opposed to hierarchical decision-making and the workings of the global electronic economy. By week’s end that had produced dilemmas—and some humorous nuts-and-bolts interactions with corporate finance. The Independent got an exclusive look Thursday at those inner workings in a cordoned-off area of the park.
Some see the growing #OccupyWallStreet movement as a progressive answer to the conservative Tea Party. The money trail offers perhaps the best example of that.
The Tea Party was bankrolled from the start by billionaires Rupert Murdoch and brothers David and Charles Koch, flowing through an organizational structure set up by Republican former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
By contrast, Occupy Wall Street activist Justin Wedes took $900—one of the largest donations the movement has received to date, according to one financial officer—and stuffed it Thursday into the movement’s “safe deposit box”: a large cooking pot covered in cardboard and duct tape. (Click on the play arrow at the top of this story to watch.)
Also Thursday, Occupiers learned that most of the money they’ve raised—some $40,000 to $60,000—was just frozen by a third-party company handling online donations.
The movement’s chief treasurer, 21-year-old Victoria Sobel, spent Thursday struggling to find a better way to handle the money that does come in.
Sobel (pictured), a student at Cooper Union, has been spending her days on site at Liberty Park, the epicenter of the protests. She has been collecting wads of cash and finding a way to store it or redistribute it to the teams of volunteers buying flyers, garbage bags and vegan pizza pies.
Just two weeks prior, the encampment had only $100 in cash, supplemented by in-kind donations. Then the movement started “blowing up,” she said. She and a few fellow activists are now overseeing a flow of $4,000 in donation buckets on the streets per day, as well as $75,000 to $95,000 sitting in bank accounts, untapped. Most of the money in the accounts comes from donations made online.
As the movement gathers more national and international attention, Sobel has found herself in a high-pressure spot, seeking to get control of a fast-expanding operation while striving for the transparency that the movement has declared it will maintain.
Sitting at a park bench inside a cordoned-off volunteer workspace Thursday, out of the earshot of reporters who snapped photos every few minutes, Sobel and her colleagues took time to field advice from two consultants on how to manage the money.
“I Need A Bag”
Sobel sat down at 2 p.m. wearing a bright red fleece and fuchsia leggings under short jean shorts. Those seeking reimbursement from communal purchases are given these instructions: Find the girl with the half-blonde, half-brunette hair.
Shortly after she sat down at a computer to get to work, a volunteer quickly spotted her.
“Someone has a lot of money they want to give you,” the messenger said.
“A lot” meant a one-gallon bucket of bills.
Sobel said she would take care of it—if she could just find a bag to stash it in. Someone came through with a paper MetroPCS bag, and she stuffed the donations in. Then she carefully stored them in her makeshift safe deposit box, a yellow messenger bag.
Sobel set to work on a top-priority email she’d been meaning to write for days. It lists donations needed at the encampment, where hundreds of people sleep every night and hundreds more come by to eat, borrow books, and talk politics by day.
She began the wish list: 200 tarps, 300 raincoats, three Dumpsters, five hand brooms.
Then the first consultant, a certified public accountant sympathetic to the cause, came to help.
Jo Ann Fleming (at right in photo), who besides her accounting work has a radio show called Flash Talks Cash, sat down in a red tailgating chair next to three activists volunteering on the Occupy Wall Street finance committee.
Fleming heard a rundown of how the operation is working so far: Most of the money comes in through two donation buckets stationed at the ends of the park, where a steady throng of tourists and commuters is always passing by.
Teams of volunteers are split up into working groups for areas like food, sanitation and medical supplies, then spend the money on communal goods. Anyone who wants to be reimbursed for expenses has to get approval from a finance committee member before making a purchase. If it’s less than $100, they’ll sign out some cash, with orders to return with the goods and the receipt. If it’s more than $100, the purchase is supposed to be approved at a town meeting.
The one exception is the food team, which is free to spend $800 to $1,200 per day, on top of a steady flow of donations from farms, restaurants and supporters who call in pizza pies from afar.
Who handles the ebb and flow of cash, receipts and payments?
Sobel looked up from her computer and acknowledged the charge. She said she’s issued several calls for more help at her task, but no one has come forward who can devote a lot of time on the site. Until Monday, she said, she was working alone.
Just then, a young man grabbed Sobel’s attention from behind a tarp-covered pile of supplies. “I’m going to D.C.” for another Occupy rally, the man said. “Can you help me?”
No, replied Sobel—“no personal expenses” paid with communal money.
After some probing, accountant Fleming determined the group needs to come up with a clear policy on how to get reimbursed for expenses. She suggested more frequent collection of the donation buckets, to avoid the temptation of dipping hands in—“cash is very troublesome.” And she urged them to create a spreadsheet tracking how much was received and paid.
“It’s all about keeping this safe as this gets bigger,” Fleming said.
She turned to Sobel: “One woman can’t run the show. You’re exhausted; I can hear it in your voice. You need to delegate. You’re going to get burned out.”
Sobel nodded. She agreed to disseminate a policy for reimbursements—though she lamented the New York City General Assembly meetings, which once served as twice-daily town hall meetings where governing decisions were made, have now turned into a “public spectacle” where it’s hard to get anything done.
Fleming also passed along a rumor she’d seen in an email: That credit card companies, for an unknown nefarious reason, were refusing to accept donations to Occupy Wall Street.
The rumor turned out to be partially true.
Alliance for Global Justice, a D.C.-based not-for-profit that has been collecting money on behalf of Occupy Wall Street, confirmed as much in a phone interview Thursday.
Chuck Kaufman, the group’s national coordinator, said the 501(c)3 group acts as a fiscal sponsor for progressive causes. It signed an agreement with Occupy Wall Street about a week ago, by which AfGJ manages donations in exchange for a 7 percent cut.
On Wednesday, about a week after the group started collecting money for Occupy Wall Street, the account became frozen by an online donations manager, Kaufman said.
He said there was between $40,000 and $60,000 in the account from people who made donations with Visa or MasterCard. That money remains inaccessible, he said.
While the reason behind the freeze remained unclear, AfGJ was quick to publicly speculate.
“I can’t help but believe that politics must be involved somewhere,” said Kathy Hoyt, a founding member of AfGJ, in according to a statement on AfGJ’s website.
AfGJ blamed Authorize.net, a company that handled the credit card transactions for the donations. Authorize.net is owned by CyberSource Corporation, which is owned by Visa, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
(Update: AfGJ has since removed that statement from the web, cleared Authorize.net of any blame, and admitted fault.
Kaufman said he misidentified the company that froze the funds—it was Portland, Maine-based e-onlinedata, not Authorize.net. Visa spokesman Bruce Frymire said Authorize.net merely handled transactions, and e-online data managed the money, he said. E-onlinedata is not a subsidiary of Authorize.net or its parent companies, he said.
On Friday, AfGJ redirected its ire at e-onlinedata, urging its supporters to call e-onlineData to “demand release of tens of thousands of dollars” in the frozen account. Later Friday, AfGJ called off the dogs and issued an apology. E-Onlinedata contended there was “no political motive in freezing our account and holding the funds,” but that AfGJ was at fault because the high volume of donations was “exposing E-Onlinedata to a level of liability not covered in our merchant contract with them,” the statement reads.
“We apologize to E-Onlinedata for any actions on our part that may have been construed as reflecting negatively on their company,” AfGJ wrote. “Following extensive conversations with the company today, we are confident that the situation is on its way to a rapid resolution. Please stop making calls to E-Onlinedata.”)
Kaufman said there were 400 visitors Wednesday to his organization’s website, where donations are being accepted. He suspected those were all potential donors who couldn’t make a donation because the account was frozen. The DONATE button on the OccupyWallStreet site eventually leads to an error page.
A Compromise: Turn To PayPal
Meanwhile, Kaufman said his group switched to PayPal to collect donations as of 2 p.m. Thursday.
That posed an imperfect solution in the eyes of Pete Dutro, a 36-year-old tattoo artist who works with Sobel on the Occupation’s finances. PayPal suspended WikiLeaks’ account after the group released hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, Dutro noted. He said the group may not be the best fit with Occupy Wall Street’s politics.
Dutro said he’s willing to compromise for now.
“We’re just trying to get the money we need to be functional,” Dutro said. “If we have to make a temporary deal with the devil,” before moving on to a different provider, then that’s OK. He said he would like to see Occupy Wall Street move on to a different donation manager, but for the time being, “whoever’ll authorize the payments is who we’re going to go with.”
Besides the money that’s frozen, Occupy Wall Street does have $23,000 in available money held with Alliance for Global Justice. The money is just waiting to be transferred to a bank account—if the occupiers can figure out where to send the money.
That has proved an interesting challenge for a movement whose supporters are channeling outrage against bank bailouts, and in some cases calling for an end to capitalism.
In the beginning, cash donations for food were being accepted through the WePay online donation manager and sent to one volunteer’s bank account. That practice ended as the number of people surged.
Then Sobel, Dutro and a third volunteer, Darrell Prince, opened a joint checking account at a New York credit union under the name Friends of Liberty Park.
They were poised to wire the $23,000 to that account Friday morning—until Sobel heard stern advice from Heather Reddick, the second financial consultant of the day.
As operations director for AVAAZ, Reddick helps a network of progressive groups figure out their finances. She warned Sobel that as soon as the money goes into a non-charitable account, it becomes taxable. She urged Sobel to accept in-kind goods instead of cash whenever possible, and to leave the money in the account with Alliance for Global Justice, which has not-for-profit status.
How long would it take to set up a 501(c)3? Sobel asked.
“Months,” came the reply.
Sobel agreed to keep the money where it is, for now.
Dutro said the problem is par for the course of a grassroots movement.
“We’re not AstroTurfed,” he said, reserving that word for the fake grassroots of the top-down Tea Party movement. Unlike the Tea Party, he said, “we did not come with set funding, set organization, set messaging.”
The Occupy movement coalesced over the summer, after the Canadian magazine AdBusters put out a poster in mid-July calling for activists to take over Wall Street on Sept. 17. There was no plan for a bank account, or a way to collect donations.
Dutro said the group has about $12,000 in its checking account.
Sobel said the Occupation has been using cash from the account, but hasn’t cut any checks. The process for disbursing the money—in a leaderless group that has proclaimed decisions must be made by consensus—is tricky.
All decisions governing the Occupation are supposed to be made by the General Assembly, Sobel said, but the group’s meetings have become sprawling and filled with spectators.
The authority to buy a day’s worth of food, or a generator, is a “decision-making power that can’t be made in that space,” she said.
Instead, the finance committee has agreed to a high level of transparency in how much money is coming in and how it gets spent. The group aims to put a public ledger online by the weekend, Dutro said.
Dutro and Sobel said they face a lot of pressure from people who want to know where the money is going.
Sobel said there’s another pressure, too—since Occupy Wall Street was the first in a series of hundreds of other occupations being replicated in other cities like New Haven, it will serve as a model for the others. People from other cities routinely show up in Liberty Park for advice.
“I don’t want them to go through what we went through,” in figuring out how to organize the money, Sobel said.
“Big Donor” Alert
The other type of transparency—of those who are donating money—has proved more difficult.
Any passerby can slip a few bills into a donation pail and remain anonymous. Donors’ names won’t be revealed when they give money through Alliance for Global Justice, either.
Dutro said the largest donation he’s seen has been around $1,000.
Labor unions, which joined forces with the Occupation in a thousands-strong rally Wednesday, have contributed office space, ponchos and food, but no money toward the cause, Dutro said.
“There are big funders who want to donate large sums of money,” Dutro said, but so far none have done so, in part because activists might not want to accept the gift.
For example, he said, Russell Simmons offered to make a large donation, but he wanted “strings attached,” so “we said no.”
On Thursday afternoon, a man in a suit approached the Liberty Park info desk and announced he’d like to make a donation larger than the bucket would safely hold.
“We’ve got a big donor,” announced an info desk staffer, calling in backup from the finance team.
Dr. Michael J. Miller opened his checkbook and wrote out the numbers: 2-5-0.
A “child of the ‘60s,” he then began to recite a half-dozen lines of Woody Guthrie, “This land is your land, this land is my land, ...”
The Manhattan-based psychologist said he was active in the civil rights movement, and shook Robert Kennedy’s hand before he was killed. “I, like the rest of the country, fell asleep after that time,” he said.
He said he made a $250 donation from his personal trust Thursday because Occupy Wall Street “reactivates that idealism of a former time.”
Dutro was asked what the occupiers plan to do with the money, which could soon top $100,000 if momentum is sustained. He said he believes it will be invested into the community of campers in the square—not sent to any outside cause.
The group is so “politically diverse,” he pointed out, that it would be hard to agree on where to send the money.
So it will likely be invested into things on Sobel’s wish list, which she finally finished typing after many distractions Thursday afternoon: five large cutting boards, two water dispensers, 5,000 paper plates, 10 blood pressure pumps, and 150 sleeping bags for the winter months ahead.
Previous Occupy Wall Street/ New Haven coverage:
• Labor, Occupiers March To Same Beat
• Protests’ Demand: A “World We Want To See”
• Protesters To Occupy Green Starting Oct. 15
• Wall Street Occupiers Page Verizon
• New Haven Exports “Free”-dom To Occupiers