This article is part of a series on the tenth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.
Ben Lerner’s 2019 novel The Topeka School concludes with a description of a protest tactic: “the ‘human microphone,’ the ‘people’s mic,’ wherein those gathered around a speaker repeat what the speaker says in order to amplify a voice without permit-requiring equipment.” Lerner’s alter ego is with his family at an anti-ICE demonstration in the early days of the Trump administration, and he joins the project of collective amplification. “It embarrassed me, it always had,” he writes, “but I forced myself to participate, to be part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning slowly how to speak again, in the middle of the spread.”
That’s the last sentence of the book, a pat moral appended to a few hundred pages that circle around the proposition of a long-simmering crisis in American political language—one Lerner names “the spread” after a debate tactic in which you flood your opponents with more facts and arguments than they can possibly rebut in the allotted time. The human microphone, here, is posed as the solution to the problem Lerner has spent the book diagnosing.
Even outside the context of literary artistry, the method can verge on corny. “Mic check?” someone says. “MIC CHECK,” the crowd repeats, and the speech commences, in call-and-response style, with the speaker pausing every few words for the crowd to parrot them back. Each address (“EACH ADDRESS”) proceeds slowly (“PROCEEDS SLOWLY”), with listeners repeating an argument (“WITH LISTENERS REPEATING AN ARGUMENT”) before they know (“BEFORE THEY KNOW”) whether or not they agree.
First used in the anti-nuclear movement, the human microphone was taken up in the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle before becoming a staple of Occupy Wall Street, where it gained real prominence. Occupy—with its working groups, its general assemblies, its hand signals—espoused an earnest belief in participatory democracy. The movement’s structure (full horizontalism) was in some sense its message, and one embodied by the human microphone, through which anyone can speak and be heard. More symbolic than practical, the microphone constituted a protest against money in politics, against the disproportionate weight given to the voices of the rich and powerful, against individualism—maybe against the over-complication and degradation of political discourse, too.
While many people dismissed Occupy as a rudderless movement, for others, it was a formative experience, and one that galvanized a decade of organizing. Among a certain micro-generation of leftists, the words “Occupy Wall Street” have taken on an almost totemic status. Bathed in the glow of nostalgia, Zuccotti Park (or “Liberty Square”) can seem a paradise of democratic process, and the human microphone, initially a way to circumvent restrictions on amplification systems, comes to represent an aesthetic ideal.
I was asked to contribute to this series of articles as a sort of counterpoint, because I’m slightly too young to get wistful about Occupy Wall Street. Had I been a bit older (or a bit more politically precocious), I might have formed fond memories in Zuccotti Park, but I did not. I visited only once, in the fall of 2011, and felt dizzy and out of place amid all the activity. Instead of participating, I took some pictures and evaluated the scene: there was a free library with colorful homemade signage (nice), a bearded man who got too close to my face and spit-shouted to me about revolution (not so nice), some Hare Krishnas (why not?), and a bunch of guys wearing Anonymous masks (haunting). When the human microphone got up and running, it didn’t say anything I could decipher.
I wasn’t sure how this leaderless, ultimately structureless collection of people could foment a revolution, especially without concrete demands—but I also wasn’t sure to what extent my impressions had been shaped by what I’d read in the paper and watched on the news. Up to that point, my only exposure to leftism had been through the skeptical lens of the mainstream media. I’d never witnessed a protest movement before, and protest movements—like most things humans get swept up in—look different from the outside. My question, at the time, was: are the protesters naive, or am I? Is Occupy, in Lerner’s paradigm, embarrassing, or is it the solution?
Ten years on, the Occupy talking points have shaken off their aura of eccentricity. Full debt forgiveness, a living wage, single-payer healthcare, free college, and other then-niche ideas are serious agenda items up for discussion within the Democratic Party. Thanks no doubt in part to the influence of Occupy, the past decade has seen the largest protests in the history of the United States, and a serious presidential candidate can stand on the debate stage and rant about “millionaires and billionaires.”
That Occupy shifted the conversation is undeniable, but shifting the conversation is not the same as changing material circumstances. Though Occupy forced the phrase “income inequality” front and center, the Google Ngram charting its prevalence between 2011 and 2019 looks much like the graph of wealth gained by the top one percent in the same period. Over the past year and a half, the fifteen richest Americans grew $400 billion richer, and the one percent added $10 trillion to their wealth. Meanwhile, COVID-19 death rates in the poorest 20 percent of American counties rose 67 percent higher than those in the most affluent 20 percent.
“At its core, Occupy made protesting cool again,” writes Michael Levitin, author of Generation Occupy: Reawakening American Democracy, in the Atlantic. He attributes the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the Sunrise Movement, to the momentum generated by Occupy. If protesting is cool again, it’s a specific type of protest that is fetishized above all others: the highly photogenic street protest, typically conducted in major cities for a few days or weeks and then abandoned. “Protest is the new brunch” became an early slogan of the #Resistance after it was popularized by the Obama-alum podcast Pod Save America. Last summer, as a radical movement against police violence filled the streets, countless people posted black squares, selfies with cardboard signs, and infographics featuring multiracial pastel-colored people holding hands. This week, Ocasio-Cortez attended the Met Gala with the words “Tax the Rich” splashed across her dress in red, and seemed not to ruffle any feathers among her fellow attendees. And next month, CBS was supposed to air a show called The Activist in which contestants compete for the chance to influence world leaders at the G20. (In response to backlash on Twitter, the network decided to scrap the already edited series and convert the footage into a documentary.)
I don’t mean to douse a group of worthwhile protest movements with cold water, or to lay the blame for the symbols-first state of affairs squarely at the feet of Occupy. But when posts are treated as a substitute for political action, when the wealthy can enjoy proximity to a fashionable class politics without having to cough up a cent (besides the price of admission to the Met Gala), and when CBS can attempt to turn activism into a competitive performance without using its corporate muscle to effect the changes its contestants advocate, it’s worth considering whether the appearance of protest has become too cool—whether mindless repetition has accrued too much aesthetic value.
Occupy, we sometimes forget, was inspired in part by another protest movement: the Arab Spring, during which American commentators waxed poetic about the internet as a democratizing force. The occupation was dreamed up in a moment of optimism about the potential for a world in which all people could be heard through social media. Now there’s less hope, across the political spectrum, about the utopian possibilities of enabling everyone to talk at once, or the wisdom of messages repeated uncritically by crowds of strangers. Whether the 99 percent is unified in its desires, let alone capable of expressing them in a single voice, is an open question. Perhaps it’s true that the left is learning (has learned?) to speak again. The challenge before us is how to move beyond speaking to ourselves—how to get out of an infinite, at times outwardly incomprehensible loop.
Rebecca Panovka is a writer and co-editor of The Drift.