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.
But the greatest hidden virtue of the human mic has been the quality that almost every observer has reflexively lamented: it is slow. I mean incredibly, agonizingly, astonishingly slow; it can take over an hour for the General Assembly just to get through a nightly refresher course on group protocols before starting in on announcements, which precede debate about anything new, like whether or not the occupation should make a list of demands and if so, what those demands should be. Imagine collectively debating and writing the Port Huron Statement, by consensus, three to five words at a time.
But really, what is the goddamn rush? As my colleague Betsy Reed points out, it’s Occupy Wall Streets’ raw anger and simple resistance to being beat down (sentiments well suited for the human mic) that have captured the public’s imagination, not the elaborate policy proposals of other efforts. As days go by and as the press attention heats up, the occupiers will be under increasing pressure to speed things up: to issue a list of demands, appoint spokespeople, nominate leaders, enumerate an agenda. I’m not sure they should go there—they did manage, over two weeks, to arrive at a consensus for a first statement, which if you think about it is a mind-boggling achievement—but if they do decide on demands, it will be at a plodding pace over the human mic. That’s a good thing; the longer Occupy Wall Street can stay relatively indeterminate, the longer it has to capture the symbolic power of resistance itself.
The rest we can figure out; the protesters plan to be there through the winter, so we have plenty of time. Think of it as slow growth activism, one that poses a provocative counter-model to Wall Street’s regime of instant profits. After all, it was in the offices and exchanges surrounding Occupy Wall Street that the financiers sliced and diced assets with mind-numbing speed. Enabled by vast and unregulated databases of information, the genius of quants and fancy algorithms and the whirl of flash trades, they ruled the economy on the principles of simultaneity and speed.
That did not work out so well.
It is, of course, ironic that New York City’s attempt to crackdown on political protest by restricting “amplified sound” unwittingly ended up contributing to the structural strength of its rowdiest protest in decades. But like in Egypt or Argentina or Belarus or other places where the authorities sought to silence speech, the people found a way to be heard.
So how about it, can I get a mic check for this one: The people have the power.
Michael Moore meets the human mic:
Joe Stiglitz gets amped: