We are all Sound: Poetics & Public Space in the Occupy Oakland Movement
The Occupy movement does not have an ideology;
what it has, rather, is a poetics.—Lyn Hejinian
It’s 9pm on the night of October 26, the day after the raid on the Occupy Oakland camp and the subsequent riots and police brutality, and some 2500 people have reoccupied Oscar Grant Plaza and convened a General Assembly to assess the last 36 hours and discuss next moves. Several comrades are still in jail or are injured, and Iraqi war vet Scott Olsen lies unconscious in a nearby hospital. The city has said that it will enforce a 10pm curfew at the plaza, arresting anyone attempting to camp there. There is word from San Francisco that the Occupy SF camp is being raided, and a call has been put out for reinforcements to come to the city immediately. The city of Oakland has turned off the lights in the plaza, such that the only illumination provided is that from the roving police and television helicopters circling ominously above. Though there is an unpermitted amp and speakers using electricity jacked from one of the plaza lights, the crowd is so large that it still requires the peoples’ mic, that form of collective amplification that has sprung up in many Occupy camps, where the crowd repeats the words of each speaker, sending them out and beyond the range of a single voice to the broader collective spread out through the plaza. As we prepare to discuss calling the first General Strike in the US since 1946, the combination of copters, sirens, discussions, and shouted updates threatens to overwhelm the assembly’s ability to conduct its distinct form of open participatory democracy, much less hope to build consensus towards any collective decisions. One of the facilitators calls out, “mic check!”—which we repeat, over and over until all voices have joined in and been brought together. The facilitator reminds us that the peoples’ mic requires a responsibility to the community—to help spread each speaker’s words spatially and, at the same time, to listen actively as a radical act of participation. This is, after all, Gertrude Stein’s definition of genius: to be able to speak and listen at the same time. More crucially, at a moment of heightened fears for personal safety under threat from the police, where each body assembled is not just a citizen claiming the right to public space but is active in the production of public space itself, the use of the body to move language among the plaza becomes all the more charged. Against the oppressive noise and distortion of the state and mainstream media and against the silencings of repression and cynicism, it is up to us to voice our anger and rage through an embodied collective able to turn up the volume above the din, and to begin to finally hear ourselves in each other’s voices and bodies. As the facilitator reminds us, asking us once more to use our ears and lungs for a common purpose, “we are all sound.”
Shortly after the establishment of the Occupy Oakland camp in October of 2011, several Bay Area poets started the Occupy Oakland Poets affinity group, primarily for information sharing and an emergency phone tree in case of police raids and/or arrests. Several poets also organized the Raheim Brown Library and Free School, the Oscar Grant Plaza Gazette, and a weekly “Poetry for the People” open-mic at Oscar Grant Plaza. The call went out for poets to come and read “work from the radical poetry tradition” (i.e. it’s not a talent show but a way of connecting our moment with historical struggles and poetic traditions). However salutary the call (and subsequent readings themselves), it did make me begin to ask where our radical tradition is? What does it mean that when we hear the words “radical poetic tradition,” we can only think of poets from several decades ago, and/or poetry deemed radical primarily based on its use of more overt political content or inspirational exhortations? As wonderful as it is to hear someone read Ginsberg’s Howl or DiPrima’s Revolutionary Letters in the plaza, are these the poems that most fit our times, our predicaments, our questions?
As the movement’s militancy and confrontations with the police state intensified, and in the face of the raw brutality of the riot cops, more conventional kinds of “activist art” (such as street theater, spoken word, rallies, etc.) seemed less urgent in the face of new and pressing questions of how art and poetry might function and evolve within Occupy Oakland, or if art and poetry were even “useful” at all. Was I participating in #OO “as a poet,” or was the fact that I write or make art—however “socially engaged”—irrelevant to the more pressing needs of the moment (needs which often require physical engagement above and beyond linguistic faculties)? Certainly being a “good” poet has nothing to do with one’s activism, just as being an activist does not in itself make my poetry “better” or more interesting, or even more “political.” Is an affinity group made up of poets necessarily any different than one made up of, say, carpenters, who would at least seem to have a more useful set of skills to bring to the table? Or as Oakland poet Lara Durback puts it, “I like poets in action more than poets at the action doing poetry.”
While my own work and identity with and in Occupy Oakland feels more and more distinct from my work and identity as a writer/artist, my own poetic practice does feel increasingly (and productively) challenged by my participation in the movement. I don’t want to fetishize active participation (since not everyone can put their bodies on the line in the same ways), and I can’t speak to the very different contingencies of other Occupys, but experiencing real time confrontations in public space, as well as at General Assemblies and working group sessions, one can see how linguistic practice adapts in new and creative ways to new situations (always framed by the profoundly different identity-positions and educational comfort levels of participants, as well as the asymmetrical resource war with the police state) and how such adaptations produce new modes and questions for language practices.
For instance, the use of the people’s microphone as a mode of collective communication in the General Assemblies (as well as during marches and other direct actions) has foregrounded a radical poetics of language use specifically attuned to the occupation of public space, as well as the embodied character of consensus and community building. This finds enactment in the collective expression of public speech, where each member of the movement becomes responsible for sounding the words in one’s body, whether one agrees or disagrees with the sentiments being communicated. New modes of improvisatory enjambment (which are required in order for the peoples’ mic to function) and the psychogeographies of public speech testing its boundaries in the diversely-bodied experience of public space-time have brought issues of poetics to the fore in new and exciting ways, specific to the contingencies of ongoing struggles over space and discourse within an increasingly militant movement.
The peoples’ mic not only radically changes the relationship of political speech between speaker and audience, it functions to produce a lived experience of, and claim to, public space in ways that are crucial to the Occupy movements. For occupying public space is not simply about putting one’s body in view to be counted (where one becomes an extra in a staged photo-op), but also activating the body’s potentialities in shared community across and through spaces already delimited by private-property relations, zoning laws, municipal regulations, the criminalization of homelessness, and the like. Thus, as the activist sound artists Ultra-Red argue, “protest as a way of producing public space becomes less about speaking truth to power (a realist definition of social relations in space) than the affect of specific strategies: theatre, re-signification, deterritorialization, occupations—the ambience of counter-systemic spaces.”
Ambience in this sense is not mere background noise or scenery but rather the spatial experience of resistance as it is sounded out by bodies in public space. Oppositional public speech in contested space is, thus, not only a stand against those who would silence us, but a way of bringing a collective into being, in the time and space of occupation itself. As Homay King argues, with the use of the peoples’ mic, this process “happens not when speakers sing to the choir—to an already convinced, already constituted public—but when differences are aired which are nevertheless not strictly assignable to any one individual. The choir does not pre-exist this process; it comes into being through it.”
For poets and artists, the challenge is how to bring the poem into being in a way that might help sound the vibrations of the multitude coming into its own collective utterance in public space. Ultra-Red, again: “[whether p]oesy or music, the artifice we construct gives shape to our own position in public space. Listening in the ambience is like assigning musical meaning to our own social relations.” If poetry is one domain for making musical meaning, perhaps in the context of the Occupy movements, we need to locate new prosodies that might best chart the specific ambiences of social struggle within and across public space, ambience that is of course multi-sensory, from the percussion of chopper-blades to the taste of tear gas in the chanting throat to the odor of marijuana hovering in the camps.
In her study of Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, Kristin Ross argues that social space is where the discursive meets the event, which suggests not just a battle over public space itself but also over the linguistic and ideological framings of struggle itself. Of course, even within the discursive field, such struggles are fought with asymmetrical resources and with various poetic strategies, from PR wars to real-time articulations of street fighting. If the poetics of capitalism finds its full realization in advertising, perhaps the poetics of the repressive state apparatus could now be found in the leaked memos of riot management and, as such, provide new materials for poets to speak the polis in different voices. Here, for instance, we can follow the Oakland Police Department’s running situation updates from the post-raid riots, in which the mapping and policing of public space is articulated through panoptic helicopter reports and radio reports sent in from the field to “command center”:
Patch Patrol 1/5 possibly being surrounded here. One I/C at 14/bwy. Patrol units are being surrounded channel went code 33. Radio advised units respond with helmets. Bravo 91 channel can be unpatched. Hostiles are at 8/Washington per Argus. There is about a 7ft gap between their barriers and ours. Something being broken in the crowd, no visual. Distance now closed between barricades. Gas being deployed into crowd. Argus down for fuel again. WM 6’0 ponytail, heavy padding w/backpack approaching the line, units advd to mask up.
For all the ideological and formal differences, what we can hear in such reports are not that different from the text-blasts and tweets of activists on the ground, relaying real-time updates and information from various points in the city so as to coordinate across space through condensed bursts of language. In both cases, we also see how compressed time becomes a factor in the struggle over space; speed of transmission and translation is key. Indeed, it could be argued that all uprisings fundamentally change one’s sense of time, as events happen faster than our usual modes of apprehension, understanding, and representation. For poetry, this provides a challenge when the speed of the real meets the time of poetry. What are the rhythms of revolt? Is it enough to remind ourselves that both poetry and revolution confront time through the radical present tense, the continuous unfolding of their own durational musics? Despite lacking the state or media’s budgetary power, it seems that poets might be uniquely qualified to map the constellation of social space in which the event fractures time and its representation, leaving a space for language to chart new modes of seeing and hearing the struggle of bodies for public space and resources.
I don’t wish to romanticize such struggles and the diversity of performative tactics that have emerged in the increasingly violent confrontations with power, but they have produced what to me feel like new modes of on-the-fly collective theorizing in practice. Marx’s “the senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians…” comes alive in the affective experience of bodies socially entangled in struggle, even at times if only over a single city block’s worth of territory. Theorizing-in-practice, thus, is the tactical and strategic thinking a group does in contingent situations (as well as in the planning “before” and the assessments “after”), which is some messy and beautiful conflagration of evolving organic intellectualism. Using the people’s mic in the midst of a direct action to shout “shields to the front!” is thus not a mere slogan, even as we chant it in moments of disorganized swarming, our bodies twisting to send the message from the front back to the reinforcements.
Of course, the slogan, the chant, the movement poem, all still largely depend on content as much as context for any political potential, and as such risk becoming otherwise empty signifiers, generic forms waiting to be filled with a stripped-down message, which could be reactionary as easily as radical. I’m not sure that taking my oil spill poem from two years back and swapping “Wall Street” for “BP” is doing much for either poetry or revolution, for instance. At the same time, seemingly cliché tropes and slogans can be given new meaning in new contexts, as when the live video-streaming of independent media goes viral, giving new resonance to the chant “the whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.” Indeed, through socially mediated connections between worldwide movements, new translocal solidarities show up in poetic couplets that perform a kind of scale-work, where local struggles are articulated through rhythm, rhyme, and insistence to other fields across the globe, as in “Stand up, resist, Cairo and Oakland are one fist” or “From Oakland to Greece, fuck the police!”
Nonetheless, I am interested in new poetries that might move beyond the slogan or the movement poem in order to risk the chaos that these new social forms have yet to render legible. Or as Lara Durback puts it, “Militant language is usually helpful but not while I am hurtling through the air. As my path is not determined, I reject total intelligibility.”
Thus, my own research and aesthetic practice in the last six months comes out of these (always over-determined and antagonistic) challenges and the pressing questions they pose for theory/practice — i.e. method. Even if I don’t come to #OO “as a poet/artist,” I still can’t not always press up against questions of aesthetics, even during the most intensified encounters with the state (think of the mug shot, the police surveillance video, the live-streams and real-time tweets, the armchair blogposts, etc., all with their own aesthetic valences). To imagine the poethics of such encounters is to ask the question from the point of view of an as-yet undetermined future: How will “all this” have been represented (and by whom, with what resources, for what audiences, towards what, etc.)? And what then might be strategies and tactics for engaged artists to approach such questions (especially if “from inside” and within the unfolding time of a present-without-future)?
Whether my own work has or will change as a result of my participation, certainly the questions I ask of my practice (both method and “work”) have fundamentally changed, and for me it is only from the grappling with such questions and their framings (through constant self-interrogation and embodied “research”) that any changes in how and what I produce as an artist will become manifest. And, of course, situational and site-specific participation is a mode of inquiry, for questions both aesthetic and political. Thus, the primary and most pressing question for my work in relation to Occupy Oakland is something along the lines of: what kinds of representational strategies—i.e. what kinds of art—do these new conditions and situations demand? As I continue to return to that old question of the relation between form and content, I find myself questioning what one even means by content anymore, since for me it is not simply current events or information; at a deeper level I’d like to suggest that social forms (in all their volatility) and movement (not a social movement—as fixed entity—but social movement itself—as action, moving ahead and against) are also kinds of content, and the aesthetic forms of representation “appropriate” to such ever-changing contents will need to rethink themselves in this historical moment.
As David Graeber and Stevphen Shukaitis propose, “the work of militant investigation is multiple, collectively extending forms of antagonism to new levels of understanding, composing flesh-made words from immanent processes of resistance.” What poetic strategies, then, can draw into relief the structural antagonisms at work in the Occupy movements, not only between oppositional forces such as “citizens and capital” or “we” and “them,” but also those antagonisms between social relations and their representation in poetic form, between the “real” and the aesthetic? Not so much giving form to chaos but chaos to form, or as Sean Bonney puts it in his blog, abandonedbuildings, “social being determines content, and content deranges form.” Returning to the ambient buzz of bodies voicing the contradictions of collectivity in public space, could we imagine a poetry that locates what the Dutch poet Jeroen Mettes describes as “an autonomous rhythm, not outside, but in the midst of the noise, a piece of paradise in hell”? What this might even look like remains an open question, but the shared interrogation of these questions—for both activists and artists—seems to me to be one of the most pressing—and exciting—new terrains opened up for poets by the Occupy experiments.
Perhaps, then, each revolution gets the prosody it deserves, and we might yet will have heard ourselves through the fog and gas, in the plazas and the streets where we find ourselves, a mobile and monstrous multitude of voices, languages, and linguistic forms, ever-changing and improvising into untold and evermore-beautiful failed attempts and productive impasses, chanting this is what poetry looks like! No, this is what poetry looks like! No, this is what poetry looks like…
 Lara Durback, Projectiles (San Francisco: NoNo Press, 2012).
 Ultra-Red, “Constitutive Utopias: Sound, Public Space and Urban Ambience” (2000). Accessed November 10, 2013. http://www.temporaryservices.org/ultratext.html.
 From a leaked OPD document, October 25, 2011.
 Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959), accessed November 10, 2013, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/preface.htm.
 Durback, ibid.
 David Graeber and Stevphen Shukaitis, Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations/Collective Theorization (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2007).
 Jeroen Mettes, “Political Poetry: A Few Notes. Poetics for N30,” continent 2.1 (2012): 29–35, accessed November 1o, 2013, http://continentcontinent.cc/index.php/continent/article/view/80.
Durback, Lara. Projectiles. San Francisco: NoNo Press, 2012.
Graeber, David and Stevphen Shukaitis, Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations/Collective Theorization. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2007.
Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959. Accessed November 10, 2013, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/preface.htm.
Mettes, Jeroen. “Political Poetry: A Few Notes. Poetics for N30,” continent 2.1 (2012): 29–35. Accessed November 1o, 2013, http://continentcontinent.cc/index.php/continent/article/view/80.
Ultra-Red. “Constitutive Utopias: Sound, Public Space and Urban Ambience.” 2000. Accessed November 10, 2013. http://www.temporaryservices.org/ultratext.html.