Mic Check!

Notes on How the Mo(ve)ment talks and learns from itself during the American Autumn

by Mark Read
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It is impossible to translate into words the embodied experience of being at Liberty Square (Formerly known as Zuccotti Park) in downtown Manhattan during these last three weeks. #occupywallst is a living and breathing thing, a live culture, constantly evolving and changing. It isn’t even sure what it is yet, other than a bold and imaginative act of defiance and disgust- which is no small thing of course.

What follows is not exactly a research-based academic article. I am not an academic. Neither is it pure reportage and analysis. I am not a reporter or a pundit. Neither is it a call to arms. I am not a propagandist. This is an offering of notes and analysis from a participant-observer. It’s the product of interviews, conversations, and a lifetime of experience as an organizer, activist, thinker and writer. It’s an attempt to conjure up what tendencies are present within this emergent body and what that may foretell. At its most basic, it is a record of what I have heard and noticed, and how I interpret that noticing.


A Scene:

On Wednesday night, long after the labor march was over, some protesters decided to march on Wall Street. Thirty minutes or so after they left, word circulated through the crowd that they were being penned in on Wall Street, and the police were using pepper spray. The crowd- very large at that point, in the thousands- grew increasingly agitated. They tried to get to their brothers and sisters pinned down blocks away, but the police had blocked every street. They chose to try and take Broadway instead, and shut it down in solidarity. Arrests followed. As the police were dragging one young, scraggly man to a police van, he shouted out "Take the Street! Take the STREET!" Many onlookers took him to heart and moved bravely towards certain arrest. This would be the third occasion in four days where there were group, and sometimes mass, arrests. The total number of arrests is now over 1,000.

They are learning, and we are remembering, how to "step off the curbstone of indifference."* We are remembering how to be bold and uncompromising. We are remembering the meaning of solidarity in the face of danger as we challenge power directly. This will only increase as time goes on, and it is perhaps the most important thing that will come out of #occupywallst. A new generation has learned how to take risks, and have discovered that though it is frightening, they are not destroyed in the process, and indeed they are stronger and clearer than they ever thought they could or would be.

Many people are wondering now what will become of this moment. Will it become a movement? Nobody has the answers to these questions. What is clear is that the most important things for a movement to learn- courage, solidarity, inclusion- are being absorbed, deeply, by a whole new generation of activists. There are many the tools and skills that are necessary if any meaningful challenge to the current regime is to be mounted. #occupywallst may very well be the workshop in which those tools are forged. Stay tuned.

Ways of Speaking 1: The People’s Microphone

The situation with that is the NYPD doesn't let us use amplified sound. But this has actually been a blessing in disguise because what happens is, as one person speaks to the crowd, the crowd will repeat verbatim what that person said in an effort to amplify without having to use electronic equipment to do so. The reason why its been a blessing in disguise is because its led to this beautiful sense of solidarity between people where you know that the person is listening if they're repeating exactly what you're saying, so it really empowers people in a way that i haven't seen before at rallies. And in many cases you're having to repeat things that you may not agree with, which is a really interesting feeling. It kind of opens you up to other points of view in a way.

-Danny Valdes

This is not the first time I’ve seen this device used. It was used frequently during the alter-globalization movement for instance. Previously,I'd heard David Solnit of Art and Revolution once call it “The first amendment sound system.” Any group of people on the street that needs to communicate without the use of an amplification system has had to do this. But there is something new in the use of it here, and most certainly there is something new in the relationship that this body of people has with it.

They have come to rely on and utilize the people’s microphone constantly, throughout meetings large and small, impromptu and planned. They use it even when it may not be the most sensible thing to do**. It has become not merely a means to an end, but an end unto itself, and something of a fetish. There are powerful reasons for this. The people’s microphone, in the hands of these (mostly) young people, has become emblematic of who and how they are becoming. In this case, the medium really is the message.

Through the use of the people’s microphone, the occupiers are consciously and constantly performing their collective solidarity for and inclusion of one another, while simultaneously expressing their powerful desire to create a participatory democratic community. “I will listen to and repeat your words if you will do the same for me,” they seem to be saying, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will help you amplify your words.” With the people’s microphone, everyone has a de facto vital role to play within the functioning of the community. In this way, the centrality of solidarity, inclusion and participation within the culture of the occupation is continually re-asserted. These principles precede and supercede any ideological framework and absorb sectarian disagreements. The contradictions themselves are transformed into a sign of their commitment to these principles, which comprise a kind of Prime Objective for the occupation, and which will certainly be the foundational ethics for any emergent movement or organization that comes out of this.

They also use the tool with a dexterity that I have not witnessed before, and in a way that I didn’t think possible, a way that I am calling their “node mode.” Typically one would imagine using this tool (and I have only ever seen it used this way) to amplify one speaker, or one series of speakers, standing in one location addressing a crowd of repeaters. It’s a method for relaying important information, not generally used for conversation or de-centralized announcements. I first saw #occupywallst use the people’s microphone in “node mode” during the General Assembly meeting on day 14 of the occupation. Voices popped up from throughout the collective body (and I am talking about a body of at least 600 people), in quick response to one another, making brief announcements , asking and answering questions, and clarifying information. “Mic Check,!” someone would yell, “MIC CHECK!” And they had the floor. When they finished, another voice would rise up from somewhere else: “Mic Check!” And so on.

This went on without facilitation, without anyone calling on anyone (“taking stack” in activist parlance), which I assumed would lead to chaos and conflict until the facilitators re-asserted control over the proceedings But that isn’t what happened. The people who spoke were brief and on-point, and after about ten minutes these unscripted, decentralized vocalizations, it came back to the facilitators, who started the meeting. However “node mode” is even more prevalent during the day. When there isn’t a General Assembly, this sort of thing is the norm, and is going on all the time. In this way there is a a constant flow of information and collective conversation projected through a people’s microphone that is always “wired.”

Much has been made of #occupywallst. being the first true “internet generation” organized protest, the “network-mind” at work expressing a new kind of collectivity and horizontalism. (Daniel Rushkoff has probably written the best piece on this subject thus far). As skeptical as I am of some of these claims, the “node-mode” people’s microphone seems to me a very concrete manifestation of the logic of the internet transposed onto a body of people as they try to organize.

Ways of Speaking 2: Open Forums

All of us have gone through some form of formal education. We've all gone through kindergarten, first grade, middle school, high school. And then eventually you're pushed out of that system into the real world, and then all of a sudden the world as you know it completely starts to collapse. You've got an economy that's down in the tank, you've got jobs missing, you've got any number of problems with the country. Then if you come to engage at something like this, you start learning from each other. You start learning, whether its by exchanging one on one, or listening with 150 other people, or the General Assembly, you and I learn from each other. That's an amazing addition to any education you've received. You can't leave this park without learning something.

-Megan Robertson

On day 12 of the occupation I travelled to Liberty Plaza in search of the first official “open forum,” which was to be a discussion and informational exposition on the #spanishrevolution, or May 15 movement, upon which so much of the Wall Street occupation is modeled. I was excited. I had talked about it with my friend Leonidas Martin, of Barcelona. His descriptions of it had been vivid, and excited in me the hope that something truly new was possible in the world of activism. I had gotten a flyer the day before, announcing a schedule of daily “open forums” on everything from Economics 101 to the 2006 uprising in Oaxaca, to Technology and the Arab Spring. This more formally scheduled and structured educational forums had taken the place of what had up until then been more impromptu gatherings. When I asked my friend Brooke a few days earlier how the forums worked, she said "anyone can do one about anything, just stand up and announce that you're doing it." It seemed that now, as the occupation had grown in size and sophistication, there was an attempt to curate things a bit more.

The forum was scheduled to begin at 6:00, so I arrived at the northwest corner of the park at about 5:45. I asked the activists at the info table where I might find the open forum, and was pointed in the direction of the "big ugly red thing" (a reference to the absrtact-expressionist sculpture by Mark di Suvero situated at the southeast corner of the square).

This wasn't the first time I’ve come to the occupation. I'd been coming down almost every other day for a week, but I had generally been there at night, usually at the times of the General Assembly. Liberty Plaza was a very different scene during the day. As I waded through the overcrowded square, I happened upon circle after circle of people huddling together engaging in what seemed to be intense debates, conversations, and even lectures. The biggest circle was centered around two older men who were addressing a largish crowd gathered around them. From what I could hear it sounded professorial in tone, only stilted and slower because they had to use the people's microphone to be heard. Later I learned that one of those men was Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Laureate Economist. Other circles were smaller, and were focused on a variety of functions and topics. There was a facilitation training going on, as well as a direct action meeting, a process meeting, and up near the sculpture there was a circle of people I assumed had gathered for the "official" open forum on the #spanishrevolution.

I stepped in and quickly discovered that I was in the wrong place. This group was the "electoral reform working group," on of many issue-oriented groups that had formed over the course of the occupation, all tasked with the job of coming up with proposals for the General Assembly to deliberate on. I decided to stick around for a moment, and listen to some of the ideas circulating there. Though there was some variance, there was more agreement and consistency than one would have anticipated given the media treatment of the occupation. In one way or another, they all wanted to get money out of politics. The suggested mechanisms and policy options for doing that varied, and so they set about making their case to one another, educating each other, persuading each other. It was remarkably civil, and humbly civic in its goals. 

 Eventually the Spaniards materialized, and announced that the open forum on the May 15th movement would begin "now." I drifted out of the electoral reform working group and over to the open forum, but I was torn, and though I am happy to have learned more about the May 15th movement, I wish I could have also participated more in other discussions, and listened longer to other lectures. So much learn and so little time.

The occupation is thick with conversation. It is immersed in self and collective education. The range of knowledge, ideologies and analysis is incredibly wide-ranging and diverse. The entire enterprise is like a crash course in political education for everyone there, especially for the younger activists, who may have only had a formal education and not been exposed to much in the way of radical politics. I have heard some activists express the hope that all this mixing will lead to some kind of consensus, but I think this is misguided. To wish for some congealing, cohering process to follow from the collision of all these ideological frameworks and result in some grand consensus seems- to me- to miss the point. There will be many agreements I am sure, but not one overarching or all-encompassing platform. This is OK. The act of self-education and collective education is in itself a profoundly political act, and here in Liberty Plaza this minor miracle is happening around the clock.

Ways of Speaking 3: The Tyranny of Consensus

What I see as an obstacle is that the dominant trend is…a somewhat sophomoric analysis of democratic processes…that sometimes hinders the efficacy of [decision-making], and i think that there's a lot of knowledge here that's yet to be tapped as a result

-Michael Premo

The occupiers have inherited and adopted a decision-making process that has come down from earlier left movements and is lauded as the most democratic form of decision making. Of courser those who wish to see a more democratic society naturally gravitate to what has been billed as the most democratic way to make decisions. Consensus is what the radical left has responded with, for generations. Those of us that have worked within a consensus process model should know better by now, and we do a disservice to younger activists by allowing the myth of consensus-as-always-most-democratic to persist. We were told that the trade off was less efficiency for more democracy, and this simply is not borne out by experience, and most of my long-term comrades have come to recognize this. The only place where I believe that consensus process is genuinely more democratic than a majoritarian (aka voting) process is within a close (and closed) community of collaborators/co-habitants that have practiced the process for years. In virtually every other instance it yields less
democratic decisions and processes, not more.

The consensus process, when applied to large heterogenous groups such as the one at #occupywallst, yields hierarchies at least as persistent and pernicious as other forms of decision making, probably more. I, and many others, would argue that voting yields more truly democratic outcomes, if practiced responsibly and ethically (ie requiring 75% majorities and allowing ample time for discussion). In the current context the consensus process favors those that feel comfortable addressing crowds, and feel entitled enough to argue endlessly for their point of view. This does not describe most people, and these traits are most prevalent in people that come from privilege, particularly educational privilege. I hate to coin a Nixonian term, but the “silent majority” are those that don’t feel such confidence. For most people voting on something is the best way to ensure that they have a say in the outcome. The very idea that a marginalized, or even just shy person should be expected to feel confident enough to participate in an alien and confusing process, much less powerful enough to block a consensus decision is just plain ridiculous. So, in practice, the very people that are intended to be emboldened and empowered by a consensus process, are in fact marginalized and silenced. They cede the floor to the loud and the confident and the certain. That is not what democracy looks like.

The other problem that many of us know all too well is the creation of "invisible heirarchies." These come about in large measure due to the cumbersome nature of the decision making process. Consensus process simply does not scale well, and it becomes so inefficient that groups of people begin to take decisions on their own, because they are essentially forced into that position. This leads to problems of accountability, accusations of betrayal, etc...

And for what? A decision making model that falsely claims to be more democratic than voting? Many of us from earlier movements are very familiar with these problems, and yet too many of us uncritically jump on the bandwagon of consensus. Without some hard headed honesty about this, the fetishization of consensus will damage any efforts to build a more powerful, broad and diverse movement.

Ways of Speaking 4: Re-membering and Re-imagining Our One Demand

The very fact that this is happening… seeing this, its given people permission to dream in a way that a lot of people e haven't necessarily been given permission to dream. As a culture we're very passive consumers of information and news and this action that's occurring here, this living breathing democratic expression of people in the commons has sparked the popular imagination in a way that is more instigating than any book could ever be.

-Michael Premo

How does one make demands of a system that is as totalizing as late capitalism, where nearly every gesture of defiance is quickly enfolded within the fabric of faux-democratic consumer culture? To ask for concessions from the political class is to legitimize a political system that is morally bankrupt. Pleading with corporations to behave more kindly is even more degrading and nonsensical. Corporate power is the root of the pathology that is killing the planet and making democracy impossible. What are we to do? How are we to resist? What are we to demand?

These are the conversations that percolate constantly at Liberty Plaza. Go ten feet in any direction and you will encounter people grappling with this question of demands. In part this was set up by the original call to action put forward by Adbusters, wherein they asked "what is our one demand?" But since then, in the ensuing days and weeks the question has gone beyond the tactical to the existential, the ontological.

There are three camps: One Demand, Many Demands, and No Demands. The One Demanders are perhaps the most poetically minded group, with an eye towards gesture and evocation. They are also in line with the original concept: Make one, overarching demand on the system that speaks to the depth of the problems we face. On Facebook, the top response to this question was "revoke corporate personhood," and that remains popular but not unanimous among this set. Recently the "One Demand" that is gaining in popularity is "the space to have these conversations." That has a certain circular self-justifying sense to it, and speaks to the nature of this occupation, which is fundamentally about rediscovering the art and power of conversation itself. It also implicitly criticizes the lack of space that exists, and the ways in which the commons has been slowly taken way from the public, through processes of beauracritization and privatization.

The Many Demands group is the most technocratic within the body politic of Liberty Plaza. These are the policy wonks, and they want tangible reforms made to the system. Their document is available online as a work in progress in a Forum on occupywallst.org. They want to do things like reinstating Glass-Steagall, prosecuting Wall Street criminals, limiting the influence of lobbyists, and reversing the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. They are all laudable goals, worth fighting for. The conversation around this working document is the most heated and wide-ranging in the forum section of the site.

But increasingly the sentiment seems to be shifting towards no demands. To many in Liberty Plaza, reforming the system seems a far too limited goal, and they are resisting the temptation to give the pundits what they are calling for: a set of soundbites to be consumed quickly and understood immediately. The occupiers- or at least many of them- are beginning to come to the realization that distilling their existence into something that would circulate seamlessly through the mediasphere would inevitably distort who they are, what they have become and are becoming. There is simply no way for the kind of resistance that they are engaged to fit within the rigid ideological confines that bound what currently passes for political debate within this culture. The power of their doing is lost in any translation, even this one, surely. It’s a foreign tongue that is taught to one another in the speaking of it; a groping towards the liminal possibility for a just and sustainable and compassionate world; a discovering of something both very new and possibly very very old.

They are coming to this awareness and recognizing that the surest and truest way to resist this totalizing madness that we inhabit is to "create a new culture from scratch," as one occupier put it, one that is as thick and layered as the one they are trying to supplant. The most powerful statement they can make is to juxtapose their Life Well Lived against the one that markets itself as such. Their one demand is to form, perpetuate and promulgate a Resistance.


*Full Quote: "So, when you come to challenge the powers that be, inevitably you find yourself on the curbstone of indifference, wondering "should I play it safe and stay on the sidewalks, or should I go into the street?" And it is the ones go into the street first that will ultimately effect the change in society" --Abbie Hoffman

** For instance, during the march across the Brooklyn Bridge, a large group of people took the roadway of the bridge and were eventually penned in by the police, who, began arresting them one at a time. People were above them on the pedestrian walkway, communicating with them via the People’s Mic. They were, in fact, attempting to conduct a meeting then and there, involving both the people on the bridge, and the people on the walkway. Someone suggested sitting down. The discussion went back and forth between the walkway facilitators and the roadway protesters, who then couldn’t figure out a way for them all to sit down because it was crowded. The faciliator on the walkway, using the people’s mic, tried to orchestrate the people below to move around and make enough space so that they could all sit down. It’s hard to describe, but it was a comical scene, or would have been if so many people hadn’t been so upset and nervous. The people’s mic and the laboriously slow communication process that it imposed in that situation wasn’t serving the people on the bridge. If they had just turned towards each other and started to move around and make room, they could have figured it out pretty quickly.