By the one-month mark Occupy Wall Street had gone from a ragtag activist question mark to a movement tying together all parts of the left spectrum that changed the national political conversation from a vapid argument over Democrat and Republican debt ceiling posturing to a substantive one about income inequality, financial industry irresponsibility, and freedoms of speech and assembly. Over those same crucial weeks from the middle of October to the end of November, the movement grew and mutated, spread across the country, and evolved as a culture of political engagement.
One of the hallmarks of the Occupy culture—and one of the first indicators of OWS as a new political culture—is the human mic, identified early on as an innovation by necessity, a creative technique born of and against the absurd amplification restrictions placed on the Zuccotti occupation. It is therefore accurate to say that every time the human mic is used, it is a performance that reproduces what makes OWS its own political creation, that is to say, a political reality. That partly explains why the mic check was readily spun off by activists from its native milieu of the General Assembly and deployed as a technique of confrontational intervention in hostile spaces. Even as a tool of confrontation and invasion into the spaces of the 1%, as opposed to a device used for internal organizational communication, the human mic reproduces the movement whenever used. As a virally transferable technique of Occupy, combined with social media as the democratically available channel of disseminating documentation, it brings particular locations that otherwise have only affirmative capitalistic connection to each other (You have a Starbucks over there? We have one here, too!) into common resistance. In its aggressive form, the mic check is practical a way to momentarily occupy an unfriendly space.
For me, the first attention to the mic check as a protest tactic came in a post to the nettime mailing list dated Friday, November 11, 2011:
It seems like the MIC CHECK, the ritualistic practice of amplifying a speaker's voice in public space through call and response, is now migrating from cities and squares to public (or semi-public) events held by the authorities in various venues. Basically, protesters bring with themselves a text and engage in call and response so as to overcome the amplified voice of authority. A very simple tactic, but quite effective, as you can see from the videos below.
The first powerful action that I know of was held at the Panel for Education Policy in New York on October 26:
Then Wisconsin governor Scott Walker (the union-buster) was mic-checked at the Chicago's Union League Club on November 3:
And yesterday Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann was mic-checked by a group of students in Charleston, SC:
I can see this spreading so as to become one of the favorite forms of contestation of the Occupy Movement. It would be interesting to know whether someone is working on a social history of the Mic Check.
I have not worked on the said social history, but I have been keeping an inventory of incidents in which activists have “mic check’d” political opponents, corporate heads or representatives, or even the consumer public.
Now that more than two dozen such interventions have been carried out, recorded, and circulated via Youtube, from all parts of the US, it is time to make some distinctions on how these events went down, and how well the documentation communicates. In general, what I find interesting is the use of the open source tactic, combined with the lo-tech versatility in terms of where and when it is used. The recognizability of the form makes for a unified movement culture no matter the different kinds of content, even if the verbiage is very particular to that target, event, or locality. Precisely because the content is changeable, even more importantly, affect and emotion is largely unified across all the events. Righteous outrage, monopolized in idiotic form not so long ago by Tea Party-types, belongs to the left once again, along with a small and just right dose of true pain exposed (see the Lindsay Graham and the John Stumpf actions, below). Because the content is tailored to the particular event, the outrage is genuine, and after watching a few of these, that is really what gets communicated.
That said, through all these actions I can see the limits of the mic check as an effective action. The events featuring well-protected, well-practiced figures of national stature speaking in front of large audiences are difficult to hijack. The action becomes a disruption rather than a takeover, an illustration of how unreachable, insulated, and repressive they really are, as with the mic checking of Karl Rove. On the other hand, functionaries who have no public role, who rarely get confronted by the 99%, who probably don’t even think of themselves as doing the work of the 1%, are less quick to defend themselves from the lectern, and thus are easier targets for a full human mic takeover.
It is difficult to generalize about the venues and spaces. One might think that the more elite the institution, the more tightly controlled the event space, and the quicker the demonstrators will be tossed out. Not true. Probably the most beautifully complete takeover of an event occurred at Princeton University—about as elite as it gets in the world of the 1%. There the mic text was based on the university’s motto and includes a searing self-critique of the school’s privileged campus culture. Three cheers.
As the calendar year turns, the Occupy movement seems most likely to grow in at least two directions. First, that of housing activism, anti-eviction campaigns, and foreclosure occupations—ie defending and making our homes in a small and personal sense. And second, in the direction of stopping the Keystone pipeline, anti-fracking, and on other environmental fronts, ie defending our home on an ecosystemic level. If this be the case, then new elements of the Occupy culture are bound to emerge. But to send off 2011 and bring in a New Year of ever better and greater occupations, here are my annotated favorite mic check action videos. Visitors, comrades, and fellow citizens, enjoy.
9. Karl Rove Get Mic Check’d at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore
Unlike the politicians he influences, Rove is not under any pressure to respond decorously. Even so, Rove proves himself unbalanced and quick to anger, leading a grouchy one-man counter chant. Apparently he still suffers from the instant defensiveness of being held responsible for two failed wars on foreign lands and the tens of thousands of needless deaths that resulted. If the mic check works sometimes only as a disruptor, this was a good one of those. Make them drag you out. Even though the action is not a successful takeover, the marriage of form (war at home) and content (wars abroad) satisfies.
8. Minnesotans Confront Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf
This group gets kicked out pretty fast by some pushy business school security workers. The intervention turns into a human mic rally outside the venue featuring an impressive young woman who tells her story of Wells Fargo’s treatment of her parents as homeowners who had never missed a payment for over twenty years, including for two years after they lost their jobs. It is heartbreaking. Also of note, John Stumpf may be the only person who has thus far been mic check’d at two separate events (the other in North Carolina).
7. Occupy El Paso Mic Checks Walmart on Black Friday, El Paso, Texas
I for one did not know that there was an Occupy El Paso. I love the emphasis of this mic check: low pay, poor working conditions, and important everywhere but especially in El Paso, the poverty rates in the Hispanic population. And c’mon, to have the human mic take over the ambient media voices of an electronics department in a Walmart is just great on the face of it. The Occupy El Paso brigade looks to be an anarcho-youth posse, the presence of which always makes a corporate retail environment more interesting.
6. Chancellor Gets Mic Check’d at University of Oregon Statutory Faculty Meeting, Eugene, Oregon
The mic check brigade makes a point specific to a UO governance and hiring controversy here, but links it to the wider trends of corporate culture invading the public universities. I love that the amplified voice of authority sounds both more hysterical and less understandable than the human mic. The activists remained seated, seem to have not been escorted out, and finished with a courteous “Thank you!” Also notable is the space, a major conference university basketball arena. Only 249 views of the video as of Xmas night? Let’s change that.
5. Senator Lindsay Graham Mic Check’d at Private Fundraiser, Washington DC
This is probably the most intimate confrontation of an elected public official in my portfolio of bookmarked videos. I hate to give it up to Lindsay Graham—he’s such a slippery player—but he went for the dialogue and that is way more than most of the politicians have done. Of course, he was essentially captive to the group as this intervention was something close to a genuine temporary occupation, so he did not have much choice. Along with the whole idea of crashing intimate gatherings to begin with, the personalized confrontations are an excellent strategy when the target is this close because it leaves the man no room for hiding behind platitudes. Compared to the videos listed here that have none, the basic text intro and outro are helpful. Activists ought to take the time to add them.
4. Gas Industry Event Mic Check’d at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio
Ah, here we go, a complete takeover. Industry flacks are defenseless in the medium sized lecture hall. Student activists deliver an uninterrupted speech calling out the industry for its lies, and condemning it for the environmental damage and cyclical economy the millenial generation refuses to accept. The speech seamlessly ends in a militant chant, to which the students march out. The text intros and outros are more informative than in #5 above. Excellent on all levels but one. I would have liked to hear the speech tie in some public university funding or governance issues.
3. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker Mic Check’d at Union League Club, Chicago
This was a contentious intervention on a couple of levels, but exemplary in its success. On the intramovement level, the action was designed and carried out by the labor activists of Stand Up! Chicago and the teachers’ union, but not by Occupy Chicago. Occupy Chicago activists refused on principle to buy the entrance tickets to this private event, but many Occupy partisans expressed solidarity by protesting Walker’s appearance outside the building. The activists inside also had to deal with a shouting battle against the governor’s regressive supporters, and the activists won. The video is edited down to an effective narrative and captioned in full for total communication. The language of the event’s human mic brings together Chicago city and Wisconsin state austerity politics, and even gives voice to the Occupy Chicago arrestees. The tag team lead voice technique is also used here to great tactical effect, seeming to confuse the security people. Finally, it is not just me who despises Governor Walker. Stand Up! Chicago knew that mic checking Walker would guarantee the video an audience, since there are now many thousands of Wisconsinites working to rid their state of him. The views stand at 320k-plus.
2. Occupy DC Mic Checks Big Insurance at Chamber of Commerce Event, Washington, DC
I love this first woman, playing lead voice while shooing away the big security guard giving her chase. Note that the tag teaming is performed to the prolonged maximum here. The language of the intervention is a great example of the conversation-changing spin of the Occupy movement. They don’t speak solely of big insurance as parasite, but specify Scott Serota’s bloated salary as proof of the broken healthcare system. And not least, this was apparently broadcast live on C-SPAN. Probably not a huge audience, but I am sure there were a lot of surprised viewers. The middle aged activists play right into the sympathies of what I imagine to be the middle aged and older viewership of C-SPAN. And the Chamber of Commerce? Talk about taking the intervention to the heart of the beast!
1. JP Morgan-Chase Mic Check’d at Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
Another beautiful takeover, from the 1% to the 1%. The corporate shills never stand a chance. It cannot but tap at the heart when seeing the youth of the privileged class demanding that the institutions of the 1% live up to their billing as the standard bearers of service and stewardship. It is the beginning of their radicalization. And 49k views cannot be sneezed at.