Wall Street

Coming soon? An Occupy Wall Street debit card

Colin Moynihan, New York Times
Occupy Wall Street participants take part in a protest to mark the movement's second anniversary in New York, September 17, 2013.
Emmanuel Dunand | AFP | Getty Images

To mark the second anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement last month, an assortment of protests, marches and rallies were held, to support or oppose mostly predictable causes.

At the same time, a far more surprising undertaking began with far less fanfare: creating a prepaid Occupy debit card.

The idea, led by a group that includes a Cornell law professor, a former director of Deutsche Bank and a former British diplomat, is meant to serve people who do not have bank accounts, but it also aims to make Occupy a recognized financial services brand.

On Sept. 17, the day of the anniversary, the group, known as the Occupy Money Cooperative, began raising money to pay for initial operating expenses. The group's Web site invites visitors to "join the revolution," suggesting that using the card might represent a "protest with every purchase." That language evokes the spirit of the sprawling encampment of tents and tarps that briefly took over Zuccotti Park in 2011, and several people who were familiar figures there have endorsed the mission of the card, which its founders have described as "low-cost, transparent, high-quality financial services to the 99 percent."

But not everyone associated with the Occupy movement likes the idea; the notion of the Occupy name emblazoned on a financial product, even one made by people with some connection to the movement, has prompted questions about who controls the name and message.

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"Too much blood, sweat and tears have been going into Occupy to have that turned into a piece of plastic," said Bill Dobbs, a longtime Occupy participant. "This is a very odd fit, and for the project's sake and Occupy's sake, they ought to go on separate paths."

From its beginning, Occupy's participants were protective of the group's name and image, rejecting association with political parties. Protesters invaded the set of a "Law & Order: S.V.U." episode that was based on the movement, and lashed out at Jay-Z when he sold Occupy-themed T-shirts.

The idea for a debit card sprouted more than a year ago, said Carne Ross, a cooperative member who resigned from the British foreign service in 2004 to protest the Iraq war. Mr. Ross was also a member of the alternative banking working group established by Occupy's General Assembly.

"There is no profit here," said Mr. Ross, adding that once the cooperative raised about $900,000, it would make the cards available to anyone who signed up on the group's Web site. "The only revenue we want is to make the thing sustainable and eventually expand our range of services."

(Read more: Two-year-old Occupy Wall Street has 'lost momentum')

Occupy Wall Street, two years later
Occupy Wall Street, two years later

There will be no upfront cost for the card, Mr. Ross said, but there will be fees, including $1.95 for A.T.M. withdrawals and 99 cents for balance inquiries.

The card appears to intentionally avoid high fees that other debit cards have imposed, said Dean Baker, an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "In general terms they are trying to have a very low-cost card," he said.

But when Mr. Ross participated in an "ask me anything" forum on the social media Web site Reddit in August, he was peppered with skeptical questions. Some of the most pointed criticism came in an article printed in Tidal, a magazine that examines the theories and tactics that formed Occupy and similar movements, which was headlined "Help Support Better Stronger Neo-Liberalism With the Occupy Money Cooperative."

The cooperative has also drawn criticism over its plan to establish a relationship with Visa, which some activists condemn because the company declined to process donations to WikiLeaks, the international organization known for publishing leaked information, much of it classified.

Mr. Ross said he respected the objection to Visa. But he said his group had no choice but to do business with that company or a similar one in order to produce a debit card that could be widely accepted.

Eventually, Mr. Ross said, the cooperative hopes to offer loans and other services that would benefit millions of people who do not use traditional banks, often because they cannot afford the fees.

While some organizers acknowledged that the debit cards could be put to good use, they said the term "Occupy Card" wrongly implied that the project had been vetted and approved by the movement as a whole. And several organizers framed their reservations as a question of legacy, saying they were disturbed by the possibility that a debit card could end up being the most lasting artifact of the movement.

"Occupy has always been a consensus-based movement," said Patrick Bruner, an organizer who was present on the first day of the protests. "And there's no consensus on this issue."

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