Making Ourselves Heard

On September 17th, the day Occupy Wall Street commenced, I spent my morning in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn, completing the last step of the naturalization process: the oath of citizenship. This oath is not especially poetic, but it is important. Immigrants are repeatedly told that they will not become Americans until they have collectively uttered the oath, which includes pledging to take up arms if asked to do so.

According to the logic of this oath, an immigrant becomes a citizen once they have taken these words into their body, and has repeated them out loud, while also declaring that they have no “mental reservations” about what they have repeated. The recitation of this oath is an explicitly political act. To speak the words is to subordinate oneself to the laws of the United States.

The following week, I found myself in Zuccotti Park with other Occupy Wall Street protesters, again repeating other people’s words. But this time the purpose was different. Prohibited by the New York Police Department from using electronic means to broadcast our voices, Occupy Wall Street relies, instead, upon the People’s Mic for amplification. Speakers call for a “mic check,” which is repeated by the demonstrators, giving voice to their thoughts, in short syllables, pausing every few words so that the People’s Mic has time to relay those syllables to the outer tiers of the crowd.

What initially seems like a messy game of telephone is actually one of Occupy Wall Street’s strongest tools. Speakers have to be concise and clear.  Members of the crowd actively participate in discursive events that they don’t necessarily initiate, but pass along, in solidarity, with those who can not hear. They do this even if they disagree with what is being said. As a consequence, each participant become an embodied node — a synapse, if you will — in the protest’s rhizomic (horizontal, as opposed to hierarchical) information system. During our march to the headquarters of the NYPD, seven generations of repetition could be heard.

Unlike the hermetically-closed system of the Naturalization Oath, the People’s Mic creates a space in which information passes freely, regardless of its source. The crowd is repeatedly reminded to continue amplifying ALL speakers, even if they disagree with what is being said. “Mental reservations” are not only welcome, but encouraged as topics of discussion.

In contrast to the political identity produced by the Oath, the sort called forth by the People’s Mic is founded on permission rather than submission. Participants are invited to disagree, but also urged to perceive that without all of our voices, a single one of us cannot be heard. For me, the beauty of this approach became poignantly clear when an elderly stranger pressed cough drops into my hand, thanking me for helping her to hear. That’s what all of us at Occupy Wall Street are doing: helping each other to hear.

My Certificate of Naturalization marks September 17th as the day I became a citizen of the United States of America. But I did not truly feel like one until I lent my voice to the General Assembly at Liberty Plaza, where we attempt to defend the Constitution with our voices — our empowered, autonomous bodies — instead of arms.

Photograph courtesy of David Shankbone. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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