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Message To 'Resistors' From Occupy Co-Creator: Stop Protesting. Run For Office

Mar 28, 2017
Originally published on March 29, 2017 7:51 am

Opponents of President Trump say resistance to his policies is robust, motivated — and here to stay.

They point to big demonstrations including January's Women's March and the upcoming Earth Day "March for Science."

Occupy Wall Street co-creator Micah White says bravo, but there's just one problem: Big street protests don't work.

They're ineffectual, even counterproductive, he says.

"We could have large-scale marches for every year of Trump's presidency. It would do nothing!" the activist and author tells me sitting in his kitchen in rural Nehalem, Ore., near the Pacific coast.

"You would think that with the triumph of Trump there would be a fundamental re-assessment among activists. But there hasn't been. They've just doubled down on the same behaviors!"

Instead, White argues, opponents of Trump should learn from Occupy's failure and run for local office. He encourages any progressive who'll listen: Go local, rural and small to try to foster big change.

White did. He moved to Nehalem from Berkeley, Calif., a few years ago with his wife and young son. In his 2016 book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook For Revolution, White argues that America "is ripe for a digital populist (an Internet-enabled people's democracy) uprising centered in the resource-rich rural areas" of the Pacific Northwest. Work to create progressive pockets of power, he argues. Talk with those with whom you disagree.

Last November, White put his theory into practice and ran for mayor of Nehalem, Ore.

He lost. The campaign did not go smoothly.

But exactly how White got crushed says something about America's hopes and political divisions along lines of class, place and race.

Occupy Nehalem, Ore.: Population 280

"Oh, it's so nice here!" White says sounding more like a marketing rep for the Oregon tourism office than the revolutionary who helped spark a global protest movement against inequality and corporate greed. "You can basically kayak, we've kayaked, from here all the way down to Wheeler," a few miles away, he adds while walking in the sun near the public dock along the picturesque Nehalem River.

Almost on cue a kayaker comes into view up the river. "There's really good salmon fishing right here," White gushes.

We walk together through the one-traffic signal downtown along Highway 101 with its 10 or so locally owned small businesses.

A sign at Hal's Emporium boasts "dollar-ish bargains." We price near 99 cents seems a long way from the "We Are The 99 Percent" rallying slogan of the Occupy movement.

"What's so great about Nehalem is as an activist you can't use the other tactics. You can't block traffic," White says as we walk past a restaurant selling homemade chowders and ice cream. "There are no big businesses here. These are all my neighbors. You can't block traffic."

Read NPR's Extended Interview With Micah White

White now sees those "other tactics" — including mass street protests and sit-ins — as almost futile. Protesters, he says, keep repeating the same mistakes: fetishizing the pageantry of protest and confusing online social marketing wins with real change.

"Success now has become something like getting a lot of people to hear about my meme," he says. "We have become obsessed with the spectacle of street protest and we have started to ignore the reality that we are getting no closer to power."

Budgets are sexy

White reads the agenda for an upcoming council meeting posted on the door of city hall. "On the new business - the economic development council update and the natural hazard mitigation plan." Put down the protest sign, he says, and pick up the city budget. Organize. Planning and zoning are sexy!

The cornerstone of his ill-fated mayoral campaign was making government more responsive. He held open community meetings to hear concerns.

"We passionately debated things. People were on both sides — against and for," he says. "It was like the first time, I think, that people from across the political spectrum who live in this tiny town sat in the same room together and debated things like, 'Change is happening in our community. How do we navigate it? What do we want it to look like in the future?' It was really beautiful."

White says more people showed up to these gatherings than regularly attend city council meetings.

But some residents say what White called People's Associations felt like awkward experiments.

"He came out swinging with this big laundry list of unrealistic ideas," says Tracey Curtis, who manages rental properties for the tourism industry — the area's economic core alongside timber.

White's proposals to use the city's budget surplus for anti-poverty and education programs, she says, struck many as preachy and imprudent.

"That's not the way you make friends in a small town," she says at the bar of Nehalem's Bayway tavern and restaurant. "I think he's just using our town as a stepping stone and a petri dish."

Campaign gets ugly

Micah White says as a black man moving to a small, rural, overwhelmingly white Oregon town, he was prepared for challenges and the possibility of prejudice.

But White admits he did not see the whole devil-worshiping fake news rumor coming.

"People started asking me, 'are you a Satanist?' I was like, 'Whoa!' " He admits he and his supporters were slow to respond.

"When it came down to their neighbors saying, 'Well, I heard he's a satanist.' My base wasn't strong enough to stand up and say, 'No, he's not a satanist, ya know. He's a good guy!' It was crazy."

A counter-campaign cropped up complete with signs reading "Keep Nehalem Nehalem."

"It's not a racist thing," says Nehalem resident Angela Hanke. "It was a response to Micah saying he wants to change everything around here. It was keep our town the way it is because we're happy with it."

But it got worse than a few bumper stickers and T-shirts.

When White sent out a "Micah for Mayor" text blast to registered voters, one resident wrote back a racial slur telling him to pack his bags.

A local article about the racist text created a storm.

Instructive failure

There are 194 registered voters in Nehalem, according to the city manager.

On Election Day, Micah White got 36 votes. His opponent, incumbent Mayor William L. Dillard, Jr. got 139.

"It's awkward and painful, and you're a black guy living in rural Oregon talking about revolution and one out of five people really gets it and loves it. But 80 percent don't," White says and laughs. "And do they want you to leave? Yes, they want you to leave."

At the local tavern, resident Suzie Gruver was blunt. "Nobody wants him here. He's trying to destroy our town."

Still, White is undeterred. He sees his ill-fated mayoral run as an instructive failure — just like Occupy Wall Street.

He still sits on the local budget committee, which he has served on for two years. He successfully advocated to get the city to use some of its budget surplus to help subsidize meals for hungry children who attend the local elementary school.

He'd like the city to use more of its roughly $700,000 budget surplus on community needs. ("It's not a surplus," Nehalem City Manager Dale Shafer says. It's more of a rainy day fund. "You can't spend everything. You have to have money available in case of emergency," Shafer says.)

White says he wants to learn from his stumbles. Listen more. Respond quicker to fake news devil worship stories. He plans to keep on testing his rural, populist plan to engage with the right and work to gain local power and influence.

"We could have activists take over small towns for the benefit of people who live there and the people who are going to move there, and actualize all of the grand ideas that we have on the left," he says. "We have to do this. There is no other option. We could do protesting forever. And it would do nothing."

Or, White says, people can figure out how they can own and not just occupy city hall.

"I think when we figure this one out," he says, smiling, "it's going to be quite beautiful."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An activist behind the Occupy Movement says he's done with protest marches. Micah White is his name. Six years ago, White and a friend at the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters called for a million man march on Wall Street. Their march against corporate control and inequality became Occupy Wall Street and then a global movement. That was then.

Now, he says, opponents of President Trump should learn from Occupy's failure and run for local office. White decided to do that himself in rural Oregon. NPR's Eric Westervelt asked how it's going.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Micah White stands in the sunlight along the Nehalem river in Oregon's gorgeous North Coast Range. He sounds these days more like a marketing rep for a tourism office than the revolutionary who helped spark a global protest movement against inequality and corporate greed.

MICAH WHITE: Oh, it's so nice here. You can basically just kayak from here all the way down to Wheeler. This is really good salmon fishing right here.

WESTERVELT: Occupy Nehalem Oregon - population 280. We walked together through the one traffic light downtown with 10 or so locally owned, small businesses. Hal's Emporium boasts dollar-ish bargains. There's buttercups, chowders and ice cream.

WHITE: What's so great about Nehalem is that as an activist, you can't use the other tactics. There's no big businesses here. These are all my neighbors. You can't block traffic.

WESTERVELT: White now sees those other tactics including mass street protests and sit-ins as ineffectual, counterproductive even. White moved to Nehalem from Berkeley with his wife and young son. In the kitchen of his small home here, he tells me Occupy, as well as more recent demonstrations, keep repeating the same mistakes - fetishizing the pageantry of protest and confusing online social marketing with real change.

WHITE: Success now has become something like getting a lot of people to hear about my meme. We have become obsessed with the spectacle of street protest, and we have started to ignore the reality that we are getting no closer to power. I mean, you would think that with the triumph of Trump, there would be a fundamental reassessment among the activists, but there hasn't been, you know? They've just doubled down on the same behaviors.

WESTERVELT: White now encourages any progressive angry at President Trump, go local and small to foster big change, create progressive pockets of power, organize, put down the protest sign, pick up the city budget. Zoning is sexy.

WHITE: First, we got the, you know, call to order the Pledge of Allegiance. Then we're going to the roll call, see how many guests show up...

WESTERVELT: White reads the agenda for an upcoming council meeting posted on the door of city hall.

WHITE: And the natural hazard mitigation plan...

WESTERVELT: White now envisions an internet-enabled people's revolution rising up from rural America. Last November, he put his theory into practice and ran for mayor. He got crushed, but exactly how he lost says something about America's divisions along lines of class, place and race. The cornerstone of his first time campaign was making government more responsive. He held open community meetings to hear concerns.

WHITE: It was like the first time, I think, that people from across the political spectrum who live in this tiny town sat in the same room together and debated things like change is happening in our community. How do we navigate it?

WESTERVELT: But some residents say the gatherings White called people's associations felt like awkward experiments.

TRACEY CURTIS: He came out swinging with this big laundry list of unrealistic ideas.

WESTERVELT: That's Tracey Curtis, Nehalem's Bay Way Tavern. She says his idea is to use the city's roughly $700,000 budget surplus for anti-poverty and education programs struck many here as preachy and imprudent.

CURTIS: That's not the way you make friends in a small town. I think he's just using our town as a stepping stone in a petri dish.

WESTERVELT: Micah White says as a black man moving to a small rural overwhelmingly white Oregon town, he was prepared for challenges even prejudice, but then things got really weird. White admits he didn't see the whole devil-worshipping fake news rumor coming.

WHITE: When it came down to their neighbors saying, well, I heard he's a Satanist, my base wasn't strong enough to stand up and say, no, he's not a Satanist. You know, he's a good guy.

WESTERVELT: An anti-Micah campaign cropped up complete with signs and T-shirts reading keep Nehalem, Nehalem. But it got worse. When White sent out a Micah for mayor text blast to registered voters, one resident wrote back a racial slur telling him to pack his bags. On Election Day, Micah White got 36 votes. His opponent incumbent William Dillard, Jr. got 139 votes.

WHITE: It's awkward and painful, and you're a black guy living in rural Oregon talking about revolution. And 1 out of 5 people really gets it and loves it, but 80 percent don't. (Laughter). Do they want you to leave? Yes, they want you to leave.

WESTERVELT: At the local tavern, resident Suzie Gruver was blunt.

SUZIE GRUVER: Nobody wants him here. He's trying to destroy our town.

WESTERVELT: Micah White is undeterred. He sees his ill-fated mayoral run as an instructive failure just like Occupy Wall Street, and he plans to keep on testing his rural populist plan to engage with the right and try to gain local power.

WHITE: We have to do this. You know? There is no other option. I mean, we could have large-scale marches for every year of Trump's presidency. It would do nothing.

WESTERVELT: Or, White says, we can figure out how the people can own and not just occupy city hall. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Nehalem, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANDON FEICHTER'S "THE OREGON TRAIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.