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 ...
FIRST WAVE: WE ARE WORKING
SECOND WAVE: WE ARE WORKING
SPEAKER: on a statement of principles
FIRST WAVE: ON A STATEMENT OF PRINCIPLES
SECOND WAVE: ON A STATEMENT OF PRINCIPLES
SPEAKER: that we can approve tomorrow
FIRST WAVE: THAT WE CAN APPROVE TOMORROW
SECOND WAVE: 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
FIRST WAVE: I'M SORRY
SECOND WAVE: 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.