This research explores a set of sound technologies deployed during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City’s Zuccotti Park. It examines the People’s Microphone, the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) sound cannon, the drum circle, and the noise complaint. Deepening understandings of their places within the contemporary urban soundscape and their use during the protests, it uses historical research, textual analysis, and qualitative discourse analysis methods to explore the technologies within a larger framework of the city’s discourses around (in)appropriate sound and action.
Its findings suggest that each individual technology was evidence for the nature of its user in a way that presaged how the conflict would play out. The microphone epitomized the ideology (and fragility) of the hyper-democratic Occupiers’ ethos. The LRAD suggested the state’s superlative sonic capability and its “monopoly on the legitimate use of noise.” And the drum circles and noise complaints that followed ultimately showed the ways “noise-making” is better understood as a discursive construction that delegitimizes sound. Together, they suggest the ways the hegemonic soundscape serves the status quo. The essay also elaborates a taxonomy of sonic terms, specifically exploring volume, amplification, and noise-making as terms that explain the dynamics of sound during protest. It offers scholars of media activism a toolkit for sound studies that gets at the dynamics and structures of sonic power and explores the way sound-making is a key battleground of modernity. Sound conventions are a way that contemporary society is codified, legislated, and contested.