Occupy Wall Street: How the People’s Mic Works

I hung around the Occupy Wall Street protests in downtown Manhattan last week for a couple of days. Here are a few things I saw that I liked:

  • a quiet meditation circle, just a few steps from noisy Broadway, where about 60 people sat in peaceful contemplation
  • a great march that proceeded west on Wall Street, north on Broad Street, up to the Federal Reserve Bank, and back to Wall
  • cops that were mostly friendly
  • cheerful rapport between protesters and Wall Streeters at work (“join us!” “yeah, whatever”)
  • well-organized free food for those living in Zuccotti Park
  • a vast do-it-yourself protest sign-painting operation
  • a few highly active drum/dance circles and horn jams
  • various informal information stations where tourists could ask questions
  • an open performance spot, where a young girl sang a song and a poet read a poem
  • a small group earnestly discussing techniques of non-violent resistance

The best moment for me came Friday night just after dusk, when I began hearing that a general assembly was about to take place somewhere nearby. Curious as to what exactly an #occupywallstreet general assembly would consist of, I asked around and got pointed to a spot in the middle of Zuccotti Park. There seemed to be nothing going on at this exact place, so I hopped up to sit on a wall and wait. A few minutes later a group of people who turned out to be the regular facilitators of each evening’s general assembly began to gather around me. I had picked the right place to sit, and was now in the center of the action.

Soon somebody right next to me yelled “Mic check!”, and a group of people milling around us yelled back “Mic check!”. At this call, others began to melt into the group, and people began to sit down on the park’s paved floor. Soon there were about 250 people gathered around. Four of the facilitators sitting next to me stood up and introduced themselves, and one of them explained how the communication in this large group was going to work.

It’s called “the People’s mic”, and it’s designed to allow a large group to hold an assembly in the middle of a noisy city without speakers or amplification. One of the facilitators explained it to the crowd: first, a speaker says a few words in a normal voice, no more than half a sentence at a time. The speaker will then pause while many people sitting nearby will repeat the same words together loudly, thus amplifying the speaker. Next, the facilitator explained, those sitting at the far edges of the circle will repeat the same words again, to let the speaker and facilitators know that they are being heard clearly by everyone in the group. Since the second repeaters are directly facing the speaker and the first wave of repeaters, this second wave has a beautifully conversational effect, reminiscent also of a Greek chorus. Something like this:

SPEAKER: We are working …

SPEAKER: on a statement of principles

SPEAKER: that we can approve tomorrow

It’s amazing how this technique of speaking transforms the art of oratory. It requires those speaking to keep it short (which is a great thing at a protest rally). It also imparts a slightly comic Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque irony at unexpected times, as when one speaker coughs and then apologizes.

SPEAKER: I’m sorry
(laughter all around)

Believe it or not, this slow but powerful method of speaking kept the large crowd enraptured for well over an hour on Friday night. Various hand signals were put into play: wiggle your fingers if you like something, block with crossed arms if you disagree with what the speaker is saying. There were over a dozen speakers, each representing “working groups” that had met in smaller circles earlier that afternoon. There was a public relations working group, an Internet working group, a translation working group, a food working group, a labor working group, a legal working group, a “principles of occupation” working group (which eventually came up with this statement).

Since I was sitting near the facilitators, I became one of the repeaters in the first wave. It felt great to be a part of this communication exercise. You can hear a recorded example of a similar meeting (though this is only a single wave, not a double wave) on Ed Champion’s blog.

Some of the speakers at this meeting seemed comfortable with the “People’s Mic”, but more than half of them were befuddled by it, and kept making the same mistake: they would hear their words repeated back to them by the first wave and then nervously begin speaking again just as the second wave delivered the second repeat. This would cause the communication to falter, and whenever this happened somebody else would save it again by yelling “Mic Check!” (“MIC CHECK”, “MIC CHECK”).

I’ve been a part of many protests in my long life, but I’ve never seen anything quite like the People’s Mic. I’m really encouraged that it works so well. When I’ve read history I’ve sometimes wondered how large groups of people could have communicated before the age of amplification — during, say, the English Civil War, or one of William Jennings Bryan’s campaign speeches. I’m still not clear how this was done at various times in history, but maybe they used something like the People’s Mic too.

I found a lot of significance in this communication technique. I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends about the #occupywallstreet protests, and I often hear the complaint that the protesters “have no agenda”. This may be true, though I don’t think it’s necessary for such a divergent group to conform to a single agenda. We all knew why we were there — at least I knew why I was there. Nicholas Kristof came up with a fairly decent stab at an agenda in this New York Times piece.

However, I’m not sure if the many people who work in the downtown New York City financial district knew what the protests were about. I heard one guy in a suit and tie loudly ridiculing the protest on his cell phone. “I have no idea what they’re protesting,” he told his friend.

I wanted to interrupt him and say: “You look older than three. You don’t know what happened in 2008?”. Is it possible that anybody working for a Wall Street bank today really doesn’t know what this protest is about? When I worked on this street years ago, I was disappointed to find no discernible intellectual culture at all within my working environment, and I think it is possible that many people who work for JP Morgan Chase or Citibank or the Federal Reserve go to work every day without ever thinking about the larger implications of the work they do. Well, if anybody working on Wall Street today doesn’t know why American citizens are furious and feel abused by the financial sector, then these protests may be more essential than anyone realizes.

But Marshall McLuhan told us that the medium is the message, and I can’t think of a better illustration of a medium that is a message than the People’s Mic on Friday night at Zuccotti Park. It really worked, and it held a group together for some pretty thorny and complex conversations. Everybody got along. We all listened to each other and heard each other. The fact that this group could communicate so well was, in my opinion, what these protests were really about. Maybe this amounts to some part of the “message” that many outsiders are asking for.

I saw a sign on the ground that said “Delete the banks. We’ll create better ones.” Learning to communicate as a group means learning to trust as a group, and that’s what I saw happening all around me at Zuccotti Park on Friday night. Organization. Planning. Courtesy. Open communication. The medium is the message, and the medium of communication I saw on Wall Street on Friday night is all the message I need to hear to know that this protest group is totally on the right track.

23 Responses

  1. Sounds like fun.
    To the

    Sounds like fun.

    To the extent that it has any meaning other than self satisfaction and feeling superior over others, it has neofascist overtones.

    Their language “delete the banks” and “occupy” definitely have militaristic overtones.

    Strawberry fields……..

  2. Neo-fascist! TKG, I spent
    Neo-fascist! TKG, I spent two days down there — it was not a fascist mood.

  3. Thanks for writing …. I
    Thanks for writing …. I appreciate reading a first hand account …

  4. Hi Levi,
    Glad you chose

    Hi Levi,
    Glad you chose to attend the protest – even if only out of curiosity, at first. This action has spurred the powers that be to ridicule and scorn. It reminds me of something –oh, yeah, the Tea Parties of three years ago. That inchoate and spontaneous combustion also set off the rhetorical sprinklers, and with similar complaints.
    Your report indicates to me at least, that these people are far more serious, well organized and determined to succeed – to say nothing of creative!! -than anyone has yet given them credit for. The usual gripe that they lack an agenda is a hollow gong. (The exact same charge was leveled against the Tea Party protesters, before it became profitable to back them!)
    Frankly, I suspect it is a media/pundit tactic of stalling the news and reviews, so to speak, until they get a better sense of its durability and the public’s reaction. (They are afraid to admit they know what it is about: they would have to take a stand, and until they know where the money is to be made, they can’t pick a side.)
    When it gets to Providence – which I hear it will soon, I will be there and I will know why. The disappointment, the disenfranchisement and the disgrace which is the present state of our public life is motivation enough to shout out. This is what it will take to get their attention. Whether it is from the right or the left, the criticism is real, it is honest, and it is directed at the feckless officials of our government –not at each other.
    I hope this latest “meme” – that it is a response to, as in opposition to – the Tea Party does not take hold. Our only real hope is in a general, and peaceful, uprising of all Americans, each from his or her own sense of injustice and disillusionment.
    This is a hopeful thing.
    P.S. I have posted a rather fiery political notice on my own blog, that I hope you will look in on.

  5. Hi Levi,
    I do think that

    Hi Levi,

    I do think that there are fascistic overtones, yes. The entire idea of occupying. The idea of disrupting people’s lives because you don’t like them or what they do is fascistic. The idea of deleting people that you don’t like.

    But, I don’t think that is the conscious idea of most that participate, and I don’t want to be so heavy, I’m just making a point that the idea of not liking what people do then means you go and occupy their space sounds pretty darn aggressive.

    As far as this action, I also don’t know what it is about per se and I don’t think the 2008 events have anything to do with it. I say this because these activities are not new and have been going on for decades.

    This is an offshoot of, or related to, the No Business as Usual Days that have been going on for decades. If anyone remembers the Short, Sharped, Shocked album by Michelle Shocked, it had a cover photo of her being held in a headlock by the cops at just such a rally. That album came out in 1988. These sort of protests have been occurring in good or bad economic times.

    What you describe is fun and I agree it doesn’t seem fascist in spirit within the ranks — its fun.

    I see it as a way for people to get together and feel good about themselves and a fair bit morally superior to others. This movement to me is more a sort of alternative religion. People get to gather together and have spiritual like experiences, eg drum circles and the people’s mike you describe. The people’s mike is also a good brainwashing technique as well as being pretty cool sounding.

    Sentiments such as “Delete the banks. We’ll create better ones” strike me as hollow and also quite self serving and self righteous more than having any true significance. And, as mentioned before, the “delete” aspect is fairly ominous (but I don’t think they are serious and it is theatrical rhetoric).

    I don’t think they can actually create better banks. If they could they’d be doing it or would have done it rather than having a big party in a park and trying to hassle regular working people.

    I am reminded of Muhammad Yunus who actually has been trying to create better banks (he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006) with his development of microfinance.

    Levi, I really appreciated your post a while back on rejecting the apocalypse. I think that this occupy movement is a little too much along those lines where they are buying in to the apocalypse.

    And I always remember the anti-aparthied sit-ins from when I was in college. One fellow, a deadhead tie dye maker friend of mine was telling me about the demonstration and all that and the last thing he says was, “and I met a cute girl.”

    Oooh la la….vive la difference

  6. TKG, let’s review what
    TKG, let’s review what fascism is, shall we?

    Fascism ( /ˈfæʃɪzəm/) is a radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology.[1][2] Fascists seek to rejuvenate their nation based on commitment to the national community as an organic entity, in which individuals are bound together in national identity by suprapersonal connections of ancestry, culture, and blood.[3] To achieve this, fascists purge forces, ideas, people, and systems deemed to be the cause of decadence and degeneration.[4] Fascists believe that a nation requires strong leadership, singular collective identity, and the will and ability to commit violence and wage war in order to keep the nation strong

    As per your other statements:

    “The entire idea of occupying. The idea of disrupting people’s lives because you don’t like them or what they do is fascistic. The idea of deleting people that you don’t like.”

    I guess in addition to being a communist, Dr. King was a Nazi too. Wow, who would’ve thought? And Gandhi too! But if banks want to disrupt MY life by playing with the global economy, well, that’s just fine and dandy. Also, unless you believe in the fiction of corporate person hood, “deleting” a bank is not the same a killing a human being.

  7. jeez, come on now. is there
    jeez, come on now. is there no end to the inexplicable apologism for wall street crime? the protesters are fascist? you’re kidding, right?

  8. TKG, I appreciate your more
    TKG, I appreciate your more balanced second post but yeah, I’ve got to agree with the others here — you’re really stretching credulity with “fascist”.

    I suppose you could say that any political gathering resembles fascism in a very general way — in the sense that fascists did like to have a lot of meetings. But that’s the only possible similarity between fascism and #occupywallstreet, and the differences are gigantic.

    Like: fascists tend to support corporate power (it was the wellspring of Hitler’s support), and these protesters are protesting against corporate power.

    And: fascists are obsessed with individual leaders, and #occupywallstreet is doing everything it can to resist any semblance of individual leadership.

  9. Politics aside, being that I
    Politics aside, being that I train people in public speaking, I find the manner (and length) in which the oratory was carried out sounds fascinating – kind of like the kids telephone game only without errors (hopefully).

    For some reason it made me think of Monty Python’s Life of Brian with the Sermon on the Mount scene when the Python troupe kept getting the message wrong:
    Blessed are the Greek?
    Blessed are the Cheesemakers?
    Classic stuff!

  10. Note that all I said was
    Note that all I said was neofascist overtones. There was no outright condemnation as fascist or totalitarian at all, nor any claim that anyone involved was a fascist.

    I think that if this were a right wing movement my observations would resonate more strongly with readers of this blog.

    I certainly don’t want to argue political ideology or the merits of the demonstration in any adversarial or divisive manner.

    I will cite an abovementioned description:

    “[3] To achieve this, fascists purge forces, ideas, people, and systems deemed to be the cause of decadence and degeneration.”

    and also point to an essay by Umberto Eco called Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt and these observations of Eco and ask only that one consider these observations of Eco in the context of the rhetoric of Occupy and in the context of a similar movement if it were right wing.

    “3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake”

    “6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration.”

    “8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.”

    “9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”

    And again, I’m not calling anyone a fascist and like I said, it sounds like fun.

  11. I was down there last Sunday
    I was down there last Sunday and wrote about it on Monday. And, I have to say- I left with the same question most seem to have. What is the agenda?
    Maybe not the agenda, maybe something more like what is their solution?
    I agree with what they are saying, I applaud what they are doing. Being down there on Liberty and Broadway finally felt like what America is supposed to be: a welcoming community. I was even offered food, by a stranger, and to me that was more powerful than all their signs. The offering of food was like an offering of communion. We are a country. We are a community. We are the 99%.
    The piece I wrote for my blog seemed more criticizing than what I’m saying here. In fact, I had more than a few angry emails from it.
    Despite the lack of “agenda” I found, I still support it and find it necessary.

  12. –“all I said was neofascist
    –“all I said was neofascist overtones…”

    except this protest arguably represents a protest against our incipient fascist state. and i hope like hell we see a lot more of this. time to stop our apathetic slumber, and stop playing their divide and conquer “left / right” childish political name-calling games. we have bigger problems. we haven’t seen the bottom of the economic damage wreaked by utter wall street greed, crime and disregard. and not one of the bastards responsible has gone to prison. that’s just obscene.

  13. I think the message to the
    I think the message to the Wall Streeter should be two-fold:

    1. When you come to work every day, look at us and see that it is real people’s lives you are dealing with. It’s harder to seek profit at other people’s expense when you have a relationship with those people.

    2. If you prove to be just as reckless and ruthless in the future as some of you were in the past, we will come in there and tear the place up.

  14. Lover’s of Truth, Justice,
    Lover’s of Truth, Justice, and THE AMERICAN WAY, Feel free to occupy yourselves with old reruns of Superman, or Uber Man depending on your philosophy. In the mean time, what began as a movement now has an ‘official’ statement of position. Methinks it downright eloquent!

    “As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies. As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members. That our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors. That a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people, and the Earth, and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power.

    We come to you at a time when corporations — which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality — run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here as is our right to let these facts be known.

    They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.

    They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give executives exorbitant bonuses.

    They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in workplaces based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

    They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.

    They have profited off the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless animals, and actively hide these practices.

    They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.

    They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is, itself, a human right.

    They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut worker’s health care and pay.

    They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people with none of the culpability or responsibility.

    They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams, but look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.

    They have sold our privacy as a commodity.

    They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.

    They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products, endangering lives in pursuit of profit.

    They determine economic policy despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.

    They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.

    They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.

    They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives, or provide relief in order to protect investments that have

    already turned a substantial profit.

    They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.

    They purposefully kept people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.

    They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners, even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.

    They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad.

    They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.

    They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.

    To the people of the world,

    We, the New York City general assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.

    Exercise your right to peaceably assemble, occupy public space, create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.

    To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.

  15. __If you prove to be just as
    __If you prove to be just as reckless and ruthless in the future as some of you were in the past, we will come in there and tear the place up.___

    Hi Bill,

    Let’s get our brown shirts ironed and ready!!

    There are plenty of scapegoats and the firing squad is circular.

  16. Your pathetic movement will
    Your pathetic movement will die out pretty soon and things will return to business as usual.

    Your desire for “change” is merely a vain struggle against human nature.

    This world runs on $$ and it’s nowhere near stopping.

  17. admiring the screaming,
    admiring the screaming, yelling, and tight-fisted resolve. will be even more entertaining when the winter storms come. maybe we could set up a paint ball war on the plains of nebraska (about the middle of the country, seems like) between the tp and ows folks. i can see it now, everyone checking their smart phones for official surrender, hoping to hell it comes quick cause most have to get back to work (or be fired) cause they used up their sick days and vacation. a common complaint likely heard from both sides on the field of battle. “Ouch!, that paintball really stings. hey man, can’t you see i’ve already been shot. i’m on base.” maybe we could call in the Oxygen Channel to sponsor it and pick up the bill for production costs. a reality show.

    i love the singers, especially the guitar pickers, and the repeat speeches are cool. however, one peice of advice for the ows crowd, you should avoid making comparisons to the late 60’s…just avoid it. in hindsight, the baby boomer’s self defining era, produced a bunch of bull shit>>>

    **70’s…death of rock and roll. disco gets blamed, but it was more of a response to death. a grieving. high point of the divorce rate. no self respecting lady will put up with free love for long. oil lines and the beginnings of arab/american conflict and business ventures. jimmy carter (billy beer being a delightful suprise).

    **80’s…can we go ahead and settle this right now? prince is better than michael jackson. and was. big malls. economy dependent on Christmas sales. Jesus would really dig that, hmm. hollywood invades the white house. and why not? air traffic controllers everywhere..all together now..”reagan was a punk!”

    **90’s…the lamest president ever sullied the cigar industry. and the white house. grunge died too soon. bush sr. wimped out at the kuwait border. and raised our taxes. we should have voted in perot. he woulda told the saudis off long ago and bin laden would have died before y2k. the internet is cool.

    **00’s…idea. gwb and algore could lead the forces in the beforementioned paintball war tp and ows. kinda like a reunion of the 2000 election battle. they could use smart phones, of course, from their own homes. both known for inspiring words. figureheads, really, to fire up the troops. 9/11 was a damned shame. however, we rose from the ashes and everybody, everywhere got a mortgage. job or no job. nashville really choked. public radio (91.7 in dallas) the only real place to hear music. no thumbs up or down desired, or needed.

    other than that our boomer generation, the generation after the greatest generation had a spontaneous plea for ‘peace’ in the late sixties and disappointed themselves, and others, ever since. the old folks need to move along now and let the Xers clean up the mess. we know we’re not getting no Social Security until we get to be 80. so keep on screaming, yelling, and standing strong ows. you tp folks too. money will dictate the beginning and end of everything to come on this planet as long as it’s around. like earth’s beacon from teh beginning. i’d rather have some than not, but we’ll all be tested in prosperity and poverty at some point. suffer, persevere, build character, then hope.

    ows, get yer long johns out!

  18. I’m slightly disturbed by the
    I’m slightly disturbed by the possible manipulative implications of the People’s Mic. It’s a lot harder to disagree with something if you’re repeating it. Body signals notwithstanding.

  19. I agree with you that there
    I agree with you that there is a dearth of brains on wall street. I’m surrounded by them from an office in one of the large banks.

    It’s been interesting to see how they have difficulties understanding. People who are not part of the Wall Street elite still feel a kinship with 1%ers that is substantially misplaced.

    I’m often reminded of Upton Sinclair’s line about it being impossible to get a man to understand something that his entire livelihood is predicated on not understanding when I talk to those people. I tried to bring them down to Zuccotti Park (only a few blocks from our office) before the police moved in on the ground that you have to see how impressive it is from an organizational standpoint (trying to take the politics out of it) and no one took me upon it .

    There is no intellectual curiosity from the majority of people on wall street and that’s exactly why we have the problems we have with them.

  20. Dear Levi Asher,
    Dear Levi Asher,
    I would like to use the picture above for a book. Please get in touch to clear the terms of use. Thank you.
    Best, Clemens Klöckner

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!