Occupy Diversity: The Prologue

filed under Anecdotes and Stories, Cultural Change, Current Events.

Two days before a trip to the east coast early this fall, I got an email from my financial advisor.  He said, “There was a very good Goldman Sachs note available today, so we put some in your retirement account.”

“Goldman Sachs?!” I said.  “My son just asked if I wanted to go to New York City and Occupy Wall Street with him on one of the only two days I’ll see him at college while I’m out there.  Goldman Sachs?”

I told Jacob this story on the train into New York City that Saturday. Deciding to tell the rest of the story publicly was more difficult.

“Fear suppresses the truth.”  – Anonymous comment on live streaming channel, 10.08.11

October 1, 2011 was a soggy Saturday. The subway station nearest our destination was unexpectedly “closed for construction” so I raced down Broadway after my long-legged son, dodging umbrellas. We got to the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge and stood with a growing crowd while over 700 marchers were arrested on the bridge.

The New York Police Department is, visibly, a highly diverse workforce.  Many NYPD officers were visible that day.

Diversity and the Police

There’s a unique business case for diversity in police departments. When these departments reflect the diversity of the community they serve, officers in them may establish trust or communication more quickly. That trust adds flexibility for responding to critical situations and achieving the public service mission.

At the Brooklyn Bridge, the uniform was more salient than any other identity. Officers of different ages, races, ethnicities, genders and accents formed a blue barrier between those on the bridge and those off the bridge.

Musings on Police Work

Municipal police forces do jobs that most of us don’t want to do.  When I came face to face with a man cutting my screen door in an attempted break-in as I worked late one summer night, an officer was on the scene within minutes and gave chase by foot.  When I went to administer a cultural climate survey to a division of one PD, two officers met me at the door apologizing profusely for leaving. They had just received a hot lead on a hit-and-run in which a child had been killed days earlier. They had to respond immediately.

These incidents barely touch on what’s involved in police work.

Police have to be prepared to deal with a wide range of emergency and potentially dangerous situations while also using relational skills to safeguard public interests. Enforcing the law includes both fighting crime and protecting constitutional freedoms.

Not all officers are equally good at using such a complex skill set under any circumstances.  In the past few years, police duties have become more complex while municipal budgets have shrunk and “homeland security” demands have grown.  The median salary for a typical patrol officer juggling these demands is $50,031.

This year, JP Morgan Chase donated $4.6 million to the NYPD Foundation. It is the largest donation in the foundation’s history.

Inclusion and the Public

Jon Stewart says that the media today appears to have only two settings: “blackout” and “circus.”  Someone flipped the switch on that October 1.  News teams were all over the place, capturing stories as isolated individuals began to walk off the Brooklyn Bridge.

The stories did not reflect the noblest side of the policing profession. Were marchers indeed invited onto the bridge in a friendly fashion and then closed off by the police from in front and in back?  Where they indeed picked randomly one by one for arrest?  Were other intimidation tactics and excessive force employed?  Reports from those who had been on the bridge were consistent.

On the ground, a peaceful crowd continued to grow. The police tried to move people along. Uniformed hands went up to block cell phone cameras.  “When we’re done with them,” an officer said to my son and others for  no reason I could determine, “we’re arresting you.”

In the crowd, a call and response began.

“Whose streets?” a protester shouted.
“Our streets!” the crowd responded.

“Whose city?” came the shout.
“Our city!” the crowd answered.

“Whose police?” came the shout.
“Our police!” the group answered.

Then the group chanted, “Join us! Join us! Join us! Join us!”

There was something I didn’t anticipate. A call for inclusion. No more “us” and “them?”

As we stood in the chanting crowd, I thought of my many different colleagues and clients, including those in police departments. I couldn’t help but wonder: what they would think if they knew I was here? The media portrayals had been so different from the reality.

Occupy Wall Street had been portrayed as a disorganized gathering of the young and disheveled.  The “Tea Party of the Left.”  A drumming circle.  A message-less band of malcontents. But it was not any of that.  It was multi-generational, multi-racial, multi-faceted and quite thoughtful.  It was then, and is now, a movement like the U.S. has not seen before.  Said one sign, “We’re not Democrat, we’re not Republican, we’re American.”

Without permits for microphones or loudspeakers, protesters use the now-familiar “People’s Microphone.”  Anyone can choose to communicate with the crowd by shouting, “Mic Check.” The crowd repeats, “Mic Check.” Once attention is focused on the speaker, the speaker then puts forth their idea in half sentences.  The crowd repeats the half sentences, amplifying the speaker’s words, so that everyone can hear.

Marchers who had been held on the wet bridge for hours slowly gathered.  Some were upset; some seemed dejected. It was getting dark. Then a man shouted, “Mic Check!” He said, and the crowd repeated, “It’s time we march…   on Police Plaza One!” He was referring to NYPD’s headquarters, a few blocks away.

The crowd was restless.  Some people started to move in that direction, but a woman shouted, “Mic Check!”

Some of the moving crowd said, “Mic Check!”
“MIC CHECK,” she said again until the full crowd responded.

“We are not…”
“We are not…”

“A mob mentality!”
“A mob mentality!”

“I suggest…” she politely shouted.
“I suggest…” the crowd politely repeated.

“We march back to the park….”
“We march back to the park…”

“Regroup, and rethink our strategy.”
“Regroup, and rethink our strategy.”

As soon as the crowd finished repeating her words, everyone turned and marched back to Liberty Plaza – on the sidewalks, stopping for lights.

Meaning of the Message:  Equity in the United States

“We are the 99%” is a reference to Nobel Laureate and economist Joseph Stiglitz’s study showing that the top one percent of Americans control over 40 percent of U.S. wealth.  It is also a simple but powerful statement that tells a coherent story.

“We are the 99%” speaks to a shared humanity.  It acknowledges that a successful economy is driven by the many rather than by the ultra elite.  And it calls attention to the undermining of equity, of shared prosperity.  While hand-held signs across the country in this movement may seem on the surface to speak in different voices to different  issues: joblessness, poverty, sustainable energy, degradation of the environment, bailouts, the mortgage crisis, Citizens United and corporate personhood among them, they have in common a call for the equity that is the promise of this nation.

Back to Business

Since my trip to NYC, Occupy Wall Street has become a household phrase.  While large OWS encampments have been dismantled, often with unnecessary – and sometimes shocking – force, and while some small OWS groups have made real mistakes that turn off even staunch supporters, there’s a lot to learn from this movement. These lessons can even be applied to building a high-functioning team or a business. Let me put it this way: if OWS was a product that had spread across the country this rapidly, my financial advisor would be buying stock in the company for my retirement plan.

Here are a few of the top line lessons:

  • Lesson 1.  Question what you think you know. Make decisions based on data rather than on assumptions, fear of what people might think or what you see in the media. Go ahead.  Go to New York – or whatever that equivalent step is to get out of the box in your thinking. Gather new information and apply it to current challenges.
  • Lesson 2. When confronted with conflict, include. Many formal conflict resolution methods begin with prioritizing the relationship between those in conflict. An invitation to “join us” – to work together on a shared problem or to at least consider commonalities between opposing sides – can defuse conflict.
  • Lesson 3.  Make space for different viewpoints. Better results happen in environments that accommodate opposing voices.  Under those conditions, even a lone voice may raise a better idea and steer the team onto a more productive path.
  • Lesson 4.  Stay focused on your mission. There will always be obstacles and forces bigger than your endeavor.  While these obstacles may seem to demand immediate and dramatic response, it’s often wise to step back, regroup and rethink your strategy according to the bigger picture.

It’s taken me months to decide to post this blog, in part because the Occupy Movement has been so miscast that I feared repercussions in my business.  Yet, truth will out.  There’s increasing evidence that equity offers a superior model for economic growth, and that some corporate diversity efforts have missed these and other key lessons that would allow them to achieve equity – the ultimate diversity goal.

“The choice today is not ‘are people scared or not.’ People are scared. The problem is who will determine the meaning of this fear.  This is our work.” – Philosopher and critical theorist, Slavoj Žižek, speaking at Liberty Plaza on 10.08.11.

3 Responses to “Occupy Diversity: The Prologue”

  1. Jody Alyn

    Here’s a link to a story about retired Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis and his remarks about Occupy Wall Street: http://tiny.cc/4dbdh. If the link doesn’t work, cut and paste into your browser.

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