Talking Back: My First Encounter with the Human Microphone



Neighborhood: Financial District, Uncategorized

Talking Back: My First Encounter with the Human Microphone
Photo by David Shankbone

I first visited Occupy Wall Street on a chilly evening in the middle of October. A few hundred people were gathered near the eastern steps of Zuccotti Park for the nightly meeting of the General Assembly. On the steps a young man was shrieking inaudibly. A few yards away, a jackhammer was being applied to a hole in the middle of Liberty Street. The crowd was echoing the words of the man on the steps, making them heard. The people were chanting: “Money will be spent on” (pause, the jackhammer, a few squeaks from the speaking man) “burlap, foam, glue, tape, rope.”

It took me a few moments to make sense of the situation. The man on the steps was a puppet-maker, and he was presenting a proposal to spend about $1,500 of the movement’s money on art supplies for the construction of large puppets. These puppets, he explained, would join the occupiers’ upcoming march on Times Square. Behind him, a ghostly puppet of the statue of liberty stood about 7 feet high, head and hands made of paper mache, body made of sheets. Many members of the crowd wiggled their fingers to show their approval of the plan.

“As an artist,” said a voice without a body. “AS AN ARTIST!” shouted the crowd. “I respect this proposal.” (I RESPECT THIS PROPOSAL!) “But as an activist” (BUT AS AN ACTIVIST!) “I can’t forget” (I CAN’T FORGET!) “That people are starving here.” (THAT PEOPLE ARE STARVING HERE!)

The puppet maker nodded sympathetically before responding. “But if we do not fund the arts” (BUT IF WE DO NOT FUND THE ARTS!) “my concern is” (MY CONCERN IS!) “who will?” (WHO WILL!?)

This was the human microphone, also known as “the people’s microphone”. One person speaks, and the surrounding people echo in unison; the crowd functions as a bullhorn for the individual.

The human mic imposes a set of formal limitations that shape the way communication is happening within the movement. If you want to say something, you have to know exactly what you are going to say and how you are going to say it before you open your mouth. That may sound, initially, like a self-evident prerequisite of speech. But think about all the particles and modifiers and interjections and digressions that normally punctuate improvisatory human speech: um, like, so anyway, whatever, uh, yeah, hmm, by the way, which reminds me, etc. There is no room for these at the General Assembly. You have to minimize waste and maximize content. You have to economize.

You also have to impose line breaks. The people (your microphone) can’t parrot more than a few iambs of unmemorized speech, so you must staccato-cize your sentences, pausing after each fragment for the crowd’s echo. The result is poetry. Witness the following stanza, extemporized by an anonymous woman:

As someone who used to work
In Times Square
I happen to know they have
A lot of horse cops.

Or this, spoken by a frustrated young man standing on a table:

I’m waiting for something to happen
And when that thing doesn’t happen
I’m disappointed.

At Occupy Wall Street, it’s hard to distinguish between functional and performative speech. If you close your eyes, a General Assembly can pass for a poetry reading, like the one I attended at the park on October 14th. The reading was organized exactly like a GA meeting: Anyone could stand up and read, and the surrounding audience repeated each line. Eileen Myles, former director of the St. Marks Poetry Project, performed a poem called “Anonymous”:

No I’m the poet
No you’re the poet
No he’s the poet
No they’re the poet
No she’s the poet
No that’s the poet
No this is the poet
No I’m the poet

Myles repeated this sequence several times over, and by the end she was jumping excitedly at each emphasized pronoun, and the audience was also jumping and shouting each line back to her, echoing her hoarse fervor.

She told me afterwards that she had written “Anonymous” specifically for this forum. “I was compelled by the human microphone as an incredible medium for writing for the group,” said Myles. “It’s kind of very ancient, to assume you have a chorus to read your lines. [Occupy Wall Street] is the first real talking back in a long and awful growing silence. So to be a poet writing into that space is to really have a job, and to have an audience that is the voice for the work as well.”

So in one sense, the human microphone is a crude, makeshift tool born of necessity: In New York City you need a permit to amplify sound electronically. In another sense it is an immensely powerful and multifarious metaphor. It is a metaphor for the vision of this movement, a governmental body that transforms the “I” of the individual into a larger, collective “I”. But even as it embodies the project of democracy, the human mic throws into relief the difficulties that plague its practice. Sometimes the individual “I” is  at odds with the collective.

From its beginnings in early September, the Occupy movement has been trying to model direct democracy, a form of government in which “the people” speak and decide for themselves, rather than appointing substitutes – congressmen, senators, lobbyists, commanders-in-chief – to speak and decide for them. Anyone can participate in the General Assembly, wherever it is being held; anyone can present a proposal and anyone can block a proposal, forcing the assembly to postpone a decision.

After about twenty minutes of redundant dialogue between the puppet-maker and the crowd, a man in a baseball hat suddenly leapt onto a chair and began yelling. “People are homeless! Do something substantial with the money, something that’s actually symbolic!”

For some reason the crowd did not repeat these words, maybe because his speech was too fast and passionate; he was not pausing to allow for echoes. “Let this man speak,” someone yelled, “he has something to say!”

Just like that, the order dissolved. The crowd was shifting and murmuring; strings of words, rather than being amplified and heard, were proliferating in distinct pockets. No one held the strings; the puppet was being pulled in many directions, about to be torn apart. “Mic check,” someone screamed. MIC CHECK! screamed the crowd.

Here was an ideologically diverse community of thousands, all with separate complaints, congregated in 33,000 square feet of park, the buzz of anger hovering in the atmosphere like charged particles after a big bang of creation. And this place was loud: Cars were honking, a jackhammer was hammering, there was a drum circle on the western steps. And you have a governmental model in which every voice counts equally. Abstracted, direct democracy is a breathtakingly simple idea. Standing on the corner of Broadway and Liberty, it was a logistical nightmare.

The facilitator of the meeting, a young black woman wearing an oversized striped sweater, spoke: “I personally respect this process!”

“That’s because it benefits you!” These words came from the center of the crowd. The boy (or man) was in his late teens or early twenties. He was thin but strong-looking, with a ruffled brown mohawk and a raspy voice. He had been sitting on the ground, but he now stood up. “You are an academic,” he said.

Mohawk boy: I do not respect the mob.
Mohawk boy: My humble request is that you stop speaking for me.
Mohawk boy: Please stop.

“Respectfully,” said the facilitator, “this is not the time/ to make proposals. This is the time / for clarifying questions / related to this proposal.” The puppet-maker nodded his approval.

The puppet-maker nodded his approval.

“There is never a time for love in this community,” cried the boy with the mohawk. A space had cleared around him, and he was swiveling in it, appealing to those nearby. No one repeated is words. “There is only a time for agendas. It’s an insiders’ group,” he roared, as though he was going to cry.

“It’s open to anyone,” said the facilitator. IT’S OPEN TO ANYONE! echoed the crowd. “Lies!” screamed the mohawk boy. “Forgive my passion! Lies! Forgive me. Forgive me.” Then he headed for the periphery of the circle, where a young woman was waiting to give him a hug. After the hug he began talking heatedly to a tall blonde wearing a leather jacket.

The facilitator leaned forward and clasped her hands. “This is what / direct democracy looks like. / It’s not always easy, / it’s not always comfortable, / but right now/ it sure looks beautiful. / So thanks for sticking with it.”

“I’m still here,” said the boy with the mohawk, now standing at the edge of the crowd.

“And we love you for it!” said someone. Everyone echoed.

Jean Garnett lives in Brooklyn, where she grew up. She works at a literary agency and is pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at The New School.

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§ 3 Responses to “Talking Back: My First Encounter with the Human Microphone”

  • andy padre says:

    i love the paragraph that starts: So in one sense

  • This piece should start: “The man on the steps was a puppet-maker.” As it is the whole first graph could be briefer and be put elsewhere, if it is needed at all. Start with the puppets! We want puppets! Talk about allegories.

    To the extent the author is present in the opening moments of the piece it should be regarding the puppets and what she makes of the one standing before her or imagines a parade of them might look or feel like.

    From there the piece goes pretty well until things really perk up when Mohawk Boy rushes off “to talk heatedly to a tall blonde wearing a leather jacket,” and suddenly we realize that true democracy has to include Marc Jacobs interns.

    I would have liked to know a bit more about the alleged “Academic.” (The accusation has a great, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” quality.)

    The ending is very good, a neatly executed high dive, no splash.

  • mabk says:

    thank you for that interesting take on the human mic \s a poetic device

§ Leave a Reply

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