Allen Young : Is ‘Mic Check’ Just ‘Political Shouting?’

Image from Pragmatic Witness.

An email string:
Analyzing ‘mic check’

Polarizing behavior, besides being wrong, simply creates more polarization…

By Allen Young / The Rag Blog / November 30, 2011

“Mic check,” as it is known, is short for “microphone check,” a name that was chosen with irony because in fact the speech amplification technique known as “mic check” was introduced by Occupy Wall Street activists in places where electronic sound systems and even bullhorns were not allowed.

So, a speaker calls out “mic check” and speaks sentence after sentence, with the people in the crowd repeating each sentence so everyone can hear it.

It seems that for participants this is quite exhilarating, aside from serving a practical purpose of getting words heard.

Eventually, this “mic check” technique was brought to bear in confrontational situations. A group of Occupy protesters, for example, organized the disruption of speeches by Karl Rove and others, using this now familiar technique — followed by YouTube videos bringing the scene to many thousands more.

Now, I must be clear that I am enthusiastic about Occupy Wall Street, and the entire Occupy movement, and want to see this movement grow and succeed. I would like to see the movement be more successful than the New Left I was a part of in the 1960s.

This movement has done a much better job than the Democratic Party (and I am a registered Democrat) at bringing to the American public a message of urgent concern about corporate corruption of our democracy, the immoral lack of economic justice and equality, and the criminal or near-criminal activity of bank and corporate executives in recent times.

I am not so enthusiastic, however, about “mic check,” even in its benign form where only used for amplification. It seems to me – especially when observed in a YouTube video – that “mic check” creates a rather cult-like scene. To the general public, I think it looks and sounds ridiculous, and I have experience with some political shouting of my own, circa 1969, that certainly looked and sounded ridiculous to most people. (Remember “Ho Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF. is Gonna Win?” Yeah, that won over lots of hard-working American citizens to the anti-war cause.)

Recently, a friend in San Francisco who I’ll call Fred suggested that I view a YouTube video of “mic check” used at a Karl Rove speech [see below]. He was very animated about this, and said, “It gives me chills.” I looked at the video, and then emailed a response to him, which I shared with a handful of friends, commenting to them that I wondered if I’d become a “softie.”

Fred has not responded to me yet, but the following email exchange resulted. The names of my friends have also been changed. Some Rag Blog readers who don’t agree with me may find the entry by “Bradley” to be a point of view they like best.

I also passed the entire string by fellow Rag Blog contributor Bill Freeland, and his comments close the piece.

Mic check at Occupy Wall Street event. Image from New Clear Vision.

Allen Young: These are tentative thoughts on “mic check.” I could change my mind, but here’s my honest reaction at the moment after viewing a YouTube video of the Rove “mic check” incident you told me about.

I think people like Rove, Cheney, Bush (and from an earlier era, Kissinger and others), and so on, are war criminals and “very bad people.” I think their evil-doings should be remembered and people should be educated about them.

However, disrupting their speech in an auditorium where they are the invited speaker does not seem to me to be correct or productive. I say it’s not productive because in the end, those people who disrupt will probably be legally expelled from the auditorium by authorities, with or without scuffles or violence of some sort, and then the people who have come to hear the speaker will most likely have increased sympathy for the speaker and will, with perhaps a few exceptions, not even have heard the points being made by the protesters.

There might even be arrests for “disorderly conduct” and bad publicity and the expense involved in legal defense, a waste of resources, in my view. That’s the practical point.

The theoretical point has to do with the right of free speech. You and others may argue that such villains do not deserve rights of any kind. However, as a card-carrying member of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) for decades, I do not agree with this. I and others supported the ACLU when it went to court to protect the rights of the KKK to march in Skokie, Ill. (where many Jews reside) some years ago. (Some people were upset and quit the ACLU, on the other hand.)

I have a personal reason for reacting negatively to “mic check.” I have done a fair amount of public speaking, including on gay issues. So I hope you will try to put yourself in my place.

Imagine if I (or you) were in a college auditorium at the microphone, invited by a gay student organization. Imagine that a large group of anti-gay students infiltrated the auditorium and did a “mic check” style of interruption. Certainly, I would be flustered and upset and uncertain how to respond. I could shout out “bigots go home,” but I would be unable to make the comments I planned to make, the comments that the gay student group which invited me wanted to hear.

My right to express my views would have been suppressed by a handful of vigilante haters. Maybe friendly supportive people in the audience would give me a big hand, and the homophobes would get bad publicity, but my purpose as a speaker would be lost.

There needs to be justice for Rove and his ilk, but not vigilante justice, as I do not believe in that, and I think it is very dangerous to use vigilante justice concepts as we move forward to try to correct the bad things happening in the nation and the world. The cop who sprayed pepper at UC Davis probably saw himself as dishing out vigilante justice to people he despised.

As for moments when Rove, etc., have speaking engagements, I think picketing outside the auditorium and handing out educational leaflet to those attending as well as passers-by is a more appropriate political action, one that I would be proud to participate in. I would not be proud to participate in “mic check.” It would not give me chills (as you said) in any positive sense; it would give me chills in a very frightening negative sense.

Chet: Well-stated and I agree entirely. Polarizing behavior, besides being wrong, simply creates more polarization and a spectacle that people can watch from the sidelines, taking sides and pretending they are acting as citizens rooting for their ideological team, instead of being real citizens doing the unglamorous, slow, and steady work of building broad-based consensus for change.

Kathy: You’re absolutely right, it’s ghastly. And that doesn’t make you a softie, but a man of principle who can speak up when his friends are wrong. A “softie” is someone who would keep quiet about it so as not to offend anyone. People who think that politics is simply a matter of “expressing yourself” by shouting louder than the other guy are ignorant narcissists.

This is the same damn tactic that the original Tea Party people used on the speakers who were trying to present Obama’s healthcare plan, and in my eyes it discredited the movement from the get-go. We’re desperately in need of reasoned discussion these days, and shouting down the “bad people” makes that impossible, because when you do that you validate everyone’s worst image of your own side.

The Right is working hard enough to misrepresent and discredit OWS already; the idiots don’t have to help them. This is what happens with a movement with no leaders, no goals, no philosophy and no discipline — the paranoids, the immature and the violent — all feel empowered, and they hijack the movement, and then it’s all over. Didn’t we already go through that in the Sixties?

I could go on ranting but I have family coming and cooking to do. Happy Thanksgiving!

Bradley: I have heard it said that freedom of the press belongs to anyone who owns the press. So it is with the powers of speech. Our society has evolved into one that is completely dominated by mega-wealthy, mega-powerful men and corporations.

They are so powerful that they own and control entire blocks of media outlets and blanket the population with their slanted world view. Their message is delivered in such a manner as to bamboozle the unwary population lulled by their soma as the telescreen emits powerful, suggestive messages designed to mold their opinion of people and events.

Now the inequity in our society grows to proportions not seen since the days of the “robber barons” of the early industrial age. Monopolies grow unabated by impotent laws and a justice system that has been corrupted by money and power.

There is no justice. Just us.

We, the people, struggle to get our message heard. Suddenly, a clever new tool emerges. Mic Check.

The rich and powerful HAVE freedom of speech, and the power (money) to use it. Mic Check has emerged as a way of delivering powerful messages by temporarily hijacking the speech avenue paved by the powerful.

A typical Mic Check only lasts a few minutes, and delivers a couple of carefully worded paragraphs, but the delivery is compelling. The ubiquitous presence of video recording, and the viral nature of YouTube, has combined with traditional commercial media to deliver these messages well beyond the limitations imposed by the lack of power or influence of the messengers.

Does Mic Check have the potential for misuse? Absolutely. It means that any group can potentially take control of a venue to which they have no actual right.

Will Mic Check become an out-of-control phenomenon used frequently for harassment purposes? Maybe. It also may be something that is with us and effective for only a few months, or even weeks.

No one knows how Mic Check may evolve, but as it stands now, it is a powerful tool for the powerless. Our society is on the verge of collapse and maybe, just maybe, the Occupy Movement, and Mic Check can make a difference. There is no denying that Occupy has changed the dialog, and Mic Check has given that dialog voice.

Three cheers for Mic Check.

Stanley: I tend to agree with you, Allen, if for no other reason than — as you point out — it would likely be counterproductive and bring sympathy to the one interrupted — especially as it is communicated through the media. And it would then subordinate the primary issue to that of the free speech of the speaker.

One idea that might be pursued is the use of the Mic Check approach in a situation where it isn’t actually being used to interrupt the speaker, but to make a political point in a dramatic fashion.

And finally, from Bill Freeland:

In general, repeated chants of the same phrase ’60-style is different than an ongoing statement under “mic check” with specific content to communicate. The first example seems to be just rhetoric for its own sake, while the second example seems to have a useful purpose designed to communicate specific information.

On the specific example of the use of mic check at Rove’s address:

  • Those who have come (and probably paid) to hear Rove in person feel about as sympathetic to him as it is possible to feel. The protesters, I doubt, are not likely to increase the affection those at the event already have for him due to their disruptive behavior. Nor are they likely to view the protesters in a worse light than they already do.
  • Meanwhile, when the action goes viral on social media, the protesters have a tool to reach a much larger and presumably less sympathetic audience than those in the room, which can serve to remind people of who Rove is and what he has done in a way that can’t be ignored (as pickets easily can).
  • Also, mic check in the Rove setting, unlike the continuous “Ho, Ho, Ho” chanting, is of very limited duration. They make their point and then leave — or are removed. So they don’t intend to deny Rove of his right to free speech. They hope merely to briefly interrupt him. So I think it becomes as a result a much less urgent free speech issue when weighed against the potential benefit of holding him to some account.

As for the utility of mic check in the practical (and friendly) setting of a large audience where there is no amplification or free speech implications, I’ve found it to be (much to my surprise) a very useful and creative tool.

So in summary:

  • Mic check is not the equivalent of a repeated chant.
  • It has limited impact on free speech rights when the purpose is to interrupt, but not prohibit, what others are saying
  • In a friendly setting with no other alternative methods available it seems useful for the purpose it was designed to address.

[Allen Young left the Washington Post to work with Liberation News Service in the late Sixties and later became an important voice in the gay liberation movement. Allen now lives in rural Massachusetts where he is involved with environmental issues and writes a column for the Athol Daily News.]

Check out for yourself the ‘mic check’ at Karl Rove’s speech:

The Rag Blog

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6 Responses to Allen Young : Is ‘Mic Check’ Just ‘Political Shouting?’

  1. Besides chanting during marches and rallies, I am unfamiliar with instances of 60s rads interrupting speakers with prolonged chanting. Not saying it never happened, but in most cases the “authorities” would have moved in quite quickly to squelch any such thing.
    On the other hand, there is a long and honorable tradition of combining large demonstrations outside a speaking venue with small group or individual interruptions inside it; those who are able to get inside such places (often access is tightly controlled) and willing to stand up and shout something contradictory to the speaker’s assertions are or should be well aware that they are going to get bodily hauled out if not arrested.
    This combination of tactics can be very effective. In Austin, one of the most memorable instances I recall involved former Defense Secretary R McNamara’s self-serving, mendacious book tour in the early 80s (?) Veterans 60s activists were not the only ones to turn out: a large group of well-organized Gold Star Mothers and their families, who had lost loved ones in Vietnam, were also there to confront the Pig McNamara about his admission that he had continued to support the war long after he knew it was unwinnable, and had in fact sent hundreds of young GIs to their deaths in order to save his own limitless pride.
    Both groups had picket signs, chanting, etc., outside the venue — somewhere on the UT campus, I forget exactly where; Roger B. probably remembers — and BOTH HAD PEOPLE INSIDE who arose periodically and confronted McNamara’s greed and his lies.
    So, Allen and other contributors to this discussion, what if it’s a Gold Star Mother who stands up to one of the current warmongers and says, “Mic check, you death-dealing hypocrite, you traded my child’s blood for oil”???
    Also, I have been roundly heckled as a speaker, and at times had my words drowned out by heckling, as has probably anyone who has ever spoken publicly on a controversial topic in this country. It’s kind of one of those can’t stand the heat; get outta the kitchen things. I have never not said what I came to say. If enough people WANT TO HEAR you, they will tell the hecklers to pipe down, or toss ’em out.
    Finally (whew!), when the KKK came to Austin and had a rally at the Capitol grounds, about a bajillion people (incl. me) came and drowned out every word. BUT when the KKK produced a public access television program, I voted, with a majority of my colleagues on the then-Austin Cable Television Commission, to allow it to be shown, and I would do so again today. Television viewers have the option to NOT WATCH offensive programs, or to produce oppositional programming (as was done in Austin) to publicly oppose the Klan’s message.
    Official censorship of offensive ideas and speech, however, is a slippery slope to limiting MY speech. Verbally confronting those who choose to speak for a corrupt regime? Fair game!

  2. Mary in Austin says:

    I was never prouder to be an Austinite than when I read the recent report of the disruption of Karl Rove's recent speaking engagement at quite a storied venue in Austin. Rove was unhurt and his speech did eventually continue, but thank goodness some people let him know that years of enabling of war criminals and crooks is not socially acceptable.

  3. bubba says:

    I wrote the following just before leaving our home on Thanksgiving Day to go to Marin County to have a midday dinner with our friend Jean and her family and friends. It was a PERFECT Thanksgiving…..Here goes:

    Allen yours is also a well written and persuasive arguement. You are a writier after all, as well as being a public speaker and activist. In fact, I met you 32 years ago because

  4. Jay D. Jurie says:

    I agree with Bradley and Mariann. If we lived in a more truly free society, yelling "mic check" in the middle of a talk on how to make peach preserves would be rude and boorish. Because we live in a society that is increasingly fractious due to glaring inequalities and rampant injustices, including Democratic mayors shutting down free speech, assembly, and peaceable petition of

  5. JoJo says:

    ok, daddy. may i go out to play now?

  6. These remarks should not be read to endorse the “heckler’s veto,” but it seems to me the “mic check” interruptions might be justified in the all too common modern situation where a speaker sane people would consider highly controversial is packaged as mainstream and dissenters are caged in “free speech areas” and questions must be submitted in writing. When faced with such nonsense, disruption is the closest you can get to converting monologue to dialogue.

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