OWS Donations Create Headaches For Protesters

fromWNYC

The Occupy Wall Street movement based in New York's Zuccotti Park has accumulated almost half a million dollars in cash and online donations. But managing the new-found wealth is creating headaches for the protesters.

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GUY RAZ, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

ROBERT SIEGEL: And I'm Robert Siegel. The Occupy Wall Street movement has accumulated close to half a million dollars in donations. Most of that money is sitting in two local banks. One is actually a member-run credit union, the other is a union-owned bank.

As WNYC's Arun Venugopal reports, their growing wealth has created both opportunities and challenges for protesters.

ARUN VENUGOPAL: One of the most sought out protesters at Zuccotti Park is Pete Dutro, a 36-year-old former tattoo artist. On any given day, you'll find demonstrators like Zuni Tikka trying to meet with him because Dutro's the guy with the money.

ZUNI TIKKA: So if I'm spending about 200 a day, how often do I get funding? How should I work it out?

VENUGOPAL: Tikka does laundry for the protesters.

PETE DUTRO: Come talk to me later tonight about this and I'll figure it out.

VENUGOPAL: Dutro, who's run his own software business and is getting a degree in finance, is one of a handful of people who can sign Occupy Wall Street's checks and collect cash donations from the seven lock boxes scattered around the park. All expenses over $100 need to be approved by the occupation's general assembly and Dutro is constantly reminding people to get him receipts and often telling others that they don't have the paperwork to get cash.

DUTRO: There is the looming threat of audit, so we've been trying to just make it as, you know, clear as we possibly can, so when that happens, you know, we walk away squeaky clean.

VENUGOPAL: That audit would not be of the protesters, but of the Alliance for Global Justice, a group in Washington that extended its 501C3 status to the protesters so supporters can make tax deductable donations. This week, protesters released their first financial report, noting that they had raised $450,000 through October 18th, mostly in checks and online credit card payments. They also spent $20,000 on computers and cameras and 19,000 on food.

BILL BUSTER: What do we have under our selection? Cookie dough, New York super fudge chunk and vanilla.

VENUGOPAL: Protester Bill Buster says supporters around the country, including Ben & Jerry's, have been so generous in food and supply donations that he stopped asking for stuff. He says some people at the camp take it for granted.

BRENDAN BURKE: They have a feeling that if they stick their hand out - hey, I need another sleeping bag, I don't know what happened to the other one. Well, it's up to you to keep track of it.

VENUGOPAL: Others, like Brendan Burke from the security team, say all the spending has gotten out of hand.

BURKE: Are we going to start babysitting people that can't take care of themselves or, at some point, is this going to not be a protest or a demonstration, but a large outdoor soup kitchen?

VENUGOPAL: The other struggle is whether to share the wealth. On Wednesday, the protesters wired $20,000 to Occupy Oakland. Some opposed the move, saying the money should be kept for local needs. Others worried it would set a precedent. Pete Dutro disagreed.

DUTRO: This was a big moment in this whole movement and I'm happy that we were able to help them.

VENUGOPAL: Perhaps the most telling aspect of Occupy Wall Street's evolution is the internal debate over whether it should apply for 501C3 status on its own and become a nonprofit. That would save it the seven percent of each donation that now goes to credit card fees and the Alliance for Global Justice. The downside is that 501C3s can't get involved in political elections and, as one protester, Elaine Brower, argues, the protest can't organize because it's in constant flux.

ELAINE BROWER: For taxes at the end of the year, so I think it makes sense for them to stay the way they are for now.

VENUGOPAL: And as another protester said, Occupy Wall Street is supposed to be a revolution and what kind of a revolution, he fumed, applies for nonprofit status?

For NPR News, I'm Arun Venugopal.

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