On the Human Microphone as Interventionist Form
Michael Nardone, Concordia University, Montréal
20 September, 2011. Occupy Wall Street, day 4: On the Broadway side of Zuccotti Park—then three days away from being renamed Liberty Plaza—an individual addresses a few dozen demonstrators in regards to the pending execution of Troy Davis in Georgia. "Sisters and brothers, it is ridiculous that I can not address you with a sound system. I just want you to think about it, how petty and stupid and insulting it is that on such a serious occasion, trying to stop a racist murder—" and then the sound fades out.
The man continues to speak, and gesture with his hands opened up before him, but the sound of city traffic and murmur of talk fill the public space, drowning out his words. Only occasional bursts of accented speech become audible. After several seconds: "Thank you very much for nothing." This sentence he speaks at a sustained volume above his previous words. Then, again, his voice fades out. Various phrases continue to rise above the ambient din: "who spent half of his life in prison" . . . "is going to be murdered" . . . "racist murder" . . . "that we're talking about here at Wall Street" . . . "where you've been camping" . . . "three nights." Over the next minute and a half, again, occasional phrases can be heard—"Wall Street responsible" . . . "profits instead of needs" . . . "motives behind wars" . . . "death penalty" . . . "a very powerful thing" . . . "a very necessary thing" . . . "occupying Wall Street" . . . "stop the execution of this innocent man" . . . "march united."
Earlier that morning, members of the New York Police Department informed the occupiers of Zuccotti Park that: "If you want to use amplified sound in a public space, you must get a permit from the Police Department." This meant that microphones and loud speakers—used throughout the previous three days of events and demonstrations—would from that point onward be banned at Zuccotti, and, as Richard Kim reported a few days later on The Nation blog, "the NYPD has also been interpreting the law to include battery-powered bullhorns. Violators can be sentenced for up to thirty days in prison."
On the evening of the 20th of September, the only spoken words to reach an amplitude loud enough to cross the space of Zuccotti Park were ones spoken in a call-and-answer unison. Two voices shouted: "They say death row!" A crowd voice responded: "We say hell no!" Two voices: "Death Row!" Crowd voice: "Hell No." Following this repetition, an individual voice called: "We Are," and a crowd voice answered: "Troy Davis." In this collective articulation of a single voice—in the figurative embodiment of a We in the individual Troy Davis, and the literal embodiment of individuated, multivocal speech voiced in collective unison—we have one of the first pronunciations of a unified crowd in the Occupy movement.
Following from Kim and Wanenchack, two of the first commentators on the human microphone at Occupy Wall Street (OWS), that "the human microphone should be understood as a technology in itself" (Wanenchack, 2011) and that "the heart of the occupation is most definitely unplugged" (Kim, 2011), I want to contextualize the development of the human microphone from September 17 to November 18 in the Occupy movement and discuss its formal qualities as a language-act and as a medium.
In regards to the activity of the human microphone, I am particularly interested in examining the relationship between listening practices and the participatory human-powered replication and distribution of voice. Following from Bernstein (1992), that "when poetry averts conformity it enters into the contemporary: speaking to the pressures and conflicts of the moment with the means just then at hand," and adjoining Protevi (2011), that "the Occupy movement shows us how the semantic, pragmatic, and affective—meaning, action, and feeling—are intertwined in all collective practices," I would like to sketch an initial poetics of the significant language-events in the first days of the Occupy movement.
Through an "intertwining of the semantic and the pragmatic - what we say and what we accomplish in that saying" (Protevi, 2011), I would like to discuss the human microphone in Bernstein's terms of "poetry as dissent, including formal dissent; poetry that makes sounds possible to be heard that are not otherwise articulated" (Bernstein, 1992). The formal qualities of these language acts--as rhetoric, as politic, and as poetic--are my particular interest and pursuit in this paper: the speaker and speakers, their utterances, the locality of their utterances, what and how they convey, the media and platforms that make this language mobile, and the repetition and difference of the language in its movement through and across bio-powered and digital networks of communications.
On the 21st of September, the general assembly at Zuccotti convened at 1 o'clock in the afternoon. There were several items on the agenda: the still-pending execution of Troy Davis, assembly procedures, arrest procedures, the methods for sharing documentary footage, specifically footage capturing the previous day's arrests, and then reports from the various sub-groups forming peripherally to the general assembly. The two facilitators, "Katchup" and "Emery," announced to all assembled that it's going to be "hard to hear people with different ability to vocalize what they're saying" and that people "need to be patient with the process and each other."
Twice, they called for everyone involved to move together closer. Before continuing to first items, the facilitators asked for two people to step forward and "to act as human mics," one on each end of the assembly. Moving through the agenda to announcements, the initial two human mics grew to several dozens of people repeating each speaker's announced phrase, carrying across the assembly space information regarding child care, news of occupations planned in other American cities and abroad, a proposal to found a Zuccotti Park clean-up crew, and a message from Noam Chomksy in solidarity with the movement's cause. Then, a man who called himself Radio Raheem, self-described as "one of the pioneers of the conscious hip-hop movement," stood before the assembly and, with the most enthusiastic support yet from the human microphone, declared:
We don't need //
an amplifier, //
we are //
the amp! //
From this point forward, a new model of communicative exchange took root at Occupy Wall Street. It is a model of exchange that—while articulating a model of how participatory and direct democracy is publicly enacted—became an initial focus for the first media commentators on the movement. It is useful, at this point, to recall the nearly complete mainstream media blackout on the subject of Occupy Wall Street in its first days. "After five straight days of sit-ins, marches and shouting and some arrests, actual North American coverage of [Occupy Wall Street]—even by those who have thought it farce or failure—has been limited to one blurb in a free newspaper in Manhattan and a column in The Toronto Star," Keith Olbermann broadcasted on his September 21st show. Olbermann then makes note of one media venue that acknowledged the uprising: Yahoo, "which blocked any e-mail containing the group's website with the message, 'Suspicious activity has been detected on your account.'" So, to situate the first utilizations of the human microphone within more largely defined network context, not only were mainstream sources of news refusing to acknowledge the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations as a media event, but also the controllers of user-driven social media sites were blocking users from disseminating information on the event.
It is also worth noting that during this specific span of time—from the afternoon of 20 September to the evening of 21 September—in the hours of heightening media attention and speculation concerning whether or not Troy Davis would receive a last minute pardon of execution, a controversy in regards to Twitter allegedly blocking "#TroyDavis" from trending was also rising across social media and blogs, and would continue to do so until after Davis's execution at 11:08 (EST) when, in minutes, "#RIPTroyDavis" went to the top of worldwide trending topics.
(See here, here, here, here, and here for more on the #TroyDavis blackout.)
It is within this extended blackout moment, within this controlled silence throughout a public, in which--
1.) police banned Occupy Wall Street demonstrators from using electric sound systems,
2.) North American major news media services, in news-censorship comparable to media suppression at the start of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, for five days refused to acknowledge the thousands of organized protestors demonstrating amidst the central hub of global capital in Lower Manhattan,
3.) social media networks such as Yahoo and Twitter, major venues of information exchange for revolutionary undertakings during the Arab Spring, intentionally blacked-out various politically volatile subjects from being relayed and thus from building some kind of public consensus, otherwise known as "digital repression," and, finally,
4.) an African-American man charged with the killing of a police officer in Georgia and, after nearly two decades of appeals, petitions, three stays of execution, and despite questionable testaments concerning racial prejudices and validity of evidence in the trial, despite the accused's continued statement of innocence, and nearly a million people voicing their objections in petition and in protest to his capital punishment, was executed
--that the occupiers of Wall Street had to seek out some new mode of communication, a new amplitude.
The simplicity of the human microphone, a "people-powered method of sound amplification" (Kim, 2011), is now well-known and much exhibited across media, both mainstream and social. In its first days at Occupy Wall Street, the collective utilization of this new technology was still uncertain, as one can hear/witness in this video of the General Assembly on the 25th of September:
The assembly moves in and out of using the human microphone. Initially, a member of a sub-group finishes her report:
We still call for //
questions and concerns. //This is a simple sentence, divided into two phrasal units, the first involving sentence subject and preposition, and the two mutual objects of the preposition in the second phrasal unit. The statement is tuned to the microphone in that it carries across it in full register.
Next, the facilitator asks: "How do you feel about that?" He calls for a vote from all of those in attendance, yet, oddly, the call for this vote is not carried across the human microphone. After the vote, using the various hand signals that have been developed throughout the course of the assemblies, a member makes a suggestion on the point in concern. None of her words, as she speaks them, are carried across the human microphone.
Members of the assembly, even ones in her immediate environment, begin to shout: "We can't hear!" The facilitator speaks:
What she said //
was that //
the proposal //
be written in paper //
so we can see it //
when we discuss //
whether or not //
to approve it. //This delivery is tuned to the human microphone, the phrasal units average exactly four syllable per phrasal unit, ranging: three syllables, two syllables, four syllables, six syllables, five syllables, four syllables, four syllables, four syllables. The facilitator then introduces an additional speaker in regards to the point under discussion. The new speaker begins:
Hello, I am very glad to see you all. //
Here's many good people gathered together. //In the second of these two 11-syllable phrasal units, the speaker loses half of the human microphone as people begin to relay "Here's many good people" as he speaks "gathered here together," which, as the one portion of the human microphone finishes on the word "people," the other portion of the human microphone begins "Here's many good people gathered here together." The speaker continues: "We need more people," at which point, the human microphone begins to relay, and the speaker continues to finish this single phrasal unit. Here, the technology of the human microphone has been momentarily disassembled. Someone in the assembly interrupts him, shouting "Mic check!" in order to reorganize the microphone, both the primary speaker and his relayers. The crowd voice responds: "Mic check!" The primary speaker attempts to begin again, starts to speak, an uncertain "So," and then, to reground his speaking, calls, again, "Mic check." This primary speaker then continues his words, this time in phrasal units ranging between two and seven syllables, averaging four to five per unit, and his words are properly relayed across the microphone.
Yet, there is significant change of a different order that takes place once this primary speaker was able to convey his words across the human microphone. This change is one of volume. With each uttered particle phrase, the repetition of the primary speaker loses a level of amplitude, and the crowd succinctness of each syllable begins to blur. The volume of the human microphone is of equal participatory order as is the decision to partake in it.
On the participatory quality of the human microphone, Kim (2011) writes: "it's almost impossible to demagogue, to interrupt and shout someone down or to hijack the General Assembly for your own sectarian purposes." Continuing from this point, Wanechack (2011) notes that the human microphone "cannot be co-opted by one person with one specific interest, because the components of the microphone must consent to their own participation. In that sense it helps to build and maintain a feeling of consensus in an environment that many have framed as ideologically fractured and unclear." The human microphone does create a language-level cohesion between those who participate, and, in most circumstances, can not be co-opted by others. Though, there exists within the technology of the human microphone the possibility that its machinery—the assembly—can participate in adjusting the volume, higher or lower, with intention.
In the following days, the protestors at Zuccotti Park, now renamed Liberty Plaza, would test and develop the human microphone during general assemblies and with a number of visiting voices to function as the primary speaker. The human microphone would relay and echo for the first time across mainstream media after Michael Moore's visit to the encampment on the night of September 26th:
Moore was uncertain at first what he might be getting himself into, pausing for a several moments after saying "Mic check," as though he were a new user of a personal recording machine rewinding and playing back his first recorded utterances. His impromptu speech, delivered through the human microphone to several hundreds across the plaza, tuned in with the human mic even as Moore uttered phrasal units of a fairly long syllabic length per unit (10-15). Though occasionally clunky, and textured often with sub-clausal phrases within a single phrasal unit, his off-the-cuff directness translated surprisingly well through the crowd voice.
Cornell West, professor and civil rights activist, begun the general assembly on the 27th of September in a language-mixture at once homily, jazz, and rhetoric style harking back to a earlier period American civic declamation:
As the primary speaker in the human microphone, West's phrasal units are often follow an iambic patter, with variations into spondees, dactyls and anapests throughout, more often than not these variations coming in the last syllables of each phrasal unit. West's language moves from a kind of civil rights affirmation of community and good feeling—
There is a sweet spirit in this place. //—to a jargonized political activism—
We oppose //
the greed of Wall Street oligarchs //
and corporate plutocrats //
who squeeze the democratic juices //—to humble playfulness—
I am so blessed to be here. //
You got me spiritually break dancing all the way here //—ending in the longest phrasal unit of his speech, a Baptist-styled benediction—
This is the general assembly consecrated from your witness and your body and your mind //West's rhythmic language and fluctuation of tones harness the people-energy of the human microphone to the highest degree. It seems more than fitting, on at the end of the sixth day of the human microphone at Occupy Wall Street, that the first phrases spoken by the crowd after West's speech are
We the people //
have found our voice. //
Within two weeks the Occupy movement expanded from Wall Street to a number of other American cities, with encampments founded in Chicago and Boston, and rallies held in Seattle, Los Angeles, Wichita and Maine. Within a month, the protests had spread to 951 cities in 82 countries. In each of its manifestations, the Occupy movement adopted various practices from the initial Wall Street camp, and developed new practices to befit each locality and its particular set of concerns. Yet, even in locations where there was no direct ban of electrical sound amplifiers, demonstrators used the human microphone as the de facto rhetorical form for collective discussion.
On the 3rd of November, in a platform shift, protestors repurposed the human microphone's ability to relay communications across space by transitioning its usage from a space of assembly to one of direct protest. When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, proponent of the union-breaking Budget Repair Bill, came to speak at a breakfast for Chicago's Union League Club, he was welcomed with a "Mic Check!"
Here is a transcription with some notation of this intervention:
It's an outrage and a shame //
that we sit here at this fancy breakfast //
to listen to someone //[Walker says: "Their voices are a little bit different than others out there."]
who has wreaked havoc //[Primary speaker in the human microphone changes.]
on the lives of working families. //
Governor Walker has vilified unions //
and insulted the 99%, //[Primary speaker in the human microphone changes.]
who depend on living wages //
and adequate benefits to support their families, //[Speaker from the Union League Club of Chicago (ULCC) takes the microphone from Walker and attempts to either have his electrically amplified voice drown out the human microphone or lure into in quietude via the utterances: "Hey hey hey hey hey woh woh woh woh woh woh woh."]
while on the payroll //
of the right-wing billionaire Kock brothers. //
It is not so different from our state //[A man from a nearby table comes over to where the video is being made, asks "How's it going, guys?" attempting to have the camera stop recording. When this doesn't work, he tries to pull the camera out of the cameraman's hands, saying "Put the camera down." This does not work, and the filming continues.]
where corporations and bought-off politicians //
clamor to find ways to grant //
a $100 million tax break //[The speaker from the ULCC says, "Can we have a round of applause here?" attempting again to drown out the human mic, this time by means of the bio-powered clapping of hands.]
to the Mercantile Exchange, //[The applause works much better than his prior attempt to hush out the crowd voice. And, in response, the primary speaker in the human mic shifts again to a speaker with a more resonant voice.]
one of the most profitable companies in the state, //
while social services are being slashed, //
while workers' pensions are being threatened //[In response, the non-human microphone crowd adds booing to their applause.]
and homelessness, poverty, and joblessness //
continue to rise. //[At this point, while the applause and boos fade, the primary speaker's voice raises to its highest amplitude.]
The CME has already taken //
$15 million in our TIF dollars. //
That's our tax money that would have gone //
to help the students in the Chicago Public Schools. //[At this point, any attempts to counter the human mic are silent, and remain so.]
It is ironic that we give Governor Walker //
free rein to say what he wants //
while the Mayor has ordered the arrest //
of over 300 people in Occupy Chicago //
who have simply tried to express //
their rights to freedom of assembly. //
The bottom line is that Governor Walker is out of touch with America //[The ULCC speaker, over the electrically amplified microphone, shouts: "Ladies and Gentlemen, hey hey hey hey." It has little affect.]
and working people will not honor //
anyone seeking to undermine our lives //
for the benefit of the 1%. //[The protestors have used the human microphone to deliver their entire message.
In unison, they shout in repetition:]
Union busting is disgusting! //[During the extent of the human microphone, Scott Walker has stood at the podium with his arms behind his back. The ULCC spokesman is standing beside him, speaking, gesturing with his hands, as though trying to convey to Governor Walker an important fact.]
This first instance of the human microphone used as an interventionist form noticeably caught every person in the banquet hall off guard. The people in attendance, ones there to actually hear Governor Walker, had no idea how to respond to such a seizure of vocal space. Walker's initial attempt to undercut the intrusion—"Their voices are a little bit different than others out there"—did nothing to either invoke amplitude from his possible support, nor did it have any impact to quell the human microphone. Attempts to physically preside over the primary speaker, to intimidate, silence or disrupt that first speaker, was easily fixed by a nomadic shifting of primary speaker responsibilities. This happens twice in the first several seconds of the human microphone intervention. When one speaker was confronted by either a security guard or a person from the audience trying to quiet them, the role of primary speaker was simply taken up by a different speaker who was in that moment not occupied. This rhizomatic shifting of primary speaker means the one central to the many can be any and all ones within the many.
The applause of those attempting to counter the crowd voice of the human microphone was actually quite efficient within the space of the banquet hall. This is a response that future counter-crowds would use against future demonstration of the human microphone as an interventionist form: with Senator Ron Paul, Karl Rove (who would respond to the human microphone disruption with: "If you believe in free speech then you demonstrate it by shutting up and waiting until the Q&A."), and President Obama. Though again, noticeably, the strength of the counter-applause does not have the organizational force behind it that the human microphone has, and so, in seconds, disperses.
In this event, the human microphone occupied a space of officially recognized power by means of its organized vocal amplitude. It is a precedent that would continue to disrupt and affect spaces of power in the midst of political campaigning (see mic check on GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann), would be utilised by student groups to disrupt the recruitment and normalizing of both finance and resource groups on college campuses (see Ohio State students disrupting a gas industry panel intending to promote hydro-fracking practices, and Princeton students disrupted a JP Morgan Treasury Services info session), and, in the moment of preparing a first draft of this paper, the human microphone was being used to disrupt the COP17 climate talks underway in Durban on behalf of supporting nations and peoples who did not have representation at the conference, and, therefore, no voice.
Yet, if the human microphone used as an interventionist rhetorical form is to be a stratagem of continuing impact, it, like the rhizomatic primary speaker in a public intervention full of contingencies and impromptu alterations, is going to have to shift in its design from one situation to the next.
"You use weapons. We use our voice."
In the moments leading up to and just after Lieutenant John Pike's use of pepper spray on seated student protestors and the police's use of excessive force against those demonstrating—in solidarity with the Occupy movement and against tuition increases—at the University of California at Davis, the initial chaos of verbal reactions within the space of the quad did little to form a collectively organized voice.
(this one for better coverage prior to spraying)
(this one for better coverage just after the spraying)
In the lead-up to the spraying, there are shouts coming from every direction as the main mass of demonstrators and onlookers are fairly evenly dispersed across the quad, as opposed to having their bodies organized as a single bulk mass. At different times, various rhizomes of collective voices across the quad shout "Don't shoot students!" but not once is the collective voice full of all of those in demonstration. Directives come in at every angle, each with a different foci: "Keep your eyes closed!" "Protect yourselves!" "They're going to come through." "Don't do this." "Move!" "Stand your ground!" "The whole world is watching." In this tension and its disorientation, the crowd is not able to achieve a fully collectivized voice, one that may deter or alter the mobilizing violence. Though, through the statements enunciated, there certainly is a collective sentiment of how to respond to the situation physically, it is one not collectively articulated verbally.
This changes. After Pike's 18-second spraying, it takes about 15 seconds for a rhizome of those not directly sprayed to begin a crowd voice repetition of "Shame on you!" This phrasal units last for about another 15 seconds, until it disperses into a splay of individual utterances. One of the loudest being a person shouting out the name of the pepper-spraying cop: "I want his name! What's his name? Pike! Pike! J. Pike!" In the moment of this identification, Lieutenant Pike had been kneeling for about ten seconds on the back of a young man, whose entire face was covered in pepper spray, as if to arrest the young man, yet several times Pike turned up at the demonstrators threatening them with more pepper spray. When, from the nearby periphery, the speaker shouted the above comment of identification, Pike immediately stood up and disappeared within the group of riot-clad police. As police used force to arrest several of the seated bodies that had just been pepper-sprayed, the un-unified splay of calls and shouts continued through the group: "Why? in repetition, "He's not resisting!" "Why are you doing this?" "These are children!" "This is America!" "This will be seen around the world!" One speaker began to exclaim a list of media servers: "YouTube! Ugo! Facebook! Twitter! ABC! CNN!" The cacophony of individuated or perspectival utterings from the crowd went on for just over two minutes after the end of Pike's pepper-spraying.
Right at the 4:48 mark on the video, the "Shame on you" repetition begins again, and then accumulates amplitude. As this phrasal unit escalates in volume, the police, following Pike's direction, start backing out. The crowd, now amassed in a discharge both physical and verbal, overwhelm the numerous police, who, despite their various weapons (baton, shield, pepper-spray, rubber-bullet rifles), retreat. As the police mass backpedals, the crowd voice shifts to a call an answer: "Who's university?" "Our university!"
This continues for another minute and, with the police at one of the borders of the quad, one voice yells out "Mic Check!" three times to summon the human microphone, and, once summoned, he is able to deliver a message:
We are willing //
to give you a brief moment //
of peace //
so that you can take your weapons //
and our friends //
and go. //
Please do not return. //
We are giving you a moment of peace. //
You can go. //
We will not follow you. //The crowd voice again returns in full amplitude:
You can go! //It repeats with force. And the police disperse.
It is against this achieved instance of crowd voice, that I want to position a second example of crowd voice at UC Davis, but one, again, of a different amplitude.
One day after the campus police's use of force to halt the demonstrations, Linda Katehi, chancellor of UC Davis, came under fire, both from within the university and by the public. Videos from the prior day's protest went viral immediately. The UC Davis Faculty Association, Department of English, and a majority of the Physics department held Katehi responsible for such excessive force to be used against university students who were peacefully assembling, and all called for her immediate resignation. Katehi's delay in offering any kind of response or disciplinary action in the matter only further aggravated those awaiting some reply from the head administrator of the university. That late afternoon, Katehi held a press conference in a university building on campus. Once Katehi finished the press conference and left the building she was greeted by several hundred protestors lining the pathways from the building to her car to the street, all sitting in absolute silence.
Here, one witnesses the negative capability of the human microphone: silence structured with new semantic affect. Following, the previous days attempts to use force to make silent a public, to evict a crowd voice, this assembled silence comes across louder than ever.
Repetition and Difference