The People's Microphone

“Mic check!” The shouted exclamation punctuates the days at Occupy Wall Street (OWS). A lone voice yells it from somewhere in the crowd, soliciting the hoped-for response, “mic check!” yelled back by all within earshot of the initial call. Often the response is weak the first time around. Maybe the caller is surrounded by people new to the movement, who aren’t yet familiar with the rituals, or don’t yet feel comfortable making them their own; maybe the voices around her are tired, from so many days and weeks of the people’s microphone. But with a second, often more insistent call, “mic check!” the surrounding voices rise in response, “mic check!
Amplified sound requires a permit in New York City for which OWS has applied repeatedly, and been denied. While this ordinance is unevenly enforced across the city’s landscape, violating it in Liberty Park would give the police an expedient rationale to end the occupation. Yet messages still have to be communicated to thousands of people, whether during decentralized days of small-group work or during the nightly General Assembly meeting at 7pm. The people’s microphone is the solution. Perhaps tracing a genealogy to the phrase’s use in hip hop, the call of “mic check!” followed by its response, “mic check!” from all who heard, begins what is one of the most definitive experiences of communication at the occupation–the repetition and amplification of one another’s voices.

“There will be-” shouts a caller,
there will be-” responds the collective,
“a teach in-” she continues,
a teach in-” we respond
“on cooperative economies-“
on cooperative economies-“
“under the red sculpture-“
under the red sculpture-“
“in ten minutes!”
in ten minutes!

Amplified by the voices of many, the voice of one can spread through the crowd without amplified sound.

The people’s mic is available to anyone in the park at any time, and it becomes both a tool of radical equalization and an embodied ritual of spending time in the movement. Cornel West, Slavoj Zizek, Joseph Stiglitz, Naomi Klein, Russell Simmons, Michael Moore, and other public figures who have come to the park to express solidarity all used the people’s mic, speaking in short bursts and pausing as they listened to the amplified chant/echoes of their words spreading through the assembly. When particularly large crowds gather–on the weekends or in nightly General Assembly meetings–there can be two and sometimes even three “generations” of amplification, so that the original utterance echoes outward into the far reaches of the crowd. In talking to MSNBC about his experience at Liberty Park, Joe Stiglitz commented on the people’s mic: “we have too little regulation of banks, but too much regulation of our democratic processes. I could not talk yesterday with a normal bullhorn. I’ve talked [to activists and gatherings] in other places, and this is the first time that there’s been that kind of restraint to communicating with a large group … This is not the way other countries have allowed their demonstrations to communicate with each other.”

Stiglitz’s criticism on the strictures of democratic processes juxtaposed with the libertine deregulation of financial processes is well taken, and it points us to the ways in which the people’s microphone is a synecdoche for the larger issues at stake: Occupy Wall Street aims to show that despite living in a democracy that has been radically attenuated by the financialization of everything from our personhood (credit scores) to our citizenship (private campaign finance), we can and will speak back. Our numbers will amplify us if our money will not.

And yet at the same time, as an inhabited practice, the people’s microphone is difficult. It is strenuous and cumbersome, vulnerable to fatigue and a lack of mass participation. An otherwise brief announcement, sent over the people’s mic to a large crowd, can take ten minutes or more. Attention spans wane; voices get hoarse; rhythm gets off and instead of a unison echo, people’s words get jumbled into a polyphony of partial repetition. And other noises are everywhere. The vigorous drumming and chanting that continues from morning until night in the down-slope corner of Liberty park does not stop during the General Assembly, in deference to radical democratic ethics in which everyone can freely express their participation without being policed by others. In addition, there is a city work crew which begins to jackhammer an adjacent sidewalk every evening shortly after the 7pm meeting time. (Talk about passive resistance! Lovely to see the city having to resort to weapons of the weak.) With its difficulties and aural competitors then, the people’s mic seems also to be a lesson in the burdens of direct democracy, a lesson in the obstinacy required for intentional, durable citizenship.

At the General Assembly on October 11th, a young man who introduced himself as Ian (“Hi I’m Ian,” “Hi I’m Ian“) explained that he had developed an app for the movement.

“It amplifies my voice-“
It amplifies my voice-
“through your phone!”
through your phone!

In other words, were his idea to be implemented, people could call his number for free access to the application, and then sit together in smaller groups in order to hear what was being said, without having to yell. Perhaps it will be an elegant solution to the problem of amplification. Undoubtedly, it will come with its own difficulties and exclusions, and require its own forms of obstinacy. But the cry of “mic check!”–one voice seeking many–will surely endure.

Hannah Chadeayne Appel is an anthropologist, and currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia’s Committee on Global Thought. (Top photo by PAVDW.)

Hannah Chadeayne Appel