Anyone who’s been down to Occupy Wall Street and stayed for a General Assembly will instantly recognize the call and response that begins, and frequently interrupts, each meeting.
“Mic check?” someone implores.
“MIC CHECK!” the crowd shouts back, more or less in unison.
The thing is—there’s no microphone. New York City requires a permit for “amplified sound” in public, something that the pointedly unpermitted Occupy Wall Street lacks. This means that microphones and speakers are banned from Liberty Plaza, and the NYPD has also been interpreting the law to include battery-powered bullhorns. Violators can be sentenced for up to thirty days in prison. Further complicating the matter is the fact that Liberty Plaza is not actually a public park. It’s privately owned by Brookfield Office Properties, landlords to Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, and in addition to amplified sound, they’ve also sought to ban sleeping bags, tents and other equipment from what they call “Zuccotti Park.”
So despite all the attention given to how Twitter, Facebook and livestream video have helped spread the word, the heart of the occupation is most definitely unplugged. But the protesters aren’t deterred one bit; they’ve adopted an ingeniously simple people-powered method of sound amplification. After the mic check, the meeting proceeds:
with every few words / WITH EVERY FEW WORDS!
repeated and amplified out loud / REPEATED AND AMPLIFIED OUT LOUD!
by what has been dubbed / BY WHAT HAS BEEN DUBBED!
the human microphone / THE HUMAN MICROPHONE!!! (jazz hands here).
The overall effect can be hypnotic, comic or exhilarating—often all at once. As with every media technology, to some degree the medium is the message. It’s hard to be a downer over the human mic when your words are enthusiastically shouted back at you by hundreds of fellow occupiers, so speakers are usually pretty upbeat (or at least sound that way). Likewise, the human mic is not so good for getting across complex points about, say, how the Federal Reserve’s practice of quantitative easing is inadequate to address the current shortage of global aggregate demand (although Joe Stiglitz valiantly tried on Sunday), so speakers tend to express their ideas in straightforward narrative or moral language.
There’s something inherently pluralistic about the human mic too; it’s almost impossible to demagogue, to interrupt and shout someone down or to hijack the General Assembly for your own sectarian purposes. That’s clearly been a saving grace of this occupation, as the internecine fights over identity and ideology that usually characterize left formations haven’t corrosively bubbled over into blood feuds there—yet. The human mic is also, of course, an egalitarian instrument, and it exudes solidarity over ego. No doubt, a great frenzy erupts when left gods like Michael Moore or Cornel West descend to speak, but many people only hear their words through the human mic, in the horizontal acoustics of the crowd instead of the electrified intimacy of “amplified sound.” Celebrity, charisma, status, even public-speaking ability—they all just matter less over the human microphone.