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Communicating via People Pedal Power
A bicycle-powered generator supplies power to a radio. (Photo: kaputniq)

Communicating via People Pedal Power

A bicycle-powered generator supplies power to a radio. (Photo: kaputniq)

One single bicycle – and many pedaling people – powers Occupy San Francisco's media center: three laptops, a handful of cell phones and wi-fi hotspots.

It is fitting that, on the day when as many as 5,000 protested outside Wells Fargo Bank, something as simple, sustainable and ubiquitous as a bicycle video-streamed and communicated the goings-on to the rest of the country and the world.

This people pedal power demystifies electricity and sends a hopeful message: if one bicycle, a few batteries and many human beings enable worldwide communication, how dependent are we, the people, on centralized coal and nuclear power plants?

People pedal power encourages the person in the street intuitively to grasp an emergent urban story: each of us is capable of creating decentralized solutions that still allow us to run our beloved electronic equipment. Perhaps, we really can outwit and work around the corporations and financial institutions at the heart of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement's dissatisfaction.

There's nothing special about the bicycle that was donated by Bay Area business Rock the Bike. It is stationary and rigged to stand about six inches from the ground. When pedaled, the spinning rear wheel, attached to a small motor, transmits people power to a “box” that is connected to a battery … that is connected to inverters … that plug into equipment that requires 12 volts, or 115 AC, or even 5 volts for cell phones.

Kames Cox-Geraghty, one of the Occupiers working on a laptop on Market Street near the Embarcadero Bay Area Rapid Transit station, said, “Right now these things are definitely basic but we're getting there; we have people who really want to help build the system who come down here to advise us.”

Earlier in the occupation, the encampment had a generator, but police stated organizers needed to apply for a permit from the fire department. According to police, however, the encampment had “too many personal items lying around that constitute a fire hazard” and it was unlikely to be granted a permit.

“So, at the moment,” Cox-Geraghty explained in a recent Raising Sand Radio interview, “we don't have backup. Instead, we have somebody on the bike almost 24/7. It's an intense system; we go for maybe five minutes without it, then we do a big shout out, 'I'm done. Who wants to go next?'”

The shout out, also known as the “human microphone,” is another example of a work-around that has become common at occupation sites where “necessity is the mother of invention.” Activist/author Naomi Klein and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Sizizek are among the speakers who have popularized this ingenious urban call-and-response system that obviates the need to apply for a permit for sound amplifying equipment. Speakers break sentences into staccato sound bites that members of the audience repeat and pass through the crowd. It works for immediate needs – recruiting cyclists to generate pedal power – and it also works to educate and connect the dots between the OWS movement and world events.

One such moment occurred at Occupy San Francisco when someone shouted, “How many … American deaths…. in Iraq and Afghanistan?”

A response popped up and was amplified through the crowd, “About nine thousand.” (A number that includes military contractors killed.)

Then another voice shouted, “What about … the deaths … of people not American?”

There was no answer to that, but that the question was asked raises awareness about the terrible swath of war beyond America borders. (The answer? Approximately 1.5 million Iraqis. Afghans? Unclear; the American military doesn't “do body counts.”)

A longtime activist, Francis Coombs, said, “When the husks of the old world fall away we will see that new growth has already taken root.”

The worldwide Occupy movement shows all the signs of new growth taking root as engaged human beings collaborate to create renewable people power.