The People's Microphone

I went down to Occupy Montreal the other day. It was pretty impressive, really; the modest park, surrounded by banks, was filled with tents and people making art. Particularly amusing was the statue of Queen Victoria wearing a Guy Fawkes mask (pictured on the right). But what got me thinking was the People's Microphone.

I was there with some friends, one of whom is in an anarchist marching band (shush, it works and they play all sorts of fun events!). They just played, but the band before them were playing electric guitar and singing into a microphone. So not only was electronic amplification obviously permitted, it was already set up.

But when a visitor from Occupy Wall Street showed up to speak, he used the famous "People's Microphone", saying a few words at a time, to be repeated by those who could hear him. It actually didn't work all that well, I think partly because he was speaking English; many Montrealers are bilingual, but enough have no or limited English that it may have been a problem. I suppose translation could have been incorporated into the People's Microphone, but that would have required four repetitions of everything he said, which would have been particularly tiresome for us bilinguals. Later there were some announcements and thank yous in French and it worked rather better (and I captured a little on video; I apologize for the darkness, but it was evening).

The question of why use the People's Microphone when there's a real electronic microphone is an interesting one, though. After all, it forces a slow and awkward cadence on the speaker, and they have to be a little careful with their vocabulary. But I think it's become a symbol of the Occupy movement. As symbols go it's rather a nice one — speakers can't get their message out alone, they need the cooperation of many people. It's also immediately identifiable — I don't know whether the trick has been used in past movements, but it's the most distinctive trait of a movement that is otherwise a little formless.

I'm not sure about the future of Occupy Montreal; people are definitely unhappy, but I'm not sure how long it can be sustained. (Actually, I'm not at all sure how Canada stands in terms of wealth inequality and control of government by money; I think both problems are much less severe than in the United States.) Even leaving aside the question of public-attention-span, it's already pretty chilly to be camping out in tents, and it's going to get a lot colder. It's possible to camp out in twenty-below January weather — I've done it — but it takes some serious determination and some good equipment.

A final footnote: I am very sympathetic to the problems with calling the movement "Occupy X" when most of the participants are also occupying land taken by force from indigenous peoples. But that's what Occupy Montreal is called in all the English media I've seen, and some of the French (Occupons Montréal). I did see signs calling it "les indignés", following the protests in Spain, and I like that much better. But I want to call it by its most recognizable name.

1 comment:

mvc said...

the technique has interested me too. i saw it used on the first saturday of the occupation in phases: one person spoke into a megaphone, those who could hear repeated the message, those who could hear the first group repeated that, and so on. it was time consuming but with about four iterations they were able to communicate to perhaps a thousand people.

i think part of the human mic's popularity comes from the fact that it makes a speech a participatory event. having to repeat everything forces you to pay attention, and chanting together in a crowd gives a feeling of belonging to a group (this technique in particular has been used a great deal).

on a historical note, while i've seen this used a few times before, it's particularly common in new york city, where a by-law forbids the use of amplification in public spaces without a permit. there, any demonstration of more than a few dozen people will likely need to use the human microphone if they have anything to say at all.

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