Report: The People's Microphone in Zuccotti Park
[Welcome, Ann Althouse readers! --lambert]
The evening meeting of yesterday's General Assembly in Zuccotti Park opened with a vocabulary lesson--a demonstration of the latest hand and arm signals that the group is developing to use at these meetings. Since the cops shut down the possibility of amplification at the march, the protesters came up with a novel way to get around the ban: the "People's Microphone."
The first part of this technique is well known by now--the main speaker (or speakers, for in these militantly non-hierarchical groups, people often speak in pairs) says something, and then the people up front with the loudest voices repeat it as a chant. One or two of the loudest even stand up on the shiny, pink granite park benches and shout the words out to the back rows of the people gathered in circles.
The People's Microphone might have been forged by necessity, but it's turned into a brilliant tool, something truly innovative in the political/organizing arena. For it accomplishes two things at once: it forces everyone to edit group public speech down to the essentials (since you must pause between phrases). And because getting your speech heard depends entirely on the good will and lung power of others, it makes it impossible for any single person to hog the "mike". (And, just in case someone tries, there are special hand signals to "shout" them down)
"This means STEP UP!", one of the organizers demonstrates, scooping the air with two upraised arms. "This means, we haven't heard from you and would like to hear more!" She turns her arms around in parallel, and pushes them towards the ground in parrallel: "And this is STEP DOWN! You know what that means? It means that you've been contributing a lot of times already. Maybe you are a MALE IDENTIFIED PERSON. In which case we might want to hear more from a FEMALE IDENTIFIED PERSON."
I've always been nostalgic for the anti-Vietnam demos of my high school days. What I tend to forget, perhaps conveniently, is that there were almost no women speaking at these demonstrations, and how frustrated I felt knowing that if I wanted to be heard, I'd have to fight for space with the alpha males, just like in class.
But here in Zuccotti Park, not only are women being prioritized (or, in demonstrator New-Speak "Pushed ahead in The Stack", meaning "Stepped Up" in the queue of speakers when things get too alpha-male). There's even a special working group for shy persons! ("If you are nervous about speaking in the big group, come to our meeting, and we will make sure your ideas are heard.")
I stayed at the General Assembly (GA) for some time, listening as one by one, each of the various working groups of this organization (yes, it is an ORGANIZATION, capital O!) gave their reports, using this slow, steady, call and response technique. The Medical Committee reported (Remember to drink water!), the Sanitation Committee (Clean up after eating, and don't forget to recycle!) and the Direct Action committee ("The trustees of CUNY are meeting tomorrow morning to try to cut the healthcare of adjuncts. We think we should be there to tell them no. What do you think?"). There is an Arts Committee, a Legal taskforce, a Financial Committee, which reported that over the weekend Occupy Wall Street's donation totals increased from 13,000 to 20,000 dollars.
Everything was ticking along smoothly, when suddenly a fellow dressed in black, and carrying a big knapsack filled with little US flags pushed his way to the front of the circle, shouting "I want to say something, you're not letting me say....". He was clearly not part of the earnest student army that forms 95 percent of the Zuccotti Park collective--his energy was violent and unsettling--gatherings like these, especially in New York, always attract edgy characters.
I held my breath--how would the group handle this guy? He seemed ready to spin off the handle, maybe even start swinging a few.
But I underestimated how chill this new collective can be. A few demonstrators surrounded him, gently telling him, okay, okay. The group members around him shouted, "Hey, you have to get in the Stack and wait." The guy with the flags flustered for a minute, and then he just got tired of flustering, and drifted off.
I thought about this for a while, as the GA meeting moved on. I tried to take in the methods, this strange new language--where was it all coming from? And then it hit me. What I was seeing is the fruit of all the ethical education innovations that became popular in the 1990s and 2000s. That's about when schools, even at the elementary level, started to teach Conflict Resolution techniques. The surly guy in black was given his "Time Out". The group hand signals, the repeating "people's mike" and intense concern with "inclusion" echo the teaching exercises, like the "Anger Ball Toss" .
I don't mean to patronize the techniques of the Zuccotti Park Collective by tracing them to early education. Not at all. I think what these students are doing is flat out brilliant--they're in the process of inventing a whole new language of adult community.
What I'm trying to do here is trace the history. Without the 60s-70s movement, I doubt that subjects like "Conflict Resolution" would ever have gotten on the curriculum. So in a way, these young people are connected to the previous great Lefty movement--they are Fight The Power 2.0. An improved version, for a more complicated time.
The political moment now is different, very different. I thought about this, standing there under the soaring red-orange steel sculpture in Zuccotti Park (it's the landmark meeting point for the demonstrators and it's called the Joie de Vivre statue--how perfect is that!?). A few side streets over, you can see the construction lights on the sparkling new "Freedom Tower" going up. Across the street from Zuccotti, the steel grid of Santiago Calatrava's twisting transport hub is taking shape. The architecture all around is, literally, a concrete reminder that ten years have gone by since Disaster Capitalism had its big payday.
The Zuccotti Park collective is being criticized by the MSM because it's message isn't "unified". But that's a useless criticism, and I really hope the demonstrators don't listen to it and keep on with what they are doing. Back in the 1970s, the message (Stop The War!) was pretty simple and succinct because the narrative was, too.
But how do you reduce Credit Default Swaps, post-Capitalist injustice, government-corporate collusion, political reform, environmental collapse to a single slogan? You don't. What the students are undertaking as they speak, shout, repeat, and speak again on the People's Microphone, is immensely more difficult than what happened in the 60s. My fingers are crossed that the skills they learned in their elementary and high schools will help them write the new language to do it.
A few more random blips:
1. Demographics: I was one of the oldest people in the park. This is a student thing, and mainly a "good" student thing--that is, all the young persons I spoke with were attractive, articulate and extremely polite. There's gender and racial diversity--and I even spotted a group of Iranian students representing their struggle--but if this movement's gonna have legs, they need to diversify. And they know tha
2. Conversation at Zuccotti Park:
"Hi, I'm Lisa, I'm on the Welcoming Committee and the Facilitating Committee. Welcome to Occupy Wall Street."
Me: "Thanks, Lisa. I am really impressed with what you're doing here. It's more like a teach in than a demo. It reminds me of what happened in Berkeley in the 1960s.
"Oh yes, I heard about that. But it was a lot different than this."
Me: "Why do you think so."
"Well, in People's Park, they had leaders."
NOTE Notice how Althouse trying to discredit the GA process now -- as both the "left" and "right" in Versailles are doing, reinforcing each other, as usual -- fits into the emerging strategy I warned against here. --lambert