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The 'Mic Check' And the Occupiers' Protest Framework

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, November 17 2011

Watch the live video feeds coming from Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in lower Manhattan today and you'll hear, over and over again, a refrain that has come to define the movement: "Mic check!"

What began as a way for occupiers to convene and make decisions — or try to, anyway — in groups of dozens or hundreds at a time has become a protest tool put to use around the country, but especially in the Midwest. The occupiers' "People's Mic" — in which many voices echoing one, a few syllables at a time, take the place of microphones and bullhorns — can power an assembly. But as it happens, it's also extremely difficult to drown out a group of protesters who decide to "mic check" an event where a single speaker stands at a podium. The tactic is named after that two-syllable phrase, which protesters repeat until enough people are participating in a people's mic — or have been bemused into silence, wondering what's going on — to proceed.

The resulting scene can make for a powerful video — disruptive protesters using creativity and solidarity to outsmart security guards and some central authority figure. It's another example of how Occupy Wall Street is, if nothing else, rewriting the protest playbook for the 21st century. Read on for a few examples of the "mic check" as made-for-YouTube moment.

Maybe you're one of nearly 300,000 people who have already seen this video of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whom Democratic and labor activists are trying to recall, getting "mic checked" on Nov. 3:

But Walker isn't the only one to get this treatment.

Just a couple of days ago, footage emerged of a "mic check" used at U.S. Chamber of Commerce event with C-SPAN cameras rolling:

(Notice how as one protester holding the script is escorted out by security, another stands up and picks up exactly where the last one left off — talk about a networked protest; this one even has Internet-like redundancy.)

Yesterday it was reported that Occupy Baltimore "mic checked" Karl Rove:

Rep. Michele Bachmann was interrupted at a recent event:

Wisconsin Rep. Robin Vos was mic checked:

Minnesota activists used the tactic on Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf:

People used it while crashing the Vermont Democratic Party:

And Occupy Duluth used it just to get on local television:

Alexis Madrigal wrote recently that Occupy Wall Street "was working better as an API", fleshing out an idea first floated by the journalist Jonathan Glick. It seems to me that maybe it's not an API so much as what geeks would call an application framework, one of the toolkits built on top of a programming language that enables developers to quickly build a purpose-specific application.

Occupy Wall Street is maybe more like Ruby on Rails or Django than it is like the Twitter API. You don't need to send a GET or POST request to a central server farm to get what you need. Occupy protest tools — Madrigal cites many of them, including other "good optics" moment-makers such as studied antagonism of the police and protester-run outlets for pushing out video and news — are being written and rewritten out in the open. All someone else with their own protest needs to do is download those, from General Assembly hand signals, to this code for a tool that takes audio recorded from one phone's mic and broadcasts it as an mp3 to all the other devices on the same wifi network, to the "99 Percent" slogan or the tactic of the people's mic.

Unlike many APIs and like an application framework, someone who wants to use these Occupy tools doesn't need a "key" from Occupy itself that can be revoked to deny access — they can pick up the tools and put them to whatever purpose they want. It's unclear to me of the majority of occupiers would, for instance, "twinkle" the use of online video of police using force on protesters if it edited out some clear provocation on the part of protesters. This happened the last time there was a major protest, in October, when labor groups joined occupiers in Foley Square and for a night of demonstrations in lower Manhattan.

The people's mic for "mic checking" politicians is just one of those tools. This morning, occupiers demonstrated how to use Ushahidi to create a central repository of information about interactions between protesters and police throughout a demonstration — curated and maintained by the protesters, not police. Who knows what other tools we'll see before the end of the day, whether it's from the New York occupiers or any of the other groups out protesting today across the country.

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