Ferguson, Missouri, a small community of just over 21,000 people, has been dominating the headlines in recent weeks. What began as controversy surrounding the shooting death of a local man has morphed into a clash between police, local residents and outside observers.
On August 9, a Ferguson police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old resident. This incident sparked local protests which were met by heavily-armed police officers in riot gear. By the evening of August 10, multiple local businesses were reportedly looted and vandalized. Over the next several days, escalating events included the firing of tear gas and rubber bullets by officers, the detention of reporters and the declaration of a city-wide mandatory curfew by Missouri governor Jay Nixon.
On August 18, the Missouri National Guard deployed to Ferguson. It took just nine days for a city to transition from relatively calm to chaotic enough for the governor to summon the military.
As we watch these events play out in the media, business owners elsewhere are (or should be) wondering whether a Ferguson-like situation could occur in their own communities. Generally, we have an understanding of which regions are most susceptible to natural disasters, but it can be much harder to predict where civil unrest will spread. According to multiple media reports, residents of Ferguson have expressed complete surprise at the escalating developments. In recent years, incidents of civil unrest have occurred in locations ranging from Tennessee to Pennsylvania to Oregon, with triggering events including a range from the departure of a football coach to police brutality. The reality is that civilian chaos can happen anywhere for almost any reason, and it can become dire very quickly.
For businesses, the risks associated with civil unrest include the disorder itself, as well as the government's reaction to it. The declaration of an official state of emergency allows the authorities to take dramatic actions affecting commerce. In Missouri, for example, a state of emergency permits the government to seize private property including fuel and communication systems, enact rationing or quota systems and to otherwise exert nearly complete control of a local economy.
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