David and I marched with Occupy Providence on Saturday. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon, and a really nice crowd — students, parents carrying young children on shoulders, anarchists waving impressive black flags, people hiding their faces behind Anonymous masks or scarves (which may not have been strictly necessary, but gave the event a more edgy tone), union members, people chanting in Spanish, white-haired veterans of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, and other citizens of various stripes. Anyone who wasn’t carrying a sign was taking pictures. The Providence police kept watch non-threateningly. The What Cheer Brigade brass band provided a jaunty, jazz beat.
The atmosphere was lively but controlled, everyone seeming to be putting a big premium on getting along. One guy apologized to David after stepping on his heels. When I asked another guy (or maybe it was the same one) where the march was heading, he answered politely, and then said, “Thanks for coming out.”
“Glad to be here,” I answered, as I realized, He’s being deferential because I’m old enough to be his mother.
Wasn’t it like just yesterday I was feeling too young to march against the War in Viet Nam? Back then, I didn’t entirely understand the issues, but the basic idea was pretty plain: war = bad, peace = good.
Although my heart is clearly with the Occupy Wall Street people, I’m not sure I entirely understand the issues this time, either, although the basic ideas behind lots of the signs was perfectly clear.
“My country has let me down.”
“Who stands up for us”
“How is the war economy working for you?”
“Stop creating hurdles for voters”
“When the rich rob the poor it’s ‘business.’ When the poor fight back it’s ‘violence.’”
And then there were the chants. I know you’re not supposed to take them literally, but is a bunch of people parading through the streets really what democracy looks like? When it comes right down to it, what does “This is what democracy looks like” even mean?
We assembled in BurnsidePark, the locus of the ongoing demonstration, and marched in a circle through downtown, stopping at the federal buildings, the Textron Building, Bank of America, Providence Place Mall, and finally the State House, before heading back to the park. At each stop someone addressed the crowd, using the relay system that has become a hallmark of this movement.
The crowd is brought to order by someone calling, “Mike check” through a megaphone. The people standing closest the speaker repeat, “Mike check.” Then the people standing farther back repeat the phrase, until everyone is paying attention.
The speaker uses the same system. He or she states a phrase into the megaphone, and the crowd amplifies his or her words, passing them along to the people at the back, until everyone presumably has heard it. Then the speaker moves on to the next phrase.
As a medium for public discourse, it’s cumbersome, unreliable, and gorgeous. The repeated lines become a chant. The crowd is unified, with everyone listening as carefully as they can. Whatever the content, the medium’s underlying message is that many voices are more powerful than one. And at the same time, hearing so many people repeat a line, down to the timing and inflection, amplifies the fact that these are the words of a single person, an individual.
This irony was most obvious when we stopped near Bank of America.
“I am a teacher,” the speaker said.
“I am a teacher…I am a teacher…I am a teacher,” rippled down Westminster Street.
That was lovely. We are all teachers, we seemed to be saying. We stand with you. It reminded me of the story (not strictly true, but still pretty) about the Danes all wearing yellow stars during the Second World War.
Then the teacher continued, “And there’s more of you out there than I’m used to speaking to.”
“And there’s more of you…” the crowd dutifully repeated. It was a sweet display of respect. But it was also absurd, in a sort of Monty Python way.
Afterwards, the writer in me couldn’t help thinking about what sort of style would work best for relayed speech. Phrases should be short and natural, with no wasted words. Bullet points work better than paragraphs. Numbers are not so good – the difference between a million and a billion and a trillion gets garbled. The speech’s overall structure should be clean and transparent. Specifics are better than generalities, as long as they make a general point that’s easy to grasp. It’s a little bit like the easy-readers I used to write – controlled vocabulary, direct sentences, natural line endings.
If someone had thrust the bullhorn into my hands and asked me to speak, I might have said something like this:
“I am not poor. I have more than enough. After this march I will not camp out. I will go home to my house. I will eat a good dinner. I will sleep in my warm bed. I am not poor. I am not unemployed. I am not homeless. I pay my taxes. And that’s just fine with me. It’s good to share. I believe / a society is judged / by how it treats / its most vulnerable members. Our society is failing. But I believe / we can do better. Thank you for spreading this message.”