“I didn’t say look; I said listen”: The People’s Microphone, #OWS, and Beyond
On a Tuesday right after Valentine’s Day in 2011 thousands of people marched on the Wisconsin capitol and good-naturedly, but firmly, took over the building. They came for a hearing scheduled by the state government’s Joint Finance Committee, and as crowds swelled out on the snow-covered lawn a long line of citizens formed indoors, waiting their turn to address the Committee and give brief remarks about proposed changes to the state budget.
Up for discussion was the Governor’s proposal to cut public employees’ benefits and eliminate their collective bargaining rights, and having gotten word of widespread outcry, the co-chairs of the Committee had released this statement:
We welcome public participation in our representative democracy. Unlike two years ago when Democrats did not hold a public hearing for the last budget repair bill, we want to listen to individuals’ concerns. Due to the large number of participants, each person will be given up to 2 minutes to address the committee. This will ensure that everyone has their voice heard.
Late that night, the Committee cut off public testimonies in spite of a line still stretched down the hall. One group refused to leave and staged an occupation of the capitol building in protest of both the bill and the foreclosure of public input.
Over the next few weeks, people slept overnight on the marble floor while bigger groups assembled there each day, reportedly in numbers reaching between 70,000 and 100,000. Many carried signs backing public sector workers, but the overall majority showed their solidarity with the protest simply by wearing bright “Badger red” hats, coats, sweaters, and shirts, University of Wisconsin memorabilia now transformed into signs of political support for all of the state’s public institutions. The view from upper levels of the capitol rotunda struck a dramatic portrait as people ringed the center of the room facing inward. One person who spent a lot of time there told me he liked to call it the “eye of the storm.”
Domed spaces tend to be noisy. Sound bounces off of the curvature of the ceiling at so many different angles that what’s audible on the floor quickly takes on so many threads of reverberation that a single voice gets easily obscured. In the Wisconsin capitol, handheld electric bullhorns became instrumental for leading chants and making announcements, but people found they didn’t always do the trick. In one reported instance, a megaphone still wasn’t enough for one woman’s voice to be heard across the rotunda, and so she broke her announcement into fragments and waited in between them as people standing near her repeated each one in loud unison. “State Senator Dale Schultz [repeated]…has withdrawn his vote for the bill [repeated].”
Today that variation of call and response is widely regarded as an iconic feature of the Occupy Wall Street campaign, where it has been likened to liturgy, to brainwashing, to a game of “telephone,” to Garrett Morris’s “News for the Hard of Hearing” bit from Saturday Night Live, and to Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Yet also, as the practice was manifest at lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, it has attracted great interest and variety of comment regarding how it might reflect the values and objectives of those gathering in downtown New York City. It was purported to unite a crowd; it helps ensure that “no one is left to feel isolated and alone;” it accelerates the exchange of information because it “forces everyone to edit group public speech down to the essentials;” it slows the campaign and gives it valuable time to develop; it is “a lesson in the obstinacy required for intentional, durable citizenship.”
Although one need only consider the depth of history stretching out prior to the invention of electric amplification to be certain that the method of communication isn’t new to this year nor even to this century, the question of its recent emergence remains important for identifying possible affinities across boundaries that might otherwise divide protest actions. Last winter in Wisconsin, after transmitting the message about Senator Schultz, the demonstrators apparently didn’t carry on with it the way people did in lower Manhattan, but one need not stop at noting that this proves the technique wasn’t invented this fall in New York. In the capitol building, members of the Wisconsin public instituted a different audio innovation that reflects a shared sense of purpose between the two protest actions. And if one follows a similar connection recently posited in Rolling Stone Magazine between Occupy Wall Street and factory takeovers in Argentina, one might bring into focus a call and response operating across even broader stretches of time and space.
In Wisconsin, the civil disobedience broke out immediately after lawmakers ended the budget hearing with citizens still waiting to speak, and in the following days an alternative system of public testimony took shape on the floor of the capitol rotunda. According to one member of the collective who facilitated its operation, the forum emerged in conjunction with a circle of drummers, who, during pauses in their playing, invited individuals to sequentially address all those gathered using megaphones carried in by the public. Soon after moving up to a single-speaker amplifier that had been provided on friendly loan, some of the drummers pooled their money and purchased a 70-watt (RMS) portable public address system, an additional extension speaker, and a Shure SM58 for, according to one, “whomever wanted to speak, ensuring their voices were heard, never cutting anyone off or denying anyone the right to speak.” With what I submit as telling coincidence, they called the apparatus “The People’s Mic.”
Here is a clip that came up when I used Google to search with the terms “people’s microphone Wisconsin video.”
There are important contrasts between this platform for testament and the call and response technique that has garnered recent notoriety under the same name. In its Zuccotti Park incarnation, the people’s microphone is often celebrated as a clever workaround designed in response to the prohibition against using electric sound amplifiers in public without a permit. However, its key feature is the reciprocity it demands between the person speaking “into” the microphone and others gathered in the space. In this way it not only attenuates the hierarchy usually exerted by one amplified person over the soundscape, but it also fosters the pursuit of accord within the group overall, because the method’s very functioning relies so heavily on the crowd’s ongoing willingness to participate:
In Wisconsin, the People’s Mic did provide citizens a platform otherwise reserved for government and union officials (and the celebrities of their choosing), but individual testimonies were still unidirectional and the system proceeded without the same means of direct and immediate exchange, at least in the realm of sound. As we see in these clips, in Wisconsin, the People’s Mic required the largest number of people to keep quiet for the longest amount of time. Sometimes people had to keep especially quiet because the sound of chanting from outside was bleeding into the space.
However, while much of the discussion of the people’s microphone constructed in Zuccotti Park centers on its horizontal, consensus-oriented nature, why reduce the method’s oppositional potential to a matter of challenging government’s increasing control over the audible city? Fortunately, as though taking a more direct cue from the People’s Mic as it was instigated in Wisconsin, people have recently begun pushing the call and response version adopted in New York past the confines of community building, realizing its practical potential to channel a message and grab the attention of leaders far too often unavailable, unwilling, or uninterested in taking time to—as the Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee had grandly promised—“welcome public participation in our representative democracy.”
The following clips show how the people’s microphone in its new iteration has been used to satisfy the goal more explicitly associated with its Wisconsin variation—that of getting heard. The first comes from an October 25,2011 meeting of the New York City Panel for Education Policy, where a crowd packing a public forum forced board members to relinquish control of the proceedings and allow a statement conveyed on behalf of parents and teachers.
And here in a clip from a November 3, 2011 breakfast meeting at the upscale Union League Club in Chicago, people used the technique as it is now most widely associated with the New York City campaign and directly reconnected it to the efforts in Wisconsin, not only in the sense that they focused their amplifying echo at a particular intended audience, but also by virtue of whom they chose to address:
While some might take exception to these two examples as uses of the people’s microphone without enough reciprocity in mind, I have some confidence that viewers will look upon the second clip, especially, as an overdue carriage bearing a bit of just that. But more importantly to the issue of how the different iterations fit together—Madison, New York City, and beyond—both of these scenes are peaceful, attention-grabbing, and they appear to stem from no more seditious an effort than to urge democratically elected leaders to entertain the voices of their constituents even, and especially, if they aren’t using a “corporate microphone” to speak. Now, with New York police having cleared Zuccotti Park and thrown the Wall Street campaign into yet another bout with uncertainty, it will be especially interesting to find out where, how, and by whom, the people’s microphone is picked up and repurposed again. In Wisconsin, a drive to recall Governor Scott Walker just got underway, and if demonstrations break out again at the capitol, I expect the portable PA will be back up and running. How will people use the people’s mic this time? How will they speak to those recently evicted from Zuccotti Park?
Ted Sammons is completing a doctorate in anthropology at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
The Sound of Hippiesomething, or Drum Circles at #OccupyWallStreet
Last week’s news was been full of alarming stories of real and threatened violence at various #Occupy sites around America. But also disturbing were the reports that complaints about the continuous drumming at the Occupy Wall Street site in Lower Manhattan were threatening to shut the entire operation down. According to stories in N + 1, slate.com, Mother Jones, and New York, the ten hour marathon drum circles at Zuccotti Park have been a focal point of mounting tensions, both between the occupiers and the drummers, and between the occupiers and the community at large. Last week, community members asked that the drummers limit their drumming to 2 hours a day, a request backed by actual OWS protesters. The drummers, loosely organized in a group called PULSE, initially resisted the restriction, claiming that such requests mimicked those of the government they were protesting against. Since then, a compromise has been worked out, but the situation gives rise to a host of questions about race, sound, drums, and protest.
Community organizers both inside and outside OWS said they were distressed by the continuous noise that these protesters are making, and certainly they had reason: as Jon Stewart put it in his episode of talking points, “it’s a public space, it’s for everyone, including people who don’t consider drum circles to be sleepy time music.”
Writer and singer Henry Rollins agrees, telling LA Weekly that he dreams of an #Occupy Music festival, because “So far [he has] heard people playing drums and other percussion instruments” but still wonders “if there will be a band or bands who will be a musical voice to this rapidly growing gathering of citizens.” Rage Against the Machine guitarist and frequent #Occupier Tom Morello also seems to concur, telling Rolling Stone, “Normally protests of this nature are furtive things, It’ll be 12 people with a small drum circle and a couple of red flags. But this has become something that people feel part of.” Stewart, Rollins, and Morello all have a point: not everyone likes drum circles, in fact some people feel quite strongly about them, which has the potential to be divisive for a movement famously representing “the 99%.”
But over and above the questions of musical taste, the very audible presence of snare drums, cymbals, and entire drum sets at OWS—more often found in marching bands or suburban garage band practice spaces than the usual drum circle staple, the conga—raises a different set of questions, both sonic and social, around the interrelated issues of “noise,” public space, and privilege.
That a drum circle populated by a large number of bad, mostly white drummers is being touted as “the sound” of occupation isn’t that surprising, at least not for alumni of UC Berkeley.
In my day, a more conga-oriented drum circle sprouted up on Sproul Plaza every Sunday; today, a similar one occupies a green space in Golden Gate Park right across from Hippie Hill, pretty much 24/7. (I walk by it every Thursday on my way to the gourmet food trucks: happily, the delicious smell of garlic noodles and duck taco obliviates all other senses.)
These kinds of regular, yet impromptu, circles abound in California and elsewhere: indeed, the sound of drum circles à la OWS has characterized certain types of social spaces for the last forty years. But what exactly does the sound of drum circles characterize? What meaning is being made by them, and why?
In the Americas, drum circles go back hundreds of years– many indigenous peoples have drumming traditions, for example, and, in Congo Square in New Orleans, slaves of African ancestry gathered weekly to dance to the rhythms they played on the bamboula, a bamboo drum with African origins, beginning in the early 1700s. The notion of the “circle” was a fundamental part of the dancing and music making at Congo Square—according to Gary Donaldson, the circles represented the memories of African nationalities and various reunited tribes people—and was echoed in various types of “ring shouts” across the West Indies and the Southern U.S. The contemporary drum circle stand-by, the conga, also came to the Americas via the forced migration of slaves; it is of Cuban origin but with antecedents in Africa, like the bamboula. The black power movements of the 1960s drew on this history—and sound—to good effect, reigniting semi-permanent drum circles in many U.S. neighborhoods– like the formal gathering that meets in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem on Saturdays that is currently also under fire from a nearby condo association –audibly announcing their presence and enacting new community formations.
Given this history–and without erasing the presence of drummers of color at OWS--it can seem puzzling how the drum circle has come to occupy such a curiously whitened position in America’s cultural zeitgeist. Furthermore, one of the more problematic aspects of the OWS drum circle debate is the racialized implications of the instrumentation there—implications borne out by videos of OWS that show an overabundance of snares, some of the loudest drums available. According to percussionist Joe Taglieri, “no conga is louder than a fiberglass drum with a synthetic head.” If snares are louder than congas, then noise – actual decibel level — is probably not the sole issue when community groups attempt to control or oust drummers like those in Marcus Garvey Park. It does seem to be a key point of contention at OWS, however.
While there is also a history of African American marching bands, especially in the South, snare drums speak to a different set of American cultural traditions. Drum kits themselves evolved from Vaudeville, when theater space restrictions (and tight pay rolls) precluded inviting a large marching band inside. Mainstream associations with snares include but are not limited to army parades, high school marching bands, and of course hard rock music. Sometimes, like in the case of Tommy Lee, it is an unholy alliance of several of these contexts.
In other words, outside of OWS, snares are hardly the sound of social upheaval.
How the drum circle became associated with political protest in the first place is interesting. Although people sometimes associate drum circles with beatniks rather than hippies, a case could be made that they actually connect more strongly to an electrified Woodstock rather than an acoustic Bleecker Street, thanks in part to Michael Shrieve’s widely mediated turn during Santana’s performance of “Soul Sacrifice” at the 1969 festival.
It is important to note that Shrieve is playing the traps in this sequence, not the conga, which is one reason I’d like to suggest that something about that scene – the hands on the congas, the grins of the other guys, the ecstatic face of a 20-year-old as he slams his kit, and the fetishistic gaze of the camera on the sticks, the skins and the cymbals – caught the imagination of a particular segment of American society. Santana’s band – two Mexican Americans (Carlos Santana and Mike Carabello), a Nicaraguan (Chepito Areas), two whites (Shrieve and Gregg Rolie, who later plagued the world in Journey) and an African American (bassist David Brown)—was truly multi-racial, creating a “small world” visual that furthered Woodstock’s utopian rhetoric in ways that were surely not borne out by the demographics of its audience. More importantly perhaps, the Woodstock movie showed a white suburban hippie guy as an equal participant in a multi-ethnic rhythmic stew, a powerful image in the 1960s. Indeed, the Santana performance may be precisely the moment when the idea of the drum circle was lifted from the context of “black power” and moved into the hippie mainstream.
Woodstock made congas hip to the mass of America—not just in Santana’s set but also in the performances of Richie Havens and Jimi Hendrix—and Woodstock helped define what the drum circle meant, in part by encapsulating certain discursive tropes that were very particular to those times. For example, drum circles epitomize the ’60s idea that political action is simultaneously self-expressive and collective. If a crowd of people sing “We Shall Overcome” or chant “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh/The NLF is going to win,” it is a a collective act. It’s collective even if the crowd is singing “Yellow Submarine” and it’s not overtly political. By contrast, drum circles are about improvisation, so each drummer can “do his own thing” while participating in the groupthink. (The “his” is implied: video of drum circles show few women participants. Apparently Janet Weiss, Meg White, and Sheila E.’s “own thing” can actually be done on their own.)
In terms of sound, drum circles also project well beyond their immediate location, compared to singing and chanting (in fact, OWS has had problems with the drum circles drowning out its “human microphone”). Plus, since the drummers can take breaks and change out, the actual drumming never stops, unlike a performing musician. Thus, drum circles are celebrations of self expression that are actively imposed on an audience that is well beyond eyesight. This summarizes a modern view of personality rooted in the 1960s: that it’s not enough to participate, you’ve also got to “be yourself.” I think these two notions account for the enduring idea of the drum circle as a supposedly political sound, even when it’s not. Drumming in a drum circle allows for a public display of self-expression that simultaneously allows the participant to belong to a group. The appeal of that is obvious, especially in our contemporary iCulture. However, the politicization of the sound of drum circles only makes sense when you add in the lingering sonic traces of black protest, modulated through a hippie lens. You can see this clearly in New York magazine’s “Bangin’: A Drum Circle Primer” (10.30.11), whose visual imagery prominently features a West African djembe drum and describes only the “hippie-era use of traditional African instruments” rather than their actual, snare-heavy configuration at OWS. Despite the snares and in spite of the oft-commented on lack of black faces at OWS—see Greg Tate’s piece in the Village Voice—drum circles still carry enough connotations of militant blackness to annoy the bourgeoisie.
One key thing differentiates OWS’s drummers from the demonstrations of yore, however: in the 60s and early 70s, there was a notion that drum circles were for drummers. Santana’s band, though young, was made up of world class musicians from the San Francisco scene. But to a certain type of viewer – young, white and male—the drum circle must have seemed so doable. Compared to the singular virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix or sheer talent of Pete Townshend, Santana’s music was the sonic equivalent of socialism. No wonder the drum circle scene has had more of a half-life in the hearts and minds of would-be Woodstockians than just about any other: it is a visceral depiction of music as communal, ecstatic, and accessible. Today, thanks to the far-reaching waves of the movie Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music (1970), the percussive noise such a circle makes creates a particular sonic backdrop that clearly—and nostalgically—says hippiesomething.
And yet, politically speaking, nostalgia is, as theorists like Antonio Gramsci, Guy Debord, Jacques Attali and Theodor Adorno have frequently reminded us, invariably associated with Fascism. From Mussolini to Hitler to Reagan to Glenn Beck, it’s a tactic that has been explicitly invoked to thwart social progress. The nostalgia conundrum seems to have escaped both mainstream news media—which uses the drum circle to signify to viewers that OWS is a radical leftist plot—as well as the drummers themselves. For the drummers are hippies, and hippies young and old really believe in drum circles. Hippies take part in them, hippies enjoy them. It’s fair to say, however, that few others do, just as no one ever really enjoyed the 45- minute drum solos on live records by Cream, Led Zeppelin, and Iron Butterfly. (I’m thinking about Ginger Baker’s “Toad,” John Bonham’s “Moby Dick,” and “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” respectively. Also about the time I went to the bathroom and bought popcorn at the LA Forum during a drum solo by some band I know forget, and still had to sit through ten more minutes.) .
However, that fact does not seem to bother those involved in drum circles, and herein lies the great problem with the whole equation drum + hippie = activism. To any members of the mainstream media who hears and records them, a drum circle instantly conjures up a chaotic, possibly even violent, scene: Chicago ‘68, Seattle 2000, Oakland 2011. But the truth is that, outside Fox News, the noun “hippie” no longer means “liberal,” or possibly even politically engaged. The curious thing about drum circles, then, is that while they sound progressive, they can actually mean conservative. A 2006 piece from NPR, for example, describes how drum circles have been adapted as teambuilding exercises for corporations like Apple, Microsoft, and McDonald’s.
The OWS situation illustrates such conservatism in different ways. In another recent article in New York Magazine, a 19 year old drummer from New Jersey is quoted as saying, “Drumming is the heartbeat of this movement. Look around: This is dead, you need a pulse to keep something alive.” This is said in the face of opposition from the movement’s own management, who fear a shutdown due to severe problems with neighborhood groups and restrictions on the General Assembly’s call-and-response “mic checks” that have been so galvanizing. His words are instructive as well as ominous, illustrating that young hippies like him believe that the sound of drums is a suitable replacement for protest or action itself.
The idea that sound alone can energize a movement is not just wrong, it also showcases a willful misunderstanding within the ranks of OWS. In Oakland last week, a small band of anarchists threw bottles at the police, whose wrath rained down in the form of tear gas canisters and a fusillade of dowels: one protester, an Iraq veteran, has been seriously injured.
The incident highlights a kind of cognitive dissonance that is hindering the ability of OWS to achieve political progress. The drumming problems at Zuccotti Park highlight the way that history can repeat itself as farce, as the distance between nostalgia and action — and between sound and meaning — disturbs the peace in more ways than one. Just as drummers in Sproul Plaza refuse to acknowledge that UC Berkeley is now mainly host to computer science and business majors, and drummers in Golden Gate Park refuse to deal with a Haight Ashbury that is gentrifying in front of their eyes, so too do the drummers at OWS refuse to acknowledge that their sound is no longer the sound of social activism. Indeed, the sound of a drum circle is reminiscent of the ring of a telephone, the scratch of a needle dropped on a record, or the clip clop of horse hoofs on hay-covered streets. No wonder it sounds out of place at OWS.
Gina Arnold recently received her Ph.D. in the program of Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University, where she is currently a post doctoral scholar. Prior to beginning graduate work, she was a rock critic. Her dissertation, which draws on historical archives, literature, and films about counter cultural rock festivals of the 1960s and 1970 as well as on her own experience covering the less counter cultural rock festivals of the 1990s, is called Rock Crowds & Power. It is about rock crowds and power.