The Human Microphone and Protest Sound Dimensions

Kristine Lawson – University of California, Santa Cruz

In September 2011, the people gathered in Zuccotti Park as a part of Occupy Wall Street called on the tried and true “anti” technology of call-and-repeat voice amplification known as the human microphone. The speakers delivered their messages in short phrases and the audience repeated, ensuring the message reached all those gathered. Later, this human mic tactic would be put to a more aggressive use as Occupy participants “mic checked” various high-profile public speakers across the nation by interrupting their speaking with the protester’s own. This project addresses the role of sound in social protest. In particular, how do the human microphone and mic check, practices that gained popularity in Occupy events in 2011 and 2012, create a certain kind of place for protest through the implementation of loudness, repetition, and, in the latter, talking-over. Guided by an acoustemological (Feld 1996) framework, this project investigates the social and political dynamics created by human mic/mic check performances through an understanding of the types of sounds they create. I examine the differences between human mic for “basic amplification” and mic check as more of a combative strategy to overcome talk that is already happening, as in being “mic-checked.” I also examine the ways these practices do or do not reflect democratic ideals and the significance of individuals choosing to participate in one of these two without knowing beforehand exactly what is to be said ‒ a risk not as prevalent in other aural protest participation. [Text Originally in the AAA 2013 Program]