The “Occupy Wall Street” protests in New York and similar demonstrations in many other cities in the US and around the world should serve as a wake-up call to the business community. These demonstrations highlight potential security vulnerabilities every business should be aware of. Firms that have offices and personnel in the areas affected by the protests should prepare for these protests to continue for some time. They should also be ready if the protests change course from the largely peaceful demonstrations we’ve seen so far, to ones characterized by isolated cases of vandalism or other violence.
So far, to the credit of their organizers, these protests have been largely peaceful. At this juncture, we’re really seeing the beginnings of a battle for public opinion. The protest movement has chosen a deliberately leaderless hierarchy. They call it a “horizontal movement”. Should this protest movement continue to gain momentum, watch for the current leaderless hierarchy to morph into a more centralized one. This happened during both the French and Bolshevik Revolutions and in the US, during the anti-Vietnam War protests in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Every business owner in the path of the protests should evaluate their action plan just in case the protests should turn violent. Now, at this point it’s hard to predict, but violence is often more likely to escalate with a centralized protest leadership structure. The exception to this would be if a Gandhi- or Martin Luther King-like figure emerges to lead the protest movement, but that seems unlikely at present.
Factors external to the protest movement itself, such as a perception that excessive police force was used or if protestors’ demands were not being met, could also influence how the movement’s leadership hierarchy develops and the degree to which the movement itself espouses violence.
Banks and other financial institutions are the primary targets of the demonstrators’ ire. Other businesses that are publicly identified as being a part of “Corporate America” are also in their sights, but no business, large or small, is immune from the possible spill-over effects should the demonstrations take a violent turn.
For companies affected by these protests, now is a good time for them to review their physical and personnel security policies and plans. If they are able, they should also test the effectiveness of those plans.
On the physical security side, firms should work with local police to ensure their facilities and personnel are protected. If they haven’t been instituted already, firms should conduct “100 percent” identification checks of people who are entering their larger facilities. All bags and briefcases should be searched if the company implements heightened security measures. Companies should also ensure there are several layers of physical security within the facility to protect employees if someone with violent intentions gets beyond the entrance. All entrances to a business need to be secured at all times.
Companies with more than 10 employees should consider establishing their own Crisis Action Teams (CATs), so they can craft a coordinated response should the security situation dictate. CATs are often on-duty 24/7 until a crisis subsides. One of a CAT’s primary duties is to provide information to the entire staff so they can proactively ensure their own safety if necessary. One way to do that is to have an established alert system with “call trees” or “phone trees”, where the CAT calls a designated person, who then starts a call chain of previously determined employees to pass on information.
Any brick and mortar business is at risk of being looted should these protests turn violent. The London protests from earlier this year are a prime example of what can go wrong once local police forces lose control of the situation. Businesses should take prudent measures to protect their property, but should avoid the temptation to dispense vigilante justice. Crime and punishment are the core competencies of law enforcement and the courts.
The bottom line is that businesses need to be prepared for every possibility. They must have comprehensive accountability and security mechanisms in place to protect their people and property. Establishing a CAT and implementing enhanced security and employee accountability measures can provide long-term benefits if properly implemented. If a business’ plans are realistic and its people are properly trained, it can weather any coming storm.
Cedric Leighton is a United States Air Force Colonel (USAF, retired) and was a Deputy Director at the National Security Agency in 2010. Leighton was deployed five times to the Middle East and assigned to the United States Special Operations Command. Leighton is the President of Cedric Leighton Associates, a DC based, strategic risk management consultancy.