NEW YORK — The Occupy Wall Street movement, which has spent a month bashing banks and other corporations, has become a money manager itself.
The movement has $435,000 – $85,000 of it donated in person at the Manhattan park that’s become the epicenter of the global “anti-greed” protests and the remainder from online credit-card donations, said Darrell Prince, an activist using his business background to keep track of the daily donations.
“It’s way more support than we ever thought would come in,” Prince said.
Figuring out what to do with the money could prove to be one of the biggest challenges for a movement devoted to building consensus among activists with wide-ranging goals and united by anger more than by strategy.
The protesters have been spending about $1,500 a day on food, and also just covered a $2,000 laundry bill for sleeping bags and jackets and sweaters. They’ve spent about $20,000 on equipment such as laptops and cameras, and costs associated with streaming video of the protest on the Internet.
They have more than money donations, too. They have a mountain of donated goods, from blankets to cans of food to swim goggles to protect them from pepper spray – some stored in a cavernous space on Broadway a block from Wall Street.
Though the money is a pittance compared to the profits of many corporations that the activists blame for the nation’s financial woes, it’s growing. Every day, about $8,000 is coming in just from the lock boxes set up to take donations at Zuccotti Park, Prince said. More is coming through the mail and online.
The cash flow has forced changes in the “finance working group” that arose spontaneously among the self-governed protesters to handle the movement’s money. Buckets were once used to collect park donations, and until recently, a 21-year-old art student played a key role in the working group.
Prince, who has worked in sales, said the group is gaining financial expertise. He said the volunteers they recruit for the work generally “have experience running their own businesses or have worked in the industry.”
They’ve also been getting help from a nonprofit group. Occupy Wall Street officially became a project of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Global Justice on Sept. 28, 11 days after protesters began camping out at the park. The status allows the alliance to process donations on the movement’s behalf, and makes it responsible for tax reporting.
“They approached us after people started wanting to give them money,” said Chuck Kaufman, a coordinator for the alliance. “We agreed, not realizing the volume that it was going to turn out to be. It’s been a learning experience for both of us.”
The alliance advertises itself as “a little bit of people’s think tank, a whole lot of organizing.”
The Manhattan activists have been sticking to a simple, organized routine that works in the ragtag protest community.
In the park, passers-by drop bills or coins into monitored lock boxes. Several times a day, volunteers collect the boxes and bring them to a central point. The boxes are then taken to a nearby office space that is itself a gift from a New York union.
Mail containing checks – made out to the alliance or Occupy Wall Street – arrives at a UPS branch in the financial district where hundreds of cardboard boxes of contributed supplies also have been shipped.
In the office space, volunteers tally the donations and register them on a computer spreadsheet that’s internally accessible to those tracking the finances. Each day’s total is deposited at the Broadway branch of the Amalgamated Bank. Amalgamated bills itself as the only American bank that is 100 percent union-owned.
Prince said about $350,000 has been donated by credit card through the movement’s website, while the rest was given by mail or in person.
The alliance takes 7 percent of each credit card donation. That gets split between the credit card companies’ fees and the salary of the alliance’s accountant, Kaufman said.
Prince said volunteers were working to have Occupy Wall Street’s financial records posted online as soon as the end of the week.
The amorphous group has no clear plans yet on how to spend much of the money. For now, the fund doles out $100 a day to each of the dozen “working groups” that keep the month-long protest going – from sanitation and medical to finance and media.
Any other expenditures – extra laptops, for instance – are voted on by the “general assembly” of protesters that meets daily, voting “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on larger items after discussing the pros and cons.
The long-term picture for the movement includes surviving the imminent New York winter.
“A lot of people say we need to get an indoor space” – in addition to the outdoor encampment, Prince said.
Activists also are working with legal experts to identify alternate sites where the risk of getting kicked out would be relatively low. Last week, the company that owns Zuccotti Park threatened to bar campers from the property, but quickly backed off.
Daniel Levine, 26, a musician from Brooklyn, agreed the movement “needs to winterize.” He said the fund could be used to help buy frost-proof clothing and other equipment to keep protesters warm.
“I’m flabbergasted there’s this much money, but in a way, I’m not surprised, considering the sentiments that we all share now – of being disenfranchised,” said Levine.
Prince also hopes the movement’s money could be used for financial training in what he calls “the model for change” – defined in myriad ways by protesters, but one “that doesn’t look like the Wall Street model.”
Protester Megan Blackburn, of Brooklyn, had more immediate ideas for the money as she cleaned the park pavement with a broom and dustpan Tuesday.
She hoped the fund will buy her “a new broom that really sweeps.” When asked if she might buy one herself, she said, “Are you kidding? These things are expensive in Manhattan!”