Anatomy of a protest: Occupy Seattle vs. Jamie Dimon of Chase

Dec 20, 2011

What happens when the captain of the financial industry is brought to Seattle to celebrate business leadership in the middle of a populist revolt aimed directly at the wealthy and financial companies?

Pepper spray. Arrests. Speeches. And a very nervous Seattle business school, caught in the crossfire, whose gala event of the year could be wrecked. What follows is a close look at the events and decisions leading up to the Nov. 2 clash in downtown Seattle gleaned from emails and documents obtained by KPLU. 

On Nov. 2, the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business held an event for roughly 900 of the region’s top business leaders, students and faculty.

Nearly 18 months prior to the event, the school’s leaders pulled all the strings they could to get Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase and the highest-paid chief executive officer among the heads of the six biggest U.S. banks, as their keynote speaker.

No better target could have been designed as a foil for the Seattle version of the “anti-greed” protests that began in New York City on Sept. 17 and quickly spread across the country, and then internationally.

Protesters in Seattle started the day by occupying a Chase Bank in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Police arrested five who had sprawled out on the floor. Then, as many as 300 of the protesters moved downtown where they weathered the cold and incessant November rain to stand out front of the Sheraton chanting, blocking traffic and eventually several getting arrested.

Soon the police would begin “indiscriminately pepper spraying into the crowd of people.”

(A short video from the protest.)

The contenders

Dimon, 54, has been the Chief Executive of JPMorgan Chase since 2005 and has a total calculated compensation valued at $20,816,289 by Bloomberg Businessweek.

Chase and its outspoken leader became big news in the Northwest when it took over the failed Washington Mutual in 2008, and subsequently laid off thousands of WaMu employees. About 3,400 WaMu employees in the bank's downtown Seattle headquarters lost their jobs, reports the Seattle Times, and Chase vacated most of WaMu's downtown Seattle office space when it took over.

Occupy Seattle and the international movement against economic disparity and perceived corporate greed adopted the slogan “We are the 99 percent.” That slogan caught on and tops the Yale list of this year’s most memorable quotes. Its other common refrain is “Banks got bailed out we got sold out.”

In the run-up to Dimon’s visit to Seattle, Occupy Seattle quickly identified his appearance at the UW business school’s event at the Seattle Sheraton Hotel on Nov. 2 as their next big protest target. He had already been pursued by Occupy protesters around the country, including at his home in New York City.

Sage Wilson, one of the organizers of the rally and march, told KPLU that Dimon was a target because, "He is the embodiment of Chase as the bank and big banks in general. He is the top 1% of the 1%.”

And, because of Chase’s takeover of WaMu.

UW school caught in the middle

The UW Foster School of Business’ premiere event of the year is its Business Leadership Celebration. Many of the top business leaders in the northwest and beyond attend.

The event not only engages those leaders with the school but raises roughly $65,000 for scholarships. This year was the school’s 20th event and its largest, according to emails obtained from the school through the Freedom of Information Act.  

It is a tightly scripted affair [pdf] with many drafts of speaking points, schedules and networking to bring in the guests of honor – for 2011 two of the biggest honorees were the cousins Bruce and John Nordstrom, grandsons of Seattle-based Nordstrom’s founder John W. Nordstrom.

Along with the usual wrangling over seating and who could attend the private reception with Dimon, business school officials also ordered up extra police and security – but stopped short of making everyone show ID as they entered.

Emails between school administrators show they did “fully expect a significant protest presence for our event.”

In its letter to attendees about the event, [pdf] it added the paragraph:

“Also for your information, individuals involved with Occupy Seattle are planning a demonstration Wednesday evening. While we expect any protest to be peaceful, the staff at the Sheraton Seattle is taking every precaution to ensure an evening with minimal disruption. Hotel security and Seattle Police Department officers will be on hand, both inside and outside the Sheraton, the entire evening.”

Getting Dimon

Dimon was credited as being one of the influences that helped draw so many people to the event.

To get Dimon to deliver the keynote address, the school relied heavily on one of its more prominent and involved alumnus: Phyllis Campbell. In addition to being the chairwoman of the Pacific Northwest Operations for Chase, Campbell was a past recipient of the leadership honor and earned her MBA from the school in 1987.

Clash at the gates

Once Occupy Seattle made it clear that it would show up in force to disrupt the school’s event with its protest against Dimon, both Chase and the school began fielding media requests to interview Dimon and be present at the event.

On Oct. 27, days before the dinner and Dimon’s appearance in Seattle, a Chase PR person shared with the school company talking points in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement, with provisions to adjust to the city in question.

“It’s a tough economic environment,” the talking points begin, “and many individuals and families across the country are feeling the pain. We respect the rights of people to speak their minds. Those are the principles upon which this great country was founded.

“Too many people are unemployed and they’re angry.

“But JPMorgan Chase’s commitment has always been to do business in a responsible way and to help the communities we serve.”

The email goes on to enumerate [pdf] the many ways the bank has helped country through hiring, lending and so on.

Only two interviews in Seattle

Two regional news organizations were granted interviews with Dimon.

The Seattle Times said Dimon “wasn't losing sleep over the Occupy Wall Street protests,” although he told the paper that he understood the frustration with the poor economic recovery among Americans.

The bank's acquisition of WaMu's mortgages has turned out to be a bad experience for Chase, Dimon also told The Times. The portfolio's losses are expected to exceed $40 billion, and he regrets buying WaMu in 2008 in a government-assisted fire sale.

About all those foreclosures?

"We've done a million modifications, OK?" he said to The Times. "We don't want people to be kicked out of their homes. We are trying to keep everyone in their home that we can keep in their home."

He told the Puget Sound Business Journal he was for regulatory reform and tough banking oversight, but believed it could be made more efficient.

Meanwhile, Occupy Seattle reports on its Website

“ … at 6pm, over 300 demonstrators marched on the Sheraton Hotel where Mr. Dimon was speaking. They raised a loud voice in unison against Chase's corporate greed and then hundreds proceeded to lock arm and block the entrances to the Sheraton letting the 1% know that they can no longer proceed with business as usual in Seattle. Demonstrators believe they prevented Mr. Dimon from leaving for at least three hours.”

In the end, as King 5 reported, six protesters were arrested and pepper spray was deployed outside the hotel.

(A video from the protest.)

KPLU sour grapes?

Though KPLU requested an interview with Dimon and officials from the school days in advance of the event, this Seattle NPR member station did not receive an invitation from the school, or Chase.

The business school told KPLU reporters it would try to line up the dean, but the interview did not materialize (apparently because one associate dean worried about the school being “washed in with the Wall St./Dimon wave”).

On Tuesday, the school said no one would comment for this story.

As for interviewing Dimon, the school said that was up to Chase. And, while Chase did not return any reporter emails or phone calls prior to the event, Darcy Donahoe-Wilmot, a PR person with Chase, did respond to a request to interview Dimon for this story:

“Thanks for your interest in speaking with Jamie Dimon. However, we’re going to pass on this request,” she wrote.

KPLU was also, apparently along with all other media, denied access to the event.

Consequently, it is not yet known in the media what Dimon told those gathered at the leadership dinner. However, we do now know the questions he was going to be asked on the event stage:

The missing answers

In the program for the event, Dimon was scheduled to give a short opening address followed by a Q&A led by business school professor Morela Hernandez, in which she would ask three to five questions.

Here’s Dean Jim Jiambalvo’s response to Hernandez’ original questions sent for his edit [pdf] in an email on Oct. 22: “I made a couple of changes –most minor but one corrects, I believe, a factual error about the US versus Europe at the turn of the century.”

Questions the school intended to ask Dimon (pared down – see original document for the complete list):

  • As you look at the institution of business, what do you think that business leaders can do to enhance their trust with the general public? The banking industry, in particular, has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the public. How can this important institution regain its legitimacy?
  • Who has been an impactful leader in your life? Where do you find inspiration today? How do you inspire others?
  • How do you view a leader’s role in times of crisis and change? What advice would you give the leaders in this room tonight?
  • You’ve talked in the past about the importance of surrounding yourself with truth-tellers. However, in times of crisis, when things are bad – really bad – how do you balance truth telling with optimism?
  • What’s your biggest leadership challenge today? And how do you approach it not only in terms of strategy but responsibility?
  • What do you want your legacy to be?
  • Are you superstitious?
  • Do you have political aspirations? If so what are they?

These are the questions we would like to know Dimon’s answers to. If you were in attendance or have video of the event, please share them by sending them to jellison@kplu.org.

On the Web:

  • A leadership video from the UW Foster School of Business:

 

Editors’ note: To keep the cast of characters down in the above story, we have referred to the UW business school in general throughout, though of course there were individuals involved. The three main players on the school’s side involved in most of the email exchanges were Dean Jim Jiambalvo, Associate Dean for Advancement Steven Hatting and Director of Alumni and Media Relations Andrew Krueger.

 Full disclosure: Jake Ellison worked for the UW Foster School of Business as senior writer in 2009 to May 2011 before becoming KPLU’s online managing editor.