Skip to main content
Crowd of people playing music outside, with others around them observing. Most people play some kind of percussion; one person plays saxophone.

Occupy Wall Street, September 30, 2011

Photo by David Shankbone

  • The Drums of Occupy

    Occupy at Ten

    On September 17, 2011, hundreds of people arrived on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan intending to form a protest camp in the heart of the nation’s financial capital. The goal of what became known as Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was to call attention to the threat that vast wealth inequality and unregulated financial institutions posed to democracy, something made evident by the 2008 housing crisis.

    The physical occupation of the actual Wall Street was meant to redirect attention away from abstract financial products and confusing legal mechanisms, pointing instead toward a world made up of actual people working in actual buildings who were responsible for the crisis. OWS was an attempt to make daily struggles for economic survival and the effects of houselessness visible on the very street where protestors felt that those conditions had been created. In direct contrast to America’s version of representative democracy which the protesters felt had left so many disenfranchised, OWS was meant to be a rehearsal of a different kind of direct participatory democracy, one which could propose solutions and practice them on the spot. What made OWS unlike any protest before it was the way the success and failure of these experiments was made public, both in the open air of the city and in the growing networks of social media.

    Occupy Wall Street persevered for almost two months before it was forcibly evicted by the police, but in that time, it inspired hundreds of similar encampments around the world. On October 15, I joined 5,000 others in launching our own Occupy in Vancouver, B.C., a camp that would last well into a cold and rainy November before being forcibly evicted by police. We had been watching the events in New York unfold in real time, documented by amateur journalists and videographers posting daily updates on Twitter, blogs, and YouTube. In Vancouver, we mimicked what we saw happening at OWS, setting up tents, free libraries, kitchens, first aid and media stations, and plastering the camp with hand-crafted signs championing the 99%. The soundscape of the camp was a tumult of heated debate, working group meetings, casual chit-chat, a “people’s mic” radiating for a whole city block, and the constant thrum of a drum circle.

    Large crowd of people and protestors in a park. In the foreground is a section of shelves set up and labeled as a library.
    Occupy Wall Street, October 21, 2011
    Photo by David Shankbone

    Occupy’s legacy ten years on is at times obscured by the explosion of popular and decentralized mass protests that have followed in its wake, from Idle No More to Black Lives Matter to the Youth Strike for Climate. Yet Occupy forced into the public conversation issues such as wealth inequality and the failures of neoliberal capitalism. It helped make ideas that were considered unthinkable only a few years earlier (canceling student debt, universal basic income, a right to housing) become real political possibilities. Occupy also brought people into contact with particular modes of activism, including consensus decision making, horizontalism, and direct action, that had been developed for years by anarchists and anti-globalization activists inspired by the Indigenous-led Zapatista uprising.  Large open meetings (“general assemblies”) were held to work through collective concerns, and intractable social problems (racism, settler colonialism, gender discrimination) were given a space to be made public, debated, and responded to.

    Occupy was a utopian project for many of those who became involved, but not in the sense that it was impossible; rather, it tried to make an experiential model for a more just, more righteous society that did not yet exist.

    The Drum Circles at Occupy

    Occupiers and organizers were joined by tourists, neighbors, sympathizers, journalists, and counter-protestors who flooded OWS to see the revolution in progress. They captured the event in a flurry of short, low-resolution videos shot on newly popular smartphones and distributed these clips on social media.

    Ubiquitous in that footage are the sounds and sights of drum circles: a form of improvisatory and participatory social music-making where all present play some kind of percussion instrument. In video after video from the encampments, we can see motley assemblages of drummers combining African-based hand drumming with frame drums, full rock kits, buckets, water bottles, and whatever else was at hand. This musicological archive, much of it buried in the recesses of YouTube, captures not only the spontaneous culture of Occupy, but a distinctly American folk music influenced by the sonic migrations of African musicians in the Americas.

    Hand drumming has long been a method of communication in West Africa. It’s a form of telephony so efficacious that North American plantation owners banned the playing of drums for fear of insurrections by the enslaved being coordinated by their use. In other parts of the New World, especially Latin America and the Caribbean, African drummers who came into contact with Indigenous and European cultures developed regionally distinct styles of music for religious and cultural purposes. This music of the Afro-Latin diaspora began to circulate internationally in the early twentieth century, its melodic polyrhythms influencing dance music in the United States and beyond.

    Soon afterward, African-influenced modern dance performances emerged, usually accompanied by drums, cultivated by choreographers such as Asadata Dafora and Katherine Dunham. Not only did these artists help popularize polyrhythmic drumming in American culture, but they connected the sounds of “Africa” to its vast diaspora, becoming an important influence on later Black cultural and political movements.

    Even as innovators such as Horton and Dunham modeled a kind of “Afro-modernity,” the music was often heard by white American publics as though belonging to a distant primitive past and a distant place outside the limits of the cosmopolitan city. This otherness was part of its appeal for many bohemians, dropouts, and counter-culturalists who sought to reject the values and norms promoted by mainstream society, and hand drumming became a means to signify a belonging to its margins.

    Ethnomusicologist Eric Charry has suggested that it was the influence of Nigerian-born educator Babatunde Olatunji, and in particular his album Drums of Passion, that had a “major hand” in the drum circle becoming a cross-cultural practice accessible to amateur musicians of diverse ancestry. Students and fans of Olatunji such as Arthur Hull and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart began in the ’80s to promote drum circles as tools for healing and social bonding. No longer tied to expertly trained drummers, or the context of traditional African dance and ritual, drum circles became on the one hand a much-stigmatized symbol of culturally appropriative subcultures, and on the other a hybrid space of cultural sharing for diasporic and immigrant communities. By the time of OWS, drum circles had become a ubiquitous feature of informal gatherings in public parks, parking lots, and large cultural events and the Occupy camps simply became one more place for these diverse groups of people to come together and drum in public.

    V-shaped formation of people sitting on the ground after dark, drumming on various percussion instruments.
    Occupy Wall Street, October 6, 2011
    Photo by David Shankbone

    The drum circle at OWS was a site of intense joy and conflict, its relentless polyrhythms filling the camp and reverberating throughout the Financial District’s thicket of glass towers. Who was drumming at OWS? Digging through video capturing these performances suggests that the ensemble expanded and contracted hour to hour, day to day, drawing in random accompanists even while maintaining a “band” of regulars whose frequent appearance suggests that they were committed to the occupation and maintained that space on the circle’s behalf. Additional instruments appear—flute, saxophone, taiko drums, a drumline—sometimes signifying a particular gesture of solidarity, or a musical ambassador contributing noise for the struggle. Some of the musicians have chops, providing backbones to the unwieldy ensemble, or else adding expressive accents that intensify the circle’s energy.

    Also notable is the multiracial character of the circles, the overwhelming presence of Black and Brown (though mostly male) bodies contradicting the dominant media narrative that portrayed Occupy in New York and elsewhere as a “white” movement. While some studies have shown that white, college-educated organizers were over-represented at OWS, this wasn’t always the case at other camps. Where activist communities had already developed cross-racial solidarities (and where those camps were founded by experienced organizers), anti-racist, anti-colonial concerns were baked into their struggles against capitalist exploitation. Yet the diversity of the occupations was regularly called into question, even as on the ground a multiracial, multiethnic community temporarily formed. A conflation was often made in discussion of Occupy between the apparent “whiteness” of certain practices or issues and the actual people doing the work, rendering invisible (or “white”) the people of color involved in that labor. Occupy’s diverse demographics may have been more apparent in the drum circle than the general assembly.

    Just like the general assembly, the drum circle was itself a form of direct democracy in practice. Much of Occupy was focused on discursive and deliberative models of direct democracy, where speech and discussion and dialogue were seen as the necessary elements of a society that doesn’t exclude other people’s voices but rather makes room for everyone. The antiphonal innovation of the “people’s mic” is perhaps the best example of this ideal. Having been refused legal access to a public address system by the NYPD, speakers had their words repeated by the crowd, short segments and phrases echoed back by dozens of people within earshot, sometimes echoed a second or third time depending on the size of the gathering. In theory, nobody’s voice was too quiet to be audible; nobody was too far from the center to hear.

    Two lines of drummers and dancers fancing each other, with a crowd of people watching in the background.
    Occupy Wall Street, October 2, 2011
    Photo by David Shankbone

    The drum circle disrupted all of this, cutting across conversations, distracting listeners, drowning out teach-ins, exhausting people for whom it was a constant soundtrack. Yet the drum circle was its own model of democratic engagement, also focused on participation and listening as essential practices. Anyone could join, and while no one was in charge, anyone’s contribution could change, direct, or inspire the group. In our current political moment, where a democracy premised on dialogue and listening has been rendered practically impossible by shifts in political culture and social norms, the drum circle remains a refreshing alternative: improvisatory, contingent, unstable, affectable, open, and inclusive of difference.

    For good or ill, the drum circle extended the impact of OWS beyond the limits of the camp. OWS took Zuccotti Park because of a loophole in its zoning: while city-operated parks closed at midnight, Zuccotti was privately owned but legally required to be open to the public twenty-four hours a day. The police were unable to  evict the camp without a request from the property owner, who under pressure from elected officials  refused to do so.

    As the occupation endured, the interstitial space between the park and the street ebbed and flowed. Nothing made this boundary more tenuous than the drums whose pulse extended the occupation far beyond the police-enforced limits of the park, audible for miles around. This led to neighborhood complaints and the threat that police would enforce noise regulations as a pretext to shut down the camp, which in turn created tensions between the drum circle and other members of OWS. The drum circle tested the limits of public space, of collective liberties, of non-coercive coexistence, and of the power of the police and property owners to determine the reach of the protest.

    The Archive of Digital Debris

    Much as we now live in an era of the citizen journalist, where the availability of smartphone cameras has created a vast array of amateur witnesses documenting important events as they are unfolding, we also live in a moment of the citizen ethnomusicologist. YouTube is awash with vernacular performances, from buskers to bedroom singer-songwriters, from virtuosic karaoke to cats walking across pianos, all captured on video and making public moments of spontaneous music that might otherwise disappear from sight and sound.

    The cell phone recordings of Occupy form an archive of unique and ephemeral musical improvisation, but they also register a newly common practice in our everyday lives: non-specialists encountering music and spontaneously recording it in medias res. The result is an emergent archive of folklife.

    Yet this archive is deeply imperfect, and, unlike other repositories of culture which preserve and make public its material in a curated and contextual manner, the YouTube archive is buried under what media theorist Hito Steyerl calls “digital debris.” These documents of the encampments have been joined by over 26 billion videos on the same platform. Mirroring the struggles to be heard that they depict, videos from Occupy compete against an entropy made worse by algorithmic erasures that hide them from casual dérives and even deep journeys “down the rabbit hole” in favor of popular content. Finding these videos depends on a particular impulse to seek them out, and the hope that text or metadata will surface them a few pages into any online search.

    Even upon discovery, we are at loss as to who the performers, or even the recordists, actually are, why they were there, what they thought of what was happening, and how they would want their work understood. While the promise of citizen videography, the possibility that we are all ethnomusicologists now, would seem to have led to a radical democratization of the best impulses of the likes of Barbara Dane, Folkways Records founder Moses Asch, or Alan Lomax, the realities of the platforms themselves remind us that their art was not only one of listening, but one of publication as well.

    A decade has now passed since Occupy Wall Street surprised everyone by its mere existence, arguably launching a wave of mass social movements and decentralized protest. Yet as time passes and the features that made Occupy exceptional become ordinary, our memory of Occupy disappears like everything else at the bottom of our social media feed. It isn’t enough to simply place our hope in “the cloud,” trusting that the digital ephemera produced from these events will sustain Occupy’s memory, much less do the work of telling its story. The work of retrieving this archive and its story from underneath the rubble produced by dead web domains, abandoned blogs, and algorithmic neglect falls on curators, scholars, artists, and activists who recognize an intrinsic value in not forgetting.

    Yet perhaps the drum circle once again offers us a different model. In the drum circle, moments of brilliance, invention, and inspiration arise out of the continuum of sounds. However long they may be held, it is inevitable that the rhythms will change, that things will fall apart and need to be reinvented. The musicians let go of what has passed and collectively search for the next rhythm. Occupy was not an isolated moment, but a part of a continuum of political experimentation that likewise changes, falls apart, and is reinvented over and over again. Perhaps the point is not to capture and contain this creative energy, but to be present with it in the moment, and to contribute to its transformation into whatever’s coming next.

    Severl people sit outside on a wall, above a banner that reads OCCUPY WALL STREET, painted in the style of yellow caution tape. The sky is white; people are dressed in coats and jackets.
    Occupy Wall Street, November 15, 2011, when protestors were finally evicted from Zuccotti Park
    Photo by David Shankbone

    Gabriel Saloman Mindel is a musician, artist, curator, writer, and activist based in Santa Cruz, California, where he is a PhD candidate in the History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz studying the relationships between noise, protest, and power.


  • Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, sustainability projects, educational outreach, and more.

    .