Inside the New Occupy Wall Street Economy

For a movement that is a little over a month old, Occupy Wall Street runs a tight financial ship. The occupiers have chosen Amalgamated bank, which bills itself as “America’s Labor’s Bank” to house its cash, collected from a flood of donations over the past few weeks. “CPAs,” according to a member of the finance team, are giving guidance on state and federal reporting. And a team of entrepreneurs, former business owners and bookkeepers have joined the finance team, minding the till at Zuccotti. All of them must submit to background checks. The OWS finance group’s next challenge (in addition to streamlining processes) is to become fully transparent. 

Occupy Wall Street’s finances have become a matter of discussion inside and out of the movement. There are expected challenges from the right, which has trotted out George Soros as go-to bogey man. But questions are arising from inside the movement as well. This was posted to an online forum (New York General Assembly forums are open to the public at from the group OccupyTV:

Hello this is OccupyTV. We have some questions for the finance team. Who is managing the 500K raised so far? Where are the receipts for spending? Where is (sic) the balance sheets? Why is this not posted online for ALL to see? Where is the transparency? Why is it not being distributed to other occupy locations that have not been able to raise money? We are not the only ones posing this question. Our viewers have been asking this for days now. If all this is not transparent, well then that is a huge issue and needs to be addressed immediately.

Members of the finance team are getting requests to do more and more media. 

I have visited the movement on several occasions and spent the day at Zuccotti on Saturday, hanging with the finance group. Holed up behind a decrepit card table at OWS command central, at least two members of the finance group must be on site at all times, in order to monitor the cash and one another. Group members joke about taking on code names, floating Billy Bailout or Daisy Deficit as options. 

In a milieu of Zuccotti groups that focus on arts and culture, direct action, the Occupy Wall Street Journal and media, finance is a less sexy job. But for a movement triggered by financial irresponsibility of Wall Street and economic inequality, this team may become one of the most important. They are keenly aware of this, and are planning to go public with financial information and expenditures.

Since the team is made up of volunteers, most with regular jobs, finding time to make information publicly available ends up taking a back seat to handling requests from the occupiers. In the hour I spent there on Saturday, representatives from no less than seven groups came by with varying requests, some requiring more conversation and scrutiny than others.

Each working group –--approximately 20 were approved by the GA for funding -- is allowed up to $100 a day in expenditures: be it tents for the comfort team, supplies for the arts and culture group or any number of reasonable requests from each team to do its business. People requesting more than the allowed $100 per day must fill out a carbon requisition form requiring approval by the General Assembly. If you can't cough up receipts for your group's expenditures, you must return that share of the money. 

What money can and cannot be spent on is a matter of common sense. The drum group -- which according to many on the inside is becoming a nuisance -- showed up at one General Assembly asking for $8,000 for damages to their drums. This was soundly voted down. 

As the movement continues to coalesce and narrow its focus, one OWS member suggested the number of working groups will drop. As groups combine or disband, the amount of money to maintain the multitude will diminish.

According to the people gathered around the finance table that day, OWS is considering becoming a non-profit 501c3 organization. Becoming a 501c3 would require OWS make its 990 tax forms available for public review.  Whether or not they eventually decide to go the 501c3 route, they plan on being as transparent as possible. And any decision will likely be put before the GA for a vote.

There is internal concern about the financial implications of maintaining the city within a city, given ongoing sanitation and comfort costs, the working group per diem and feeding all comers (while I was there, finance handed out $1,000 for the kitchen). As donations pour in, adding to what some are reporting is a $500,000 OWS bank account, the GA will have to approve a financial plan and maintain a high level of transparency in order to grow the movement, inside and out.

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