As I was driving home yesterday evening I heard this story on NPR. It describes a communication strategy used by Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.

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.

The article quotes Sheila Nichols describing mic check’s uniquely participatory character:

[The] people’s mic forces people to be participatory, to listen, to understand that we’re in it together… And it’s an active experience that forces people to be a part of something that’s a whole…It’s sort of an undefined, decentralized experience overall, which is what makes it an amazing and unique experience.

Participatory, undefined, decentralized… I’m not so sure. Does any voice have the privilege of the public mic? Or is there an explicit or tacit understanding within the group regarding who are the leaders to whom the group will grant its collective voice?

Here is an example of “mic check” in action, in the “pepper spray” incident at UC Davis.

In this instance a small handful of leaders are directing the crowd’s collective action in confronting the police. The crowd is not deliberating, it is obeying the commands of these leaders, chanting their slogans and instructions. Watching this, I recalled the children’s game, “Simon says,” in which one person instructs the group in a series of silly actions, and tries to trip them up by slipping in a command without first saying, “Simon says.” In the UC protest, the group leaders’ voices were recognized as “Simon says,” and the voices of the police were not. The crowd follows their Simons with near robotic obedience, although a  few of the wiser ones have enough sense to know that their Simons are putting them in danger, and get themselves out of harm’s way.

More importantly, perhaps, this scene illustrates a process Rene Girard describes as “mimetic contagion.” “Mimetic” refers to imitation. The leaders are focusing a group’s attention on a common enemy, in this case the police. The group literally imitates and acts out the words of its leaders. The group finds its unity not so much in shared ideals as in the identification of a common enemy. Girard observes that one of the greatest achievements of western civilization has been the establishment of the rule of law and its accoutrements, including a near-universally respected judicial system and police force. In effect, by identifying the police as their common enemy, the group aims its attack at this core of civilization. This has been a common theme of the occupy movement, particularly in its insistence that laws intended for the common good, most notably laws enforcing public health practices and prohibiting camping in urban public spaces, ought not apply to OWS demonstrators. I’ll be writing more about Girard’s mimetic theory in future posts.

The NPR narrator sums up the grand, egalitarian principle that supposedly guides the OWS use of mic check:

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.

“Listening to every word everyone had to say.” Apparently we must take the term “everyone” with a shaker-full of salt. The article concludes with this sparkling example of consensus building and listening to every word everyone has to say:

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.

So then, “mic check” is not about “listening to what everyone has to say,” after all. One can’t know, I suppose, whether the writer of the piece recognizes the disjunction here. But clearly the leaders of this “decentralized” movement use “mic check” to guide and direct their willing mob to instruct them in what and how to think, what to say, to whom to listen, and whom to ignore or disrupt.

The story concludes:

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

I can’t wait.


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