Occupy Wall Street demonstrators carry dollar signs past the New York Stock Exchange, April 25, 2012. (Reuters/Andrew Burton)
One day early in the summer of 2012, two men in crisp business attire were talking about plastic debit cards at the Manhattan office of a financial services company. The men were interested in negotiating a deal to launch a debit card line. They assured the company that they would have a cooperative bank to go along with the cards eventually.
The two men were not, however, financial industry insiders trying to make a buck. Despite their suits and their surroundings, they were outsiders: activists who were part of one of Occupy Wall Street’s alternative banking groups.
A strand of Occupy is setting up a financial services cooperative. Last month, the Occupy Money Cooperative incorporated and launched its website. It will take its first step in the real world by issuing a prepaid bank card shortly that will most likely cost ninety-nine cents, or less, to purchase and serve as a kind of alt-checking account for activists, Occupy supports and, perhaps most important, people excluded from the mainstream banking system. Right now, it’s a small operation—there’s the board and then a group of eight members, all working part-time.
While these financial services bear the name Occupy, its backers are far from the shaggy activists that were once the Fox News stereotype. Occupy, in this case, consists of bankers and even a diplomat. In fact, some are so “inside” the system they are rebelling against that they have insisted to journalists that they remain anonymous lest they lose their jobs. And that is why they have been able to use the technical language of financial services insiders while leveraging outsider identities, values, ideas and goals. Christian Brammer, a 52-year-old financial consultant on the founding board of the group, worked for Deutsche Bank Group for almost sixteen years, for instance.
“It was a pretty nice career,” said Brammer, of his years at Deutsche (he now works as a financial consultant). His reasons for joining the Occupy Money Cooperative were clear, though. “The industry has changed a lot. Bankers forgot that their economic role in society is a utilitarian one. Payment systems shouldn’t cost huge amounts for people.”
In addition to the bank card, the cooperative aspires someday to offer a full range of banking services, including checking accounts, low-cost peer-to-peer loans and financial education. To get to this level of operations will be a difficult task, however. It will require the group to acquire a bank or a credit union, as Carne Ross, one of the cooperative’s members, explained. So the cooperative’s more immediate ambition is to raise several hundred thousand dollars in donations and, with those funds, pay the co-op’s initial operating expenses, working capital and small staff. For now, it will be a digital entity rather than a four-walled operation.
The group started meeting soon after the Occupy movement emerged in September 2011, with its first meeting in October. The members of the cooperative wondered: What if they could flip the banking relationship so that clients (in their diction “users”) owned the bank, rather than the other way around? The fall of 2011 was a dark time for the millions of Americans struggling financially, as well as a moment of dawning consciousness about the realities of today’s banking system, which can seem rigged. After all, banks make big bets and ordinary citizens bail them out; clients play by the rules and then banks stick them with a seemingly endless array of hidden fees, many of which fall heaviest on the poorest Americans. As The New York Times reported recently, even mistakes as small as a bounced check or a tiny overdraft “have effectively blacklisted more than a million low-income Americans from the mainstream financial system” due to obscure private databases that are used by major banks.