“We thought about buying a bank”

The founder of the new Occupy debit card meets the ideological haters head-on

Arts+Culture Q+A
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Last week, an offshoot of Occupy New York raised more than a few eyebrows with its latest initiative: a debit card. Bloomberg described it as a “caving to capitalism”, while DIS branded the people behind the card as “heart-warming yuppies”.

Occupy Money Cooperative, the group behind the idea, is hoping to crowdfund $900,000 to launch the low-fee, prepaid debit card. l by Carne Ross, a former British diplomat turned Occupy activist and four other Occupy members, the card has been met with a mix of skepticism, outright hostility and tentative praise.

In a Reddit AMA, Ross said that the card was a means of “reappropriating banking for the people”. Here, he defends the Occupy card against its critics and tells Dazed how the hate is all “bullshit”.

We were born in Occupy, we are committed to Occupy... The whole thing absolutely embodies what Occupy’s all about

 Dazed Digital: How did the idea for an Occupy card come about?

Carne Ross: We’re just a small group of volunteers to launch that as a first product; hopefully that will give us momentum and membership to so that we can then expand our membership services. A group of us met in the early days of Occupy; we called ourselves the Alternative Banking Working Group and spent a long time debating banking, alternative currencies – we thought about buying a bank. We basically came to the conclusion that we needed to set up a new institution that would manifest the qualities and values of Occupy: democracy, transparency and inclusiveness. The card was kind of the first service we plausibly could offer because it’s something we can set up relatively easily.

DD: So who's is the target market for this card?

Carne Ross: The unbanked. The people who need these cards are the people who don’t have proper bank accounts; in America that’s about 40 million people who are denied checking accounts for one reason or another. The banks often offer these cards to these people but they’re very exploitative – very high fees, hidden fees: it’s basically a racket and we’re trying to break that. What we are aiming to do is be a co-op that offers the full range of financial services and will be better than the for-profit banks. That has the potential to revolutionize the financial industry.

DD: How do you feel about people who have accused this of co-opting the language of Occupy as a branding tactic?

Carne Ross: Well I think it’s outrageous because we are Occupy. We were born in Occupy, we are committed to Occupy – some of our group members are the people who helped to start Occupy. So the whole thing absolutely embodies what Occupy’s all about – so, it’s just bullshit basically. It really disgusts me. The implication is that we’re exploiting it. We’re all volunteers, we are making no money out of this what so ever. On the contrary, most of us have put our own money into it. So I’m really outraged when people accuse us of exploiting the Occupy name for private benefit. It’s a disgraceful accusation.

DD: But you do understand why some people are angry about the very idea of an Occupy card, right?

Carne Ross: I think it’s ridiculous. We are offering a product that is better and fairer than what is currently out there. You ask a person who is unbanked whether they want this or not and they will give you a pretty damn, clear answer. I am sick and tired of ideological purists preventing real action to help people who need it.

The negativity? The hostility? It’s a bit depressing to me

DD: One major controversy is the fact the card will be on the Visa network. Can you explain your relationship with Visa?

Carne Ross: We didn’t have a choice. If you want to have a card that is nationally useable, you have to use something like Visa; there is no kind of ethical alternative. If you wanted to set up a card that a tiny minority of people wanted to use for political reasons, then you could have gone with something else, but we wanted to offer something that is going to actually help people. Visa will get only a tiny, tiny proportion of the fees.

DD: So how do you feel about the whole controversy over the card?

Carne Ross: The negativity? The hostility? It’s a bit depressing to me. This is basically a good thing, and it’s done with the best of intentions according to some pretty firmly held values. Unfortunately within Occupy – I’ve been part of it here in New York City for a while – there’s an awful lot of this kind of thing, people just attacking each other. I don’t know why people feel compelled to do that. We should all be helping each other, we’re all trying to achieve the same thing and there are different ways of achieving it. If somebody has a better idea of how to replace the current banking system, I’d be delighted to support it.

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