Saturday, December 03, 2011

In Defense of Mic Check Direct Actions

Azizi on Pancocojams wrote a blog post about a recent trend she's noticed since the 99% movement has gained steam. She's speaking out against the way that she's seen people using the "mic check" in direct action protests.
"The human microphone system, the call & response method of repeating statements, isn't being used for its original purpose of helping people in large groups without access to microphones hear what is being said. Instead, it's being used to disrupt communication from someone the group doesn't agree with, and it's being used to garner publicity for the protesting group's cause or causes....My bottom line is that if "mic check" is supposed to be a means of enhancing communication, I'd count that protest use of mic check a failure, since it's usually difficult to understand what the protesters are shouting. But beyond that, I don't like the use of "mic check" to disrupt other's speeches or other people's public appearances (even the speeches or public appearances of persons I vehemently disagree with like Glen Beck). I think that "mic checking" people is contrary to the right of free speech. Besides, it's just rude."
I guess I should first address the issue of free speech. The right to free speech doesn't mean you have the right to be heard. If someone talks over you while you're making a point, it's not an example of someone taking away your rights. It's just them exercising the same right at the same time. Maybe rudeness matters to some people. I can dig that. I was born and raised in Louisiana, so I have had all of the laws of courtesy drilled into my head from an early age. Still, there are times when rudeness just doesn't matter to me.

I had to be rushed to the emergency room at a hospital earlier this week, because I was really sick and couldn't keep my medicine down. When I got there, they had to immediately set up an IV-bag and start administering a bunch of drugs, just to try to get me stabilized. I don't remember a single one of them asking me if I'd like something to drink or offering me a glass of tea. Of course, they could also point out that I didn't exactly ask for their permission before I proceeded to use their bathroom.

My point is that there are times when rudeness isn't a highly-prioritized consideration. If we focused on avoiding rudeness, at all costs, then the world is not going to be a very desirable place to reside. There isn't a single social justice movement in the world that can't rightfully be considered "rude" according to the views of many folks who witnessed them take place. I'm sure it mattered to them, but those who were fighting for rights had more important considerations. For those who are protesting, that someone might be rude to Beck and his acolytes matters very little in the grand scheme of things, especially when one considers how little they care about the rudeness of their own behavior.

The other part of her argument has to do with the efficacy of this particular form of direct action. To address that, I think it would help if we clarified things a bit. If we're going to be honest about the origin of the human mic check, it certainly can't be attributed to helping people in large groups understand what's being said. It's origin in this country can be found in the African American church over a century ago.

It was a means of participation between the congregation and the speaker. It can be heard in the gospel music that birthed the Jazz Age. This call and response was typical in early jazz music. Back then it was derided as cacophony and tribal and certainly not "real music". The jazz musicians and aficionados were considered the trashy troublemakers upsetting the natural order of things.

Still, they continued their call and response music for each other, not for their critics. I think that's important to recognize. It was never meant to attract those who didn't see the value of jazz styling. Nevertheless, it had value. It changed America, despite the critics. This call and response music became known as the first truly American form of music. To be honest, it changed the world in many ways. It became the protest music of its day. It was the voice and sounds of those who were alienated from the "natural order of things". It was the music of the youth. It expressed their values, even when it meant that they would be seen as socially unacceptable.

After a while, the call and response aspects of jazz fell out of use. It is even used less in the African-American church(es) where it was first found. It was replaced with less participatory music. Now, it's seeing a resurgence. It is being reborn in a new period of protest by the societal underclasses. Some use it one way. Some use it other ways.

If we're going to be purists, then the only acceptable use of this style of communication is within the confines of the Black churches of the south. But why should we be purists? The essence really hasn't changed. Those who use it for the large crowds at rallies and those who use it for direct action at bookstores are still using it for the same thing it was always used for. It is still essentially a means of communication and participation for and by those who have something to say. Some will find it attractive. Others will be repulsed by it. However, the response(s) by outsiders does not determine the legitimacy of its role in any of these settings.

I'm really skeptical about this idea that protesters need to win over the non-believers. I don't think that's even possible. If someone cares about justice, then they will be attracted to just causes. If someone cares more for the retention of the status quo, then they aren't going to join these protesters no matter how politely they go about expressing themselves.

Some folks thought that the counter sit-ins were pointless and even unnecessarily provocative. Others felt differently and they participated in it. They didn't go in there expecting to change minds. They went in and sat at those counters to show where they stood on this issue of "separate but equal" societies. In the end, it was a combination of strategies that effected the changes we benefit from today. We needed Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

People in the media tried to get MLK to speak critically of Malcolm X, but he pretty much refused to do it. It wasn't HIS way, but he knew that they all had to choose their own path. He never told Malcolm to change his ways and adopt his strategy.

Today, I don't really identify as one of the 99%. I choose to cast my lot with the "Un-Percent" folks (Check out a brilliant indigenous American activist named "Ian Ki'laas Caplette" on Facebook, if you want to know more about it). So, I'm going to fight for social justice in the way that my heart leads me. Not everyone is going to see much point in how I protest, but that doesn't determine its legitimacy. Likewise, not everyone is going to feel moved by mic check protesting. However, judging from its increased popularity, it's obvious that some do.

Mic check protests are direct acts of people standing up and making their stance known. It's not a promotional act. If so, they'd be turning out glossy books with smiling white guys on the front of them, like Beck and Hannity and O'Reilly produce. In fact, it's the antithesis of that. It is the protesters way of saying, "No! Contrary to what Beck and his cronies are telling you, things are not okay. We can not continue to pretend that there's plenty of time to sit around and allow predatory capitalism and unchecked consumerism flourish in our world."

So, even if nobody else listens, even if they say protesters are going about it all wrong, the one thing they won't be able to say is that nobody tried to warn them. They won't be able to deny that we spoke out. And even if the world refuses to change, I and those who used their preferred method of protest can go into oblivion with peace of mind, knowing that we did try.


whatsername said...

Hear, hear!

Azizi Powell said...

Bint, I appreciate what you wrote and how you phrased what your wrote.

I agree with you that the human microphone is based on African American call & response styles. My first post on Occupy Wall Street discusses that and also includes some examples of African American call & response songs.

However, if I understood what you wrote, I disagree with you that movements shouldn't be concerned about winning the hearts and minds of persons who aren't yet involved in those movements. I also don't believe that just because I (or anyone else) disagrees with you (or anyone else) about certain strategies that means that we don't or can't agree on other issues. Furthermore, disagreement on strategies does not mean disagreement about goals or causes for instance, I very much believe that the economic system underwhich we live is grossly unfair & unjust and must change. I believe that there's a lot of changing that must and will occur in this world in the years to come, and (using astrological terms) Pluto in Capricorn will make sure of that whether governments want that to happen or not.

I'll stop here, but will just say that I continue to wish you well, even if we aren't in agreement on this particular issue of the protest use of mic check.

bint alshamsa said...

Azizi, maybe I'm just burned out. I'm really tired of trying to change people's minds. At this point, I don't care WHY they do it, just as long as they do what needs to be done. All social justice movements probably need people like you who are still willing to do the work to convince the unconvinced.

I missed your first post on the Occupy protests. I've been sick since the middle of October, so I'm completely lost as to what has been going on online during that time. I'd love to link that post to this one, if you don't mind.

I don't want these newbie protesters thinking that they actually came up with this, as if it's some brand new technique.

Anonymous said...

Bint, I just love you.

As a 62 yr old woman with a disability and occupier, I am proud to be part of such long rich tradition of call/responses for recognition. I've been part of three mic checks and have can honestly say, we do it to be heard, not liked or appreciated. In each case, we had detractors, but we also had a few actually heard us.

Keep writing. I love your musings.

Anonymous said...

I love you Bint!

I am a 62 yr old, woman with a disability, activist, backslider blogger, and a member of my town's local Occupy group.

I am proud to be part of the long proud and rich tradition of call and response. Having been involved in three mic checks, i felt the connection to the call/response tradition. I can also say that we, formerly unheard ideas and voices did it to be heard. Winning friends was not our intent, being heard was our intent; and it worked.

bint alshamsa said...

Big Noise,

Kudos to you and the other occupiers, especially those who are also my fellow folks with disabilities! I am so glad that y'all have been out there making your voice heard. I often feel pretty helpless here in my home, away from the bubbling revolutionary actions taking place across the world. Right now, I'm too sick to even have my family come over to visit. So, going out to local protests is an impossibility. But you are there!

I know that it's even harder for many of us (with disabilities) to go out to protests. It's riskier for us, than it is for the non-disabled folks who show up. Being arrested carries with it the concerns about whether our medications or our prostheses or our oxygen machines will be accessible or confiscated. Some of us are a lot easier to harm. I know several of my friends who might easily have died if they were handled in the way I've seen some protesters abused by the "authorities" lately.

But you are there, anyway! That means we won't be silenced. We may not be listened to, but we will speak our truths. I stand in solidarity with you, sister!