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October 26, 2011

It should come as no surprise that the Queen of Soul was onto something.

The past few weeks I have been pondering the growth and spread of the Occupy Movement and the related undercurrent of political disquiet sweeping across the political spectrum here and abroad, and have wondered aloud what they might mean from a homeland security perspective. This week I am in New York to attend the Northeast Conference on Public Administration, which will be focused on the theme “Building Trust and Confidence in the Public Service.”

The paper I am presenting at this conference draws on several themes I have already explored in greater detail in this forum for many months. Drawing on these themes, I question whether the high public trust and confidence typically shown in public safety officers, particularly firefighters, translates into anything meaningful when it comes to public policy and effectiveness. After all, governors and state legislators enjoy incredibly low public trust and confidence ratings, but nevertheless managed to muster the political capital in several states needed to overcome objections by public employees unions and a small but committed band of supporters to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

Given my interest in the Occupy Wall Street movement and its spin-offs, it only seemed reasonable to conduct some field research last night in Zuccotti Park. When I arrived shortly before 9:00 p.m., the protesters were still going strong. A police cordon around was established around the park perimeter and a strong police presence was evident, including representatives from NYPD’s community affairs unit. The south side of the park was populated by TV satellite trucks from CNN and a couple local stations.

Although activities in the park were lively and loud, they certainly weren’t out of control. Small groups were in evidence amidst the tent city, and small groups of people could be found engaged in conversation. A few protestors on the east end of the park and someone dressed in a Santa suit made sure the TV cameras had something to shoot. At a teach-in or lecture in the southeast corner of the park, the crowd could be heard repeating the speaker’s main points in unison as a means of amplifying the message and projecting it beyond the reach of the meagre sound system.  Tables of leaflets and a lending library at the northeast corner of the encampment provided a large a diverse assortment of propaganda and reading material consistent with unfocused themes filtering through the gathering.

To be certain, the presence of anarchists, truthers, and cannabis legalization activists amidst the throng was clear. But so too were people from 18 to 80 years of age from what seemed a wide range of social, ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds. This was not simply a student protest or a protest led by unemployed workers or one promoting any single social agenda. The unifying theme, to the extend one could be found, seemed to be the overwhelming sense that the vast majority of Americans have grown disaffected with and disconnected from the social and economic system they once believed would ensure their success in exchange for hard work and good behavior.

Probably the most striking characteristic of the gathering was the utter absence of evidence that it was organized in any way. That said, posters at the main entry points promoted what passed for community standards. They seemed more like a plea or a pledge than any kind of command.

As I completed my walk around the perimeter of the park, I stopped for a moment to speak with one of the NYPD officers on the cordon. Officer Sheehan seemed young, but by no means naive or inexperienced. When I asked him whether he was yet to the point of having dreams that he came to work and found the park empty and the protesters dispersed as if nothing had happened, he smiled wanly and said he didn’t think the protesters were that much trouble. “They don’t want a piece of us, and we don’t want to mess with them,” he said.

As we talked, I explained that I was intrigued by his response in light of both my reason for visiting New York this week and coming to the park on this particular night. I told him I was more and more doubtful that public trust and confidence were helpful in implementing public policy even if they are useful to its making. As we talked candidly, I wondered aloud whether the best if not the most we could hope for in the near term was respect for government and its agents as opposed to genuine trust and confidence in their intentions and actions.

As we ended our conversation, Officer Sheehan sighed and said, “Yeah, respect. That would be nice.” Maybe the Occupy protesters are onto something after all.

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