BY ZACH WILLIAMS | Occupy Wall Street is spreading beyond street demonstrations and into a niche a bit closer to home.
As the movement enters its third month, a new type of occupation is growing within American popular culture and is finding its way into all types of public forums, including Department of Education hearings in Lower Manhattan.
The ongoing demonstrations against corporate greed and government malfeasance have inspired a growing presence in everyday discourse, television, fashion and online.
When a New York City political science professor couldn’t catch the words of a soft-spoken student toward the back of the classroom, she decided to make a cultural reference that soon resonated with her students.
The professor asked for the “people’s microphone” to be used. The device, developed by occupiers, has listeners repeat a speaker’s words in order to allow others further away to hear.
It may have been originally needed in order to circumvent New York City ordinances against electronically amplified sound without a permit, but it has now found a purpose elsewhere.
The technique is just one of many features derived from Occupy Wall Street that have extended their reach beyond activist circles and into the wider realm of popular culture in the city and throughout the country.
But in a movement that has directed considerable energy toward protesting the excesses of American consumers, as well as corporate executives, the additional mediums of exposure are a mixed blessing, according to the activists.
Occupy Wall Street protester Rose Reddington, 22, said the movement’s growing profile in popular culture should be taken in stride since it could ultimately help O.W.S.’s message reach a wider segment of society.
“They had those T-shirts with the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ message on it,” she said. “I ground my teeth but at the same time it’s important for other kids to ask, ‘What is Occupy Wall Street?’ and the wearer says, ‘Sit down and I’ll tell you.’ The success of a movement is all about being co-opted. That’s what happened to flower power — it suddenly became cool to be a hippie.”
Among the movement’s most emblematic features, “Mic check” has allowed activists to find a new method for airing their grievances against political elites or to simply convey their message in forums where they typically feel left out. What started as a phrase indicating a desire to speak among peers became a device of protest itself, whereby activists interrupt a speaker by repeating a prearranged statement in unison.
Political figures, such as President Obama, Karl Rove and presidential candidates Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul, have all been the targets of “Mic checks” in recent weeks.
Reactions have been mixed among them, with Obama and Paul allowing the protesters to speak, Rove confronting them from the podium and Bachman leaving the venue. Online videos of the encounters, meanwhile, went viral.
“Do you feel better?” Paul said in response to the interruption at a Nov. 21 town hall meeting in Keene, New Hampshire.
On the Web and TV, references to the protests continue to pervade news stories. Actions taken by law enforcement across the country against “Occupy” demonstrators have only increased the movement’s profile, while keeping it in the headlines.
A video of Lieutenant John Pike of the University of California police “casually” pepper-spraying nonviolent protesters who refused to disperse at a Nov. 18 demonstration at U.C. Davis gained millions of YouTube views within hours. Following the outpouring of outrage over the video, the officer was suspended pending further investigation.
But comedy soon followed more serious forms of coverage as the means by which millions of people are being exposed to the movement.
“Saturday Night Live” is one of several high-profile TV shows to find rich material for satire in the ongoing protests. The animated series “South Park” recently devoted a full episode to a parody of the movement, complete with multiple insertions of slogans such as “We are the 99 percent.”
Some New Yorkers said such satire underscores the growing need for the movement to form a more cohesive political message lest it end up becoming “the butt of a joke.”
One corporate lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous, said he sympathized with the movement. He added that it has the potential to be a catalyst for big changes in the country but could just as easily become irrelevant as time passes.
“The problem that I have with Occupy Wall Street is that it oversimplifies complicated issues and risks essentially turning everything into a cartoon character of itself,” he said. “I don’t want to see important messages get lost in the joke.”
Some attempts to capitalize on Occupy have been openly criticized by activists. The rapper Jay-Z planned to spread the movement’s message, as well as turn a personal profit, by selling T-shirts featuring the slogan “Occupy Wall Street” through his Rocawear clothing line.
Following the backlash, the clothing line released a new version. The “W” was crossed out and an “S” added to the end. “Occupy all Streets,” the T-shirts now read above the designer label.
Some outside the movement said its lasting footprint within the American cultural landscape will continue to grow, but only once more artists draw inspiration from its message and commercial references to its slogans portray the movement in a more positive light.