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Battle Cry: Occupy's Messaging Tactics Catch On

Many people who've joined the Occupy Wall Street movement say the months-long communal living has been the experience of a lifetime. One of the movement's hallmarks — the "people's mic" — has come to represent the movement's collective spirit.

In New York's Zuccotti Park, protesters couldn't use amplified sound, so the large crowds took to repeating what a speaker said out of necessity. But the technique moved quickly across the country, even to cities like Oakland, Calif., where protesters had some powerful microphones.

Protesters even took to describing the people's mic to newcomers by using the people's mic.

This is how it works: Someone screams "mic-check" to grab everyone's attention and get the people's mic started. The speaker will then say something, for instance, "Thank you for your patience tonight," which the crowd repeats. This goes on until the speaker is finished.

Clearly, the practice is time consuming. The technique works best repeating short, four-to-six-word phrases. The more complicated the idea, the more difficult the task.

Psychological Empowerment

Before their encampment was removed last week, Occupy L.A. protesters explained why they keep using the people's mic.

Sheila Nichols, 41, says that it embodies the movement's leaderless ethos.

"[The] people's mic forces people to be participatory, to listen, to understand that we're in it together," says Nichols, "And it's an active experience that forces people to be a part of something that's a whole."

Nichols, who spent two months camping in front of L.A.'s City Hall, says being part of Occupy changed her life.

"It's sort of an undefined, decentralized experience overall, which is what makes it an amazing and unique experience," she says.

Many Occupiers shared the sentiment. It was the process of working as a group, building consensus, and listening to every word everyone had to say that was most important to them.

For protesters like James Best, 34, these things were more important than finding a leader or one issue to champion.

"I think the most important thing about this movement thus far has been modeling direct democratic practice," Best says. "It's a very painful process, and it sometimes seems somewhat less than defending, but it's marvelous."

In addition to repeating everything the speaker says, participants also use a wide variety of hand gestures to signify their approval or disapproval of an idea. If this causes the message to degenerate and protesters to lose focus, someone stands up to "mic-check" the speaker.

But Occupiers weren't the first to use these techniques. Consensus-building and the people's mic were heard during the anti-nuclear rallies of the 1980s and later on at the anti-globalization protests in the 1990s.

The Occupy movement, however, has given the tactics wider visibility.

Longtime activist Tom Hayden says old-school forms of protest like following a charismatic leader or joining an established organization isn't the only way to participate in democracy anymore — clearly not for the Occupiers.

"There's empowerment through voting, and there's psychological empowerment — and both are very important in a democracy," Hayden says.

Mic-Checks Move On

So what happens to the people's mic as Occupiers are removed from their encampments? The people's mic moves, too.

Protesters have taken their call-and-response to disrupt public meetings and events. Newt Gingrich recently got mic-checked.

As he introduced the Gingrich Productions' film City Upon on a Hill, someone called out, "Mic-check!" A crowd repeated, and the protester then said, "We love you Newt ... thank you for standing up for corporations."

Michele Bachmann also got mic-checked, as did President Obama on a recent campaign stop in New Hampshire.

Occupiers say the people's mic is coming to a shareholder's meeting or public event near you.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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