I protested with the Occupy San Francisco crowd last Saturday, and found the experience to be a lot less rousing that I had expected. The anger at the financial class and the violence its maneuvers have done to regular folks is something I am very emotional about and was eager to protest. Yet I left the demonstration quickly feeling less attached to the cause than before. I wonder if this is because the movement is disorganized and in its early stages, or if it’s just that my idea of a demonstration is just different.
First off, I met up with my brother and a friend for a drink before the demonstration. We were a little late getting organized to leave, but we were certain, based on our history, that demonstrations don’t start on time. Guess what? Modern demonstrations start on time.
We got to 101 Market thinking we’d get on the tail end of the march to Civic Center, but the whole thing was long gone, leaving us to make our march of three down Market Street all by ourselves.
At Civic Center for the rally, the protestors sat down in front of the steps of City Hall. I thought they might be staging a sit in, but it turned out that they had a different concept.
At the Occupy Wall Street rallies in NYC, they are not allowed to use a microphone lest they disturb the workers in the office buildings. As a result, they’ve developed this clever system where the speaker says a sentence and those around him repeat it, and those in the second ring of access repeat it and it continues to ripple through the crowd so even those at the fringes can hear. When Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz spoke before the “echo chamber”, he was amused. He said, “I realize the pedagogy of having to repeat what I say is very valuable, but it makes the whole process much longer.”
At the SF rally they adopted the same echo chamber, even though they could have set up a normal P.A. system at City Hall and allowed all of us to hear the speeches. There were 300 or so protesters sitting before the speaker on the steps with an electronic megaphone. The crowd drone-like repeated every word he said. At first glance this whole operation looked like a cult.
The first speaker I heard had written out his speech in a leather bound notebook and had carefully chosen a lot of five dollar words. The human microphone had a hard time repeating him, and I found it almost impossible to understand. The next speaker was an idiot who wanted us to get rid of the constitution because, she said, it had been written by white men, landowners. I left after the third speaker who announced that she was “inviting” the corporations and the corrupt politicians to join us in “this great experiment.” Really? What are we experimenting on? Or with? What is experimental about this and what is the thing we are trying to change? Hilarious to think that any sober individual would welcome this invitation.
I was much more put off by this aspect of the event than the random odd balls juggling and playing drums at the edges, who were advocating non violence or ethical treatment of animals or no more nukes. I remember all sorts of fringe characters on the edges of protests I attended in the ’60s and ’70s, activists who were trying to get support for their pet peeve from among the many open-minded individuals who show up to protest. People who focus on this as evidence that the movement is a mess don’t have much experience with protests.
What I remember enjoying about protests back then was solidarity, which coalesced around the speeches. I recall that when you’d see a flyer for one of those rallies, it would list the speakers and there were some whom I looked forward to hearing. A few had a gift of speech making that stirred me, that rhetorical skill that would have the crowd cheering and chanting back some meaningful and musical phrase. That was part of what drew me to those events, that feeling that I was not alone in my adherence to this cause. This echo chamber device doesn’t allow that to happen.
Then it occurred to me that maybe I’m looking for what I liked and that what these younger people have developed is some form that has meaning for them. Maybe they find meaning in repeating the phrases as spoken. Perhaps that makes them participants in a different way: the witnesses, the messengers. I just found it off putting. I would never want to blindly repeat the inane things that I heard the speakers say. To me, that means I’m endorsing them. And I know that I would have felt that way if I was compelled to repeat the speeches of most of the mountebanks that spoke to the Vietnam War rallies back in the day.
Over all, what was missing for me was any kind of articulation of the things that inspired me to attend the protest. I didn’t hear any speakers talking about the influence of money on politics, the bank bailout without bailing out the homeowners, gap between the wealthy and the rest of us, etc. When I voiced these criticisms to one of the people in charge she said, “We’re just getting started. We’re just growing as a movement.” Fair enough, but I’m not sure there’s all that much growth on the horizon unless they can find a better method of focusing their speakers on the subjects of concern to the protestors and devising a way for those voices to be heard.