On a typical fall day in mid-September, 1,000 protestors marched through New York's Financial District. They may not have known it at the time, but they were launching a global movement.
Occupy Wall Street still lacks a defined agenda but in essence it is dissent against economic inequality, corporate greed, government corruption and what the disaffected consider a run-amok financial sector that instigated a global recession. Since protestors took up residence in nearby Zuccotti Park, similar "Occupy" protests have spread to more than 1,000 cities across the globe. Some peaceful demonstrations turned violent as protestors clashed with riot gear-equipped police who attempted to control the crowds or clear them from public spaces with the help of tear gas and bean bag rounds. Despite this, the demonstrations continue and have sparked a national debate that will likely help shape the U.S. elections of 2012.
The Occupy movement, however, is only the latest protest in a year in which social unrest boiled over throughout the world. Whether the ultimate cause was a faltering economy, social injustice, human rights abuses or government repression, disaffected populations worldwide took to the streets to rail against the status quo. In the Middle East, demonstrations became revolutions as long-standing regimes in countries including Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were toppled and the Arab Spring swept the region. In Greece, violence became common as outraged citizens took to the streets to denounce the austerity measures imposed by an insolvent government they had lost faith in. Organized protests in Spain, Portugal, Israel and Chile further highlighted the economic and social concerns. And even riots with a specific single cause, such as August's UK riots precipitated by a police shooting or the Vancouver riots following a hockey team's Stanley Cup loss, took on a new life as they seemed to reflect deeper societal concerns than what their initial flash point would suggest.
This climate of social unrest has had serious implications for governments around the world, but from a business standpoint, riots and protests have additional costs. Companies cannot operate in a riot zone and face the possibility of costly damages from unruly crowds. Resulting business continuity and supply chain issues not only harm the company in question but all those they partner with. And should a protest bring about new regulations-or even a new government-it will add vast uncertainty to the area. Companies can rarely afford to be idealistic. Change may be good, but many businesses have to be wondering if, ultimately, it will be profitable.