A PEOPLE’S MIC Report
My Year with Occupy Helsinki – being an illustrated chronicle of the People’s Mic’s year-long, volunteer, amateur free P.R. campaign for Occupy Helsinki
Oct 15 2011 – in response to the Occupy movement’s call for a global day of action, Br. Runo Johnson gives birth to the People’s Mic and steps up to it to do his bit.
What’s the plan Helsinki?
In October there was a global call to action, (originally, e.g. on takethesquare.net) and it was soon clear it would be a big day. But what scale big? This was a year not like other years. Around the world, protest actions, many with the intent of taking a piece of public land for a lasting encampment, were posted on planning sites. We had not seen this. Everyone seemed convinced it was time to stand up together in the street and say something. And about time. But, in Finland?
There was really no way to know if there would be a response, here, in this jewel of Nordic social democracy. In 2010 the U.S. magazine NEWSWEEK rated Finland Best Country in the World. In 2012, in the first U.N. World Happiness Report, Finland ranked 2nd Happiest. And then there was British m.p. Ed Milliband famously commenting, concerning capitalism’s collapsing economic horizons, “If you want the American dream, go to Finland.” So what chance was there Finns would be showing up to camp out against economic injustice, austerity politics and corporate rule?
Br. Runo’s first act towards activation of the Mic was to put the question to his (not very vast) online network. – What’s the plan Helsinki?
There was no answer.
This was starting from zero. The Br. considered himself well-acquainted in town, but he did not know anyone with political activities. And until that day he had none himself. But when people are standing up, he thought, it’s time to stand up. And stand up, and don’t sit down. There would be an occupation in this town, he determined, even if he had to do it himself and really stretch the definition somehow so it would count.
How? Well, he had this old pulpit. And recently he had gotten wheels for it, and fitted a good loud guitar amp into the base of it and hooked up a good mic and an mp3 plug to it. Everyone’s got their thing. Why not use that? He heard a calling coming, and it was coming for the Mic.
Oct 15 2011 – Occupy Everywhere
So on the day he was ready. A little after noon, standing in Karhupuisto at the top of Kallio hill, facing down into the city, Br. Runo turned on the Mic, and checked it.
Then he took it for its first ride. The route that day went downhill and across the large market square at Hakaniemi, still in the old worker’s quarter. Then over the bridge, skirting Kaisaniemi, and pushing up through the university area behind Tuomiokirkko, the big white cathedral overlooking Senate Square. All the way the Mic broadcast news and reports from Wall Street, TV interviews with occupiers, tours of the camp, video remixes, the sound of marches, drums, of general assemblies in progress and the human microphone in action,- all-but livestreaming suddenly revolutionary Zucotti Park onto the streets of Helsinki.
In front of the National Bank the Mic played Cornell West talking on revolution and the banking crisis. In front of the Helsinki Stock Exchange it played Chris Hedges explaining how neoliberal policy enables corporate takeover of governments. And in between, music – everything, folk, reggae, hip hop, dubstep, teen pop, and more hip hop. Already quite a number of original Occupy songs had emerged on the internet, and it was clear this movement would have its soundtrack. And that the Mic would play it.
A day or two before, he had finally heard there would be a real protest happening at Narinkkatori, a square by the Kamppi shopping center. So, after occupying Esplanadi park for a while and making his long walk up Alexanderinkatu through the shoppers, pushing the Mic, wearing the Guy Falkes mask, and blasting Nostalgia 77 with Alice Russell singing Seven Nation Army, Br. R. and the Mic made their way up Mannerheimintie and found the official event. It was still going on.
When he arrived he could see it was ending. A crowd of maybe 150. Just a few people still lined up at the p.a. to have their say. Br. Runo made his way up to the mic, with the Mic. Two very colorfully dressed facilitators were moderating. When it was his turn, they let another woman go. When she was done, they said Ok, so the open mic is now closed. Right then, reaching down, Br. Runo flipped on the amp and said, through his own sound source the people’s own sound source everyone should have their own and everyone does: “Nuh uhn, Ladies & Gentlemen. Never believe anybody when they tell you the open mic is closed. Yes, we have the People’s Mic, and the People’s Mic is always open.” Free public speech continued around and via the Mic for another long while while the official people packed. Some say it was there that the first plans to set up a camp were hatched. But I tend to be skeptical.
When the square cleared, Br. Runo continued, bringing the freshly inaugurated wagon up to Vastarannan Kiiski, a pub where he knew the Helsinki Poetry Connection was hosting one of their open mic nights, and there, taking a fresh drink for his labors, he preached to the cultured drinkers, largely unaware till then of the night’s significance: “Ladies & Gentlemen, Tonight, you are Occupied.”
(For the first time here: full text of Br. Runo’s Oct 15 bit, and here its write-up in the next day’s press. People’s Mic occupies Open Mic.)
“This bit was a real poetry performance, as Br. Runo (note: name spelling corrected, trans.) had come with his cart, which was a preacher’s pulpit with a microphone and a speaker – and from the bar he continued his journey, down Runeberginkatu, cheering for the Wall Street protesters in Helsinki in his charismatic character.”
How do you occupy a city with just a wagon? How do you join a movement, all alone? It would take time to work this out. In the meantime our intrepid Brother gathered material. (See the Occupod where he stored it all.) And secured a venue, Musta Kissa, the coolest bar in Kallio. Occupy had started, whatever it was, and whatever it was going to be, it was going to need hype.
Oct 26 2011 – Occupy Musta Kissa
October 26, Br. Runo and his friend, Infamous Karaoke Star, stage a lively evening of song and disruption at Musta Kissa, the popular Kallio bar. While the Brother had been organizing this, and unbeknownst to him, some Helsinki citizens had gone and done it, taken a space and set up tents. There was now officially an occupation to promote, and he took every opportunity that evening to urge his audience to go down there and join in. The night ended as planned and only when it absolutely had to, with wild euphoric dancing until 3 in the morning.
Eager to be accountable to the People in his new vocation on their behalf, he made a point later of noting any report he heard of the night’s impact. In time he heard tell of between 3 and 5 visits to the camp provoked by the night’s festivities, with at least one visitor returning multiple times and spending the night; he counted these as conversions.
In general, though, when people went down to the camp, it was already sleeping.
Clearly one party wasn’t going to be enough.
Throughout the Fall and Winter, the People’s Mic kept at it, playing free speech and funk at inappropriate times and places, and making the urgent, real-time political discourse of our times a daily sound experience on the streets and trams of Helsinki. One of Br. Runo’s favorites was to ride the tram and play Chris Hedges, at a gentle volume but plenty clear enough, saying things like: – “This one could take them all down.” That one’s good for the tram; it’s very sentimental and he actually cries at the end.
When he was just walking he would just play music. Mellow, groovy, soulful, lots of attitude. An insanely high, for Helsinki, percentage of the people he passed smiled at him, often with bright looks of surprise. And as they smiled, up front, above the speaker, above the reprinted Adbusters poster, they each saw the word “Occupy”. From an affect-marketing perspective, this was unexpectedly favorable brand placement.
He figured they needed all the help they could get. Because, even in the daytime, the place could look kinda serious.
As he went around more and more on O.H.’s behalf, Br. Runo also got better at serving up the content he was collecting from and about the movement in general, plucking files and links out of the gushing stream of weblogs and social media and sorting them into folders (see the Occupod) to go through later or spin on the spot. For each day he took the Mic out, he would make a tailored playlist. Once, for a big day (#D17 ReOccupy), he had prepared a whole evening of material. He had a script. He would go to the square, or to where the people are, and remind them about what happened in September, about how they were evicted in November, and about why they were going to reoccupy tonight. If possible, he would even play livestream of the action, live, through the MIC. If there’s atmosphere, it could become a party.
Dec 17 2011 – ReOccupy
There was excitement in Manhattan, but in Helsinki it was a miserable day. And night. Empty and dark. With rain, and blasting wind from several directions. He broke two umbrellas. It took him an hour to go the first three blocks. Out on the People’s Square (Kanssalaistori) there was no one to hear the news, except one man unlikely out taking pictures. He stood his fair hours in the rain to keep faith, but in the end went home drenched and feeling inefficient. Except for one thing that had happened along the way.
When he had taken shelter in the portico of the Alvar Aalto “Round House” building at Hakaniemi to re-cover the amp with plastic sheeting, he bumped into a man who seemed very interested in what he was doing. When explained, unlike most people, the man seemed to know what the Brother was talking about. It turned out he was the owner of mbar, a popular urban cafe/bar in the heart of the city, with a sort of street culture reputation. Right away, thinkin’ quick ‘n’ representin’, Br. Runo saw his chance and scored the conversion: “Can we do an occupy mbar?” – “Sure, send me a proposal and we can arrange it.” Done. A night’s work. I could’a just gone home.
In February, as a direct result, a certain preemptive thawing action was able to take place. Downtown, at mbar.
Feb 7 2012 – Occupy mbar
The planning for Occupy mbar represented a very interesting stage of Occupy’s very formless formation in Helsinki. Having proposed and scheduled the date with mbar, and having made a rather theatrical announcement at the camp that we would be occupying mbar on such and such a date, and then just disappearing again for a couple weeks, the event took on a life of its own. Before Br. Runo, who was sometimes slow with things, got around to meeting with mbar to discuss the program and publicity, a small working group had already taken up shop in the concept and started planning for it, totally open-source and first-come-first-served. They proved good allies, and the event, with many acts and parts, went off well.
Offering a full program of popular acts (Ras Henry, Jontti, Suvi Isotalo, Pettri Kautto, and our own Kummo as Robin of the Hood), the event was ably(-enough) prepped, advertised, produced, MC’d, DJ’d, VJ’d, mixed, filmed, livestreamed, archived and remixed. It suggested a good base of grassroots organizational ability and talent that knew how to pull together and have a good time. Starting from scratch, as near total strangers. This seemed promising, in the dark late winter, and everyone agreed, especially around the time of Jontti’s fat encore set that just wouldn’t stop: we had broken the back of winter for that year. There’d be something in the spring. In fact the stats showed it, there was a unique atmospheric event on that day (the apparent boast you are about to hear can be fact-checked) with the temperature jumping up about ten degrees just for the day, and then dropping again back to the baseline extreme cold.
May 12 2012 – Helsinki Global Spring
Unlike New York and most places, Occupy Helsinki had not been evicted. Steadfastly, a true few continued to camp, and hold regular general assemblies, on prime, historied real-estate facing the parliament. O.H. was still standing, but barely, and it was cold.
In the Spring there were hopes of a resurgence. Another day of action was called in Europe for May 12 – 12M – to follow major actions planned in the States for May Day. Br. Runo was now a familiar figure at the camp, though he rarely ever came to general assemblies, preferring to just sweep through at odd hours with some message or question or other and take off again, amp on & occupying. He began attending planning meetings for the 12M rally, and as the People’s Mic volunteered to mount a working group. The assignment: designing a creative alternative to the usual “march” expected at the rally.
The working group, which included public engagement experts from the Reality Research Center (TTK), produced and submitted an illustrated concept proposal, targetting a successful march format based on small groups in a concentrated space, to save everyone from the kind of march they were going to have otherwise, humiliating and boring, which in the end unfortunately is exactly what took place.
Unused march concept and flyer design for 12M – by the People’s Mic
For lack of trust that with their numbers it could be done, and at the expense of Occupy Helsinki’s first real chance to get artists engaged, the 12M planning committee abandoned the working group’s proposal on its first iteration. There was nothing put in its place, there was no request for a revised concept, and there was no one taking any other initiative to organize it. Certainly shortcomings of the consensus process, inexperience with it and the committee’s small numbers in part explain this collapse of an important planning sub-process. The rest, though, was lack of understanding and/or the failure to ask questions, a generalized lack of confidence, and lack of either imagination or the willingness to invest in it. At that point, lacking the adequate basis for going further, Br. Runo and the People’s Mic withdrew their active voluntary service, halting all planning and collaboration with O.H. A pity.
12M – This was the day instead.
The Spring was not the end of Occupy Helsinki, though it did show how little had been achieved through the winter, in terms of cause recognition and solidarity building. Only a few days before our 12M efforts the camp was finally evicted. There was almost no outcry, and almost no one stood up to defend the camp. The authorities could clear them out with no mess and at no cost in public opinion. And they did.
May 9 2012 – Eviction Day
When Br. Runo had first met those actively occupying in Helsinki, they asked him how long he’d keep it up. He said, looking at their tents, I’ll do this as long as you do that. Probably longer.
On the day O.H. were finally forced to move from the cherished (by a too small few) strip of land they had held for over 6 months, the People’s Mic was requested, by organizers, to be on hand at the early morning press conference. Four main channels were there filming.
A small handful of occupiers carried a symbolic tent and stuff over to another spot on the side of Kiasma, the contemporary art museum.
Marissa Varmavuori and other honorable diehards used the People’s Mic to say things to the press and to the public. Then everyone went home.
Occupy Helsinki continued a while, at least on the few mailing lists and for the occasional small action. Judging by the economy, though, it’s not going away. But the People’s Mic’s pre-emptive voluntary free PR contract for Occupy Helsinki was no longer in force.
The People’s Mic was always already theirs anyway.
This has been an attempt to chronicle and portray My year with Occupy Helsinki.
Thanks and some honor first to those who took it on themselves to come out and camp and to keep the camp going as a living site of public discussion and a fire for thawing at the Finnish complacencies, in Helsinki but also in Turkku, Tampere, Yvaskylä and elsewhere. While O.H. may have looked small from the outside, the amount of time, effort, energy and good-heartedness a few people gave to it was gargantuan. -
Signing out and thanking you, gentle reader, this has been the People’s Mic.
Note: many unacknowledged sources contributed unwittingly to the illustration of this text. On behalf of the People’s Mic and in the spirit of Copyleft, we thank them.