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Money Donated To Occupy Wall Street Brings Much Needed Supplies And Tension

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OCCUPY WALL STREET
AP

NEW YORK -- The Occupy Wall Street movement, born of anger over how the spoils of the American economy are divided, is now confronting its own wrenching financial conflict: how to divvy up the nearly $500,000 the group has raised via donations.

In recent days, the protesters have had heated arguments over whether to make the distribution of money more efficient and how much to devote to long-term infrastructure development in Zuccotti Park, generating worries that a movement created in the name of broader representation could fracture over how to live under it.

The finance working group -- one of approximately 30 committees that have sprung up since the movement's inception -- serves as Occupy Wall Street's bookkeeping center and has become a key focal point of the debate.

In the first month, $485,000 was donated by roughly 8,000 individual, anonymous donors, who gave through the Occupy Wall Street website and in donation boxes around the park. Only $66,000 has been spent, causing some to accuse the finance group of stockpiling funds.

The group has no decision-making power of its own -- that responsibility lies with the daily General Assembly -- but protesters often treat the group as if it determines funding, making it a scapegoat for rising tension as an anti-capitalist group is suddenly flooded with capital.

Most of the daily financial expenditure goes to food and medical needs, the costs of keeping the rotating group of two to three hundred people sleeping in the park dry and fed and healthy. But when it comes to making longer-term -- or larger-scale -- purchases, consensus is often beyond reach.

The question of money has become so contentious that the General Assembly is considering relinquishing the power of the purse. All working groups have an automatically available budget of $100 a day, handed out by the finance group. The General Assembly determines who receives additional funding.

The fights over financing are as varied as the protesters' reasons for protesting. Should the library buy the cheapest tables available or more sturdy, durable ones? Should the funds be spent on infrastructure in Manhattan or to help Occupy movements across the U.S.? Should all the money be converted to an alternative currency like Bitcoin? Should individual groups be able to keep their own donations, or should they continue to funnel it to the communal war chest?

"The vast majority of the people here don't understand how money works," said Pete Dutro, a core member of the finance group who spends five hours a day in Zuccotti Park handling petty cash requests and handing out money for General Assembly- approved expenditures. "But we have real financial needs. Not everyone wants to barter and trade."

Every night the group, made up of six core members and a handful of other advisers, retires offsite to count the day's donations. The money is then deposited in the Broadway branch of the Amalgamated Bank, a union-owned bank. Occupy Wall Street has also registered for 501(c)(3) status, with the Alliance for Global Justice, a D.C.-based grassroots organization, serving as the movement's fiscal sponsor.

Dutro, a 36-year-old finance student at New York University currently on leave from classes and the former manager of a tattoo parlor, didn't want to get involved with the finance group, but he saw that his experience handling money and running a business could be useful.

As Monday's line forms in front of Dutro -- and the envelope of petty cash -- tensions run high. A young woman from the arts and culture working group needs $3,000 to buy supplies for a planned Halloween protest. The funds were approved last Friday, but she hasn't been able to get her hands on the cash yet. Dutro says he cannot give her the money until tomorrow.

"We need the money today," the woman says, with a rising note of hysteria in her voice.

"I will take care of you," responds Dutro, who is wearing clear-framed glasses and a hoodie, skull and spider tattoos peaking out beneath his cuffs and around his neck. "I'm only human."

"I understand that," she says.

"I'm glad you do," he counters, "Because a lot of people here don't."

Tensions over how quickly the money can be obtained pale when compared to tensions over who receives it.

"I don't think [the finance group] takes us seriously. I think they think we're just a bunch of people making noise," said Demetrius Subayar, who was hitting a cow bell on Monday afternoon at the west end of the park with the rest of the drumming group Pulse. The members of Pulse have grown so frustrated with the finance group and the General Assembly that they are now holding on to their own donations, according to Subayar.

"Some groups, they don't understand that they can't just use the money that gets donated to them," said Victoria Sobel, 23, a Cooper Union student on leave from her classes. Sobel started the finance group back in September when it became obvious that a communal pot of money was needed to buy food. "They say, 'Well, I just got all this money today. Now I have to give it to finance and then go ask for it back?' I've tried to explain the danger of this -- it's a black hole," she said.

The library working group also chose to handle its own financial transactions for a period of time, Sobel said. After significant tension, the group has since rejoined the flock.

The finance group is currently in the process of posting all financial transactions online, and Dutro said they are looking for an independent auditor to comb through the bookkeeping. But the real problem, as those on the committee see it, is not with the bookkeeping operation but with the General Assembly, which has stalled in its ability to win general approval for the allocation of large sums of money.

"Financial decisions, they're really bottle-necked right now," Sobel continued. She noted that she has stepped back from the group to focus on her real passion, live-streaming media. Sobel herself is the recipient of the largest single sum for a project: $25,000 for streaming media equipment.

"The General Assembly doesn't work, and that all comes back to the issue of money," she said. "There is a real issue with having to go to a public that doesn't necessarily have the context to understand a purchase."

The latest proposal for managing Occupy Wall Street, which will be revisited this week, is designed to circumvent some of the problems over finance. The proposed "spokes council," which would supplement the General Assembly, would meet to make crucial financial decisions and handle other in-house business.

But some in Zuccotti Park feel ambivalent about the very notion of a well-funded Occupy Wall Street.

"Money has been a profoundly distracting force," said Leo Eisenstein, 23, unemployed and a member of the facilitation group, which assists with the General Assembly. "Do we need money to sustain the movement? We have it. I would have loved to have that conversation before the money started rolling in."

Reporter Matt Sledge contributed to this report.

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