Preparing for Protests: What Companies Need to Know to Protect Their Employees and Facilities When They Find Themselves in the Path of Protests

Article excerpt

IT'S NOT HARD CONVINCING SOMEONE TO visit Florida in winter. It's probably even easier to convince someone who has an emotional or philosophical reason to come. So it came as little surprise last winter when protesters flocked in and around Miami's Intercontinental Hotel to voice their disapproval of a proposed free trade treaty during a meeting of the Free Trade Area of the Americas Conference (FTAA).

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For several months before the conference, labor advocacy groups opposed to potential trade revisions openly discussed plans to protest the Florida FTAA meeting. Training camps--to educate advocates about civil disobedience tactics--were established both in Florida and in other states, such as Michigan.

Conference officials were on edge because the talks represented the first international trade negotiations to occur on U.S. soil since protesters opposing the World Trade Organization (WTO) wreaked havoc on Seattle in 1999. Convinced that one of Seattle's errors had been a failure to show sufficient force, riot police, supported by concrete barricades and armored vehicles, greeted protesters in Miami.

From a law enforcement perspective, the approach was regarded as a success; however, it did not completely prevent violence, property damage, and business losses. Demonstrations and clashes took place in front of area businesses, and pepper-spray devices were detonated inside banks. Many businesses took financial hits in terms of lost revenue due to street closures and restricted pedestrian access. And the confrontations left both police and protesters bitter. The Florida experience illustrates the strengths and limitations of law enforcement tactics: Large-scale riots were averted, but businesses still suffered significantly due to lost revenue.

At the very least, public demonstrations may cause street closures that disrupt business operations. At worst, public demonstrations can deteriorate into civil unrest or violence, during which law enforcement agencies will prioritize protection of the citizenry over the protection of personal and commercial property.

Companies will fare best if they plan ahead how they will prevent or deal with problems that might arise. The planning should include an assessment of the political and economic climate, public perceptions of the company, and the types of protest groups that might be encountered in a protest. Personnel responsible for protest response planning should also develop a general understanding of the psychology underlying extreme behaviors, and liaise with law enforcement regarding police plans for protest events.

Political/economic climate. Each company must begin with a macro assessment of the situation in its environs. For example, companies in the United States must monitor citizens' concerns about war, terrorism, and economic instability. Distrust of government is likely to grow among sectors of the population that question the justification for the war in Iraq. For the many who lost savings or jobs during the economic and stock market downturns of the last few years, and for those who continue to worry about layoffs and outsourcing, there may be hostility to business in general.

Companies need to be especially attuned to the changing political climate in an election season, as is the case now. In election years, big business may become a focus of campaign rhetoric, which plays on public suspicions that big businesses are disproportionately driven by greed, are disloyal to their employees, are insensitive to the environment, and are prone to unethical and unjust behaviors.

The convergence of a hotly contested presidential race, war weariness, and economic worries could create a "perfect storm" of sorts. Events that seem to provide high-profile opportunities for political interest groups, such as environmental activists, to voice their views are more likely to draw huge crowds when all these factors coalesce, and these events have significant potential for violence. …