Occupy Audio: The Soundscape of the Protests

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The story of technology and the Occupy movement is more than just high-tech new technologies. This post breaks from the smartphone-and-social-media-centric lens to think about sound as a political technology for the Occupy protests.
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Sight is the sense that usually gets first billing when discussing technology and protest. Much has been written about how now-iconic images such as this and this have grown the visibility of the Occupy movement. The powerful impact of seeing police mistreat protesters via mobile-phone video has been the one of the only narratives traditional media has been able to tell about Occupy. Viewing the outpouring of amateur digital photographs from protesters or watching live streaming-from a smartphone over the web has been a powerful way to bring many from around the globe into the eyes of the protester.

"The visible can establish the distance, the nature and the source of the voice, and thus neutralize it. The acousmatic voice is so powerful because it cannot be neutralized with the framework of the visible, and it makes the visible itself redoubled and enigmatic" -Mladen Dolar, 2006, A Voice and Nothing More.

Authorities have also deployed the power of sight against the Occupy movement. Take, for example, the large panoptic-like NYPD surveillance tower (pictured here) that overlooked Zuccotti Park. Indeed, most of the academic literature about our surveillance society focuses on sight; " the gaze" as Michel Foucault would say. Other senses have been used against the Occupy protesters. Smell plays an important role in the critique that the occupations are not sanitary. This is a common justification for evicting protesters from occupying the parks overnight. Even the sense of touch is used to critique the movement when some on the right make reference to the occupiers as being sexually perverted.

The role of sound in the Occupy movement has been particularly interesting. There has been a clash of noises deployed by and against the Occupy movement. The primary example is how the human voice has been used as a powerful protest tool (as it always has). The so-called "human microphone" has become symbolic of the movement itself. Initially used as an alternative to electronically-amplified sound banned from Zuccotti Park, protesters utilize this low-technology to reach their voices across large audiences by repeating the words of one individual together as a group.

Sometimes the human microphone is deployed organizationally. Attending General Assembly meetings at various occupations, it is easy to notice how important the chanting is for achieving consensus in a large group without access to any other form of sound-amplification. Joining voices in unison becomes more than logistically useful but is also a deeply participatory act of solidarity. The human microphone has evolved from just an internal tool to being pointed outwards as a form of protest. By "mic-checking" those in power, the Occupy movement has found a formidable instrument in making themselves heard. This tactic in the war of sounds has been deployed against Karl Rove , Barack Obama, Wells Fargo Bank and many others.

And, of course, like other protests, the Occupy movement chants various slogans like "the whole world is watching" or "shame on you" to the police or the poetic "we are unstoppable, another world is possible." To "occupy" time and space means more than to just be seen, but to also be heard.

Music has been an important use of sound. There are protest songs written by famous musicians as well as smaller local bands playing at the various occupations across the country. Drum circles have been a source of conflict between Occupy Wall Street and the city and have caused tension within the movement itself. Like the human microphone, the intention is to use sound as a technology to bring people together as well as to get the attention of others. There was also the attempted 24-hour drum circle outside of New York City Mayor Bloomberg's house and a marching band continued to play throughout one late-October clash between Occupy Oakland protesters and the police.

One of the most interesting uses of sound has been the strategic use of silence. Watch this moving video of the UC Davis chancellor walking through a gauntlet of upset UC Davis students still reeling from the now-infamous pepper-spraying incident on their campus. Instead of yelling, the students sat in deafening silence.

Much more could be said about experiencing the Occupy movement through sound. There is the odd sensation of hearing busy city streets from inside a tent or the ambient noise one perceives when in a group of people, something that itself becomes an omnipresent reminder of one's involvement in the movement. Those not in the park but watching events from afar via the increasingly popular live-stream can now hear the chants, police sirens and the other resonances of protest as they happen.

The police have also engaged in the war of sound. Most dramatically, there have been reports that the Oakland and New York City police departments have deployed LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) sonic weapon technology against the Occupy movement. If pepper spray is an attack on touch, taste and sight, then various LRADs are the equivalent on hearing. The usage of this device against civilian populations has proved to be controversial. Police have attempted to counter the sounds produced by the protesters with a new, louder and more destructive noise.

Sound has been used as a defensive technology as well. The first half of the UC Davis pepper-spray video gets most of the attention, but the second half is also telling. Around six minutes into the video we see police march towards protesters. At 6:15, the crowd uses the human microphone as self-defense, telling the police force in unison that "you can go." After a moment, the officers step back and leave to the applause of the crowd. Whether or not that chant itself caused police retreat, sound came to be used as a last-ditch self-defense mechanism for the protesters. The video has been viewed more than two million times, and strikes me to be as much about what we hear as what we see.

It has been fascinating to witness the politics of sound deployed by and against the Occupy movement. As I write, there is some confusion about what the movement will become as the weather gets colder and cities less welcoming. The question might be restated: What might happen if the movement becomes silent? What if there is nothing for authorities, protesters and the rest of us to hear? The role of sound as a technology of protest has been too important for the Occupy movement to move forward on mute.

Mladen Dolar quote above via Seth Cluett.

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Nathan Jurgenson is a social theorist of media. He's working on a dissertation in sociology at the University of Maryland on self-documentation and social media.

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