The group huddled around a small table at Saxbys Coffee near McPherson Square looks like any other start-up. Rooj Alwazir, a 23-year-old woman with long, dark hair, taps on a laptop. John Stanton, a bearded Virginia native who recently recovered from bronchitis, bounces ideas back and forth with her. Others join, pull up chairs. The meeting slides to a nearby couch when the table becomes too crowded. They work diligently. They are the six-member finance committee of Occupy D.C., an independent offshoot of the now-global Occupy Wall Street movement.
The burden on the group is immense. The 80-degree weather that lingered in the District of Columbia well into October is gone. Temperatures have dipped into the 40s at night, and McPherson Square’s newest residents are preparing for winter. The committee must manage the thousands of dollars the movement receives each day. Its members need to find a place to put the money, to work within part of the very system that the movement is raging against as corrupt.
(PICTURES: Scenes on the Ground From the Occupy Protests)
The Occupy movement began on Sept. 17 when a group of protesters set up camp in a Lower Manhattan park. Occupy Wall Street has neither a party nor a spokesman. It also has no specific demands other than shifting power away from the wealthiest 1 percent of the population to the remaining 99 percent. The Occupy branch in Washington was set up in early October.
The D.C. offshoot shares the same philosophy of nonviolent protest and leaderless democracy. The number of protesters in New York’s Zuccotti Park can reach thousands at times; in Washington, the number is closer to 100 to 200 sleeping in the patchwork of tents in McPherson Square, located in the city’s K Street lobbying corridor.
Donations are pouring in to the District’s still-growing protest group. Alwazir, jokingly described by a fellow protester as Occupy D.C.’s Ben Bernanke, a reference to the Federal Reserve Board chairman, joined the finance committee (originally the fundraising committee) on Oct. 4. She helps oversee the incoming cash.
And there is quite a bit of it. Alwazir estimates that Occupy D.C. nets around $1,500 per day through their online PayPal and WePay accounts. The protesters receive roughly an additional $1,000 in on-site donations each day, paid into an empty Safeway coffee can and a large, empty water jug near the group’s information tent.
But a woman who stopped by on a drizzly day this week and wanted to write a check was apologetically turned away. There was no account under the Occupy D.C. name.
Where to put the donated money has been an issue from the beginning. Major banks—one of the prime targets of the Occupy movements—are out. Three members of Occupy D.C. marched into a Bank of America branch on Thursday, closed their accounts, and burned their bank statements outside.
The finance committee instead turned to a local credit union. The community-owned financial institutions have been touted by Occupy movements across the country that rail against big banks for taking advantage of customers. But the committee couldn’t open an account under the Occupy D.C. name because the nascent group lacked proper documentation. The members settled for a joint checking account under their names. It was a good but imperfect solution: They had a place to keep the money, but didn’t want to accept checks, Alwazir explained, because they felt that donations should be made to the cause as a whole—not its members.
She was frustrated. “We want to be transparent and this economic injustice is not allowing us,” Alwazir said.
Alwazir raised the issue with lawyers who donated their time to the movement. She returned to the credit union with one of the attorneys and was able to open an account under the Occupy D.C. name provided it submitted bylaws, a Social Security number (for tax purposes), and a list of authorized users.
It was a major victory for the finance committee, not only because now the movement can accept check donations. It was also a statement that the money belongs to Occupy D.C. as a whole.
The committee members, however, still allocate the funds, and making those decisions can be tricky. Both Stanton and Alwazir say that other protesters sometimes see the finance group as “the bad guys.”
To make the process as fair as possible, the finance committee judges requests for money on standardized paperwork and peer review. Occupy D.C.’s other committees, whose duties range from park beautification to media outreach, must submit paper funding applications proving they have exhausted all other means of meeting their needs, such as requesting donations through Twitter or the Occupy D.C. website.
Tarps are the most frequently requested item. Per the finance committee’s guidelines, petitions for personal items, such as iPads and rent money, are turned down. At Saxbys, the committee discussed whether to approve a request for money to buy walkie-talkies, olive green waterproof hats, cigarettes, and energy drinks for the movement’s “de-escalation” committee, which is tasked with keeping the peace and frequently up all night.
To further increase transparency, the committee, which saves the receipt from every purchase, hopes to invest in a scanner so they can post them online. Members have inventory sheets to track food, medical, clothing, and technological supplies. Stanton wants to publish how every penny is spent on the Occupy D.C. website so there is “no room for any improper activity to hide.”
The goal speaks to the larger ethos of the movement, which has criticized the government and financial institutions for their secrecy. The Occupy D.C. committee sees its much wealthier Occupy Wall Street counterpart, which has close to $300,000, as too opaque. “Radical transparency is our aim,” said Stanton.
The D.C. committee hopes to be a financial model for other Occupy movements. “Once it is a process, then it is easily transferable to other Occupations,” Stanton said.
In the park, generators hum behind tents that feed the sympathizers and onlookers who pass through each day. The group spends about $40 a day to keep the lights and kitchen running. Volunteers boil water for tea on a portable gas stove. Overnight guests have begun to request space heaters.
Those basic functions will keep requiring money, and the finance committee plans to keep evolving to deliver. In the meantime, the group’s members are happy. Occupy D.C. has its own bank account and money is flowing in. The movement, which is so upset with the country’s banking system, has done quite well establishing its own.