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Occupy Activist Micah White: Time To Move Beyond Memes And Street Spectacles

Mar 28, 2017
Originally published on March 28, 2017 11:06 am

Disillusioned with traditional protest, activist, writer and Occupy Wall Street co-creator Micah White moved to rural Nehalem, Ore. — population 280 — not long after the Occupy movement fizzled out to run for local office and test out an idea of social change.

"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 tells me. "That's where I'm at as an activist, thinking, 'Is that possible?' "

I reported from Nehalem and toured the town with him. I also interviewed White at length at his home there. Here's that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

You've gone from trying to look at the big picture, global "We are the 99 percent," stop the money in politics, end corporate greed down to 280 people. Why go small?

I think one of the things about being an activist is what you have to do is you have to first create a theory of social change and then also you have to test it out. Occupy Wall Street tested out a grand theory of social change, which was basically, "If you can get millions of people into the streets, largely non-violent, and unified behind a central message, then change will have to happen." I think we spread to 82 countries. It was amazing. And it didn't work.

In that constructive failure I re-assessed and I was like, "You know, I think the reason it didn't work was because there's something fundamentally broken about protest." I ended up moving to small town Oregon and realizing, "Here's another theory of how social change could happen."

There's certainly debate about Occupy's overall impact, but ultimately, both in your book (The End Of Protest: A New Playbook For Revolution) and in your talks, you seem to come down pretty firmly on one side of that debate, as someone who helped co-found it and get it started. You see it as a failure.

This is the fundamental thing. I think one of the problems with contemporary activism is that we've really lowered our horizon of possibility. We've really changed what we think success is. If you look at the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries, what did success mean as a political activist, a political revolutionary? It meant the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution, or the American Revolution. Taking control of one's government, changing the way power functions.

Success now has become something like getting a lot of people to hear about my meme. Or changing the discourse. We changed the discourse. We trained a whole new generation of activists, but we didn't change how power functions. That's what our real goal was. I think that's an indictment of contemporary activism. We spread to 82 countries faster than any social movement has ever spread that fast. And it didn't work. I think it's really important as an activist to constantly learn from one's past failures. I think a lot of activists don't want to learn from Occupy Wall Street.

When I look at activism in the six years since Occupy, they're repeating the same mistake over and over and over again. We have become obsessed with the spectacle of street protests, and we have started to ignore the reality that we are getting no closer to power. You would think that with the triumph of Trump there would be a fundamental reassessment among activists. But there hasn't been. They've just doubled down on the same behaviors!

Right. When you say it was a constructive failure, it's constructive only if people learn from it. You're saying, in the age of Trump, there is a kind of fetishization of street protest and spectacle over substance?

Yeah, we've come to a dangerous point where what's really going on, and this is the deep thing that no one wants to talk about, which is that the left has been taken over by anti-revolutionaries. The left actually doesn't really believe in the desirability or possibility of revolution anymore. I think that has a lot to do with the trauma of our past revolutions: the experience of the cultural revolution in China, the Stalinist gulags. All of that kind of stuff has turned the left into people who believe in reform, not revolution.

Now look at the right. The right's all about revolution worldwide. That's why they're winning. I think that's really the fundamental problem here. People who celebrate the grand successes of Black Lives Matter and Occupy and Standing Rock and all these protests. It feels really good to celebrate those things as success, but it's leading us further and further away from real success, and that's dangerous. I mean we're seeing how dangerous that is right now with Trump in so many ways. He is fundamentally pushing our world into a dark place. So it's very dangerous for the left to continue to treat online social marketing as if it were social activism. Protest alone does not give us political power. That's why we have Trump right now.

But an activist who's been in the cold at Standing Rock, or out in the street for Black Lives Matter, or who was at one the many Occupy protests might say, "Micah's sitting in Nehalem, Ore., population 280, telling me the best way to protest? He needs to walk the walk." What are you really doing to walk the walk here in your community?

I've been an activist since I was 13, so my whole life has been doing this. I think it's very possible for us to build a social movement that would win elections in many, many rural communities very quickly. Much more quickly than anyone's ever seen. I think that it is conceivable that we could wake up and we could have activists controlling literally the local level in a way that we've never seen before. With that power, we'd have the sovereignty to pass legislation that really fundamentally affects people's lives.

In Nehalem, Ore., where I live, we have a $700,000 budget surplus [Note: the city manager calls it an emergency fund] because of all the timber land that we own. If there were activists who controlled city council, it would be very easy for us to say that no child shall be hungry within our community. Or we could say, "Every child shall have college grants" if they want that. Or student loan forgiveness. Or whatever. Basically all of these ideas that have been floating around within activist communities, we could actually carry them out quite simply. I look at it and I just see that we've become very good at getting millions of people into the streets and we're very bad at winning elections.

You ran for city office. Tell us how that worked out?

Yeah. I ran for mayor (in November). It was probably one of the most fascinating experiences in my life and it was a huge growing experience for me. Nehalem's a microcosm. The reason why I lost the election I think is so much tied in to what's going on nationally and globally right now. First of all, just to give people a sense of what happened, I got 20 percent of the vote which I think is actually pretty amazing as someone who's a black American in rural white Oregon speaking about revolution. I wrote a book with revolution in the title, I'm a former Occupy guy. Still, one out of five people voted for me.

The basic platform wasn't vote for Micah White. It was instead this idea of, "Let's create something called a Nehalem's People's Associations and before each city council meeting let's go to those people's associations, let's get together with our neighbors and let's talk about what city council should do the following day. Let's move power away from city council to these Nehalem People's Associations." I told people, "If I'm elected mayor, then I will basically abide by the decisions of the people who come to these meetings." I had five of them before each city council meeting over the course of five months. There were so many people who showed up. We passionately debated things. People were on both sides — against and for. 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?" and all this kind of stuff. It was really beautiful.

What did the opposition do? It's the same thing that happened on the national level. All of a sudden I was hit with fake news. All of a sudden there's these rumors going around. People started asking me, "Are you a satanist?" I was like, "Whoa. First of all, what is even a satanist?" People literally believed I'm doing Satan worshiping exercises somewhere. I had no idea how to respond to that. It was like Pizzagate, if people remember that. All of sudden people were convinced that there was a child pedophilia ring in the basement of a pizza place in D.C. It's like that. They were just convinced I was a satanist!

Wait. Satanist. How did the satanist charge start? Did you say something that got twisted, or no?

Someone in Portland decided that they were going to try start satanist clubs at elementary schools in Oregon. They just by chance happened to pick Nehalem Elementary School, which is a few blocks from my house. So a disconnected event, someone tried to start a satanist club. Other event — Micah's running for mayor. There must be some sort of connection here!

So people were like, Micah White, he's an after school satanist?

Exactly. And meanwhile I don't have a child at the elementary school. I'm not a satanist. I don't believe in Satan. I'm against Satan. I actually love good. That's why I do social activism. I'm trying to create a better place. The thing about fake news is they don't ask you. They don't ask you.

So this activist from Berkeley and Occupy comes out here to a small town saying we need a local revolution? Talk about the kind of pushback you got besides the satanist charge.

That's what I think is so interesting again about the Nehalem experience and I think why solving how to win elections in rural communities will actually unlock a global challenge. People actually started a counter-campaign against me called, "Keep Nehalem Nehalem." Basically that summarizes what it was about, which was basically, "We don't want change. Keep it the way it is." They wanted to say that I was the driver of change, when instead I was saying, "Change is happening in this community. The demographics are changing already. I'm a symptom of that but there's other people here — the 20 percent who voted for me — who are also symptomatic of that. Let's figure out how to navigate the change."

I feel like it's the forces who can navigate change who will win right now. The forces like Trump who just want to say, "Let's close our borders. We don't need to figure out about climate change. We don't need to figure out about immigration or understand why (refugees) are having to move here." They're the ones who are ultimately going to lose.

Well you say "they're ultimately going to lose." But there's these right-wing populist nationalist movements in the U.S. and across many countries, especially Europe — Netherlands, Hungary, Poland — saying, "This change is really scary. I'll help you navigate it." What do you say to a Steve Bannon or others who might say, "You still don't get why Donald Trump is president. He attracted working-class folks who were fed up with elites trying to spoon-feed them their solution"?

I think the best example is climate change. Donald Trump doesn't have a plan for solving climate change because it would require a global response. He doesn't believe in global responses, so he denies that it exists.

Ultimately they can't solve the thing that really needs solving. Because of that, I think that we're going to swing back into power. We need a global populism. We need another vision of globalism. That's what's really at stake here, is two visions of populism. One, charismatic single individuals like Donald Trump and Putin. Another, social movements that can win elections in multiple countries, things like Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy, the Pirate Party in Iceland. These are competing visions for how power should function, and I think our vision is ultimately better — if we can figure it out.

Do you think the Democratic Party could ever be a vehicle for real transformation, or in your view is the party too tainted by money to ever be able to become a viable progressive vehicle again?

I'm much, much more tantalized by the possibility of a new social movement. A new political party that can sweep America and also other countries too. I think the Democratic Party, these establishment types, they're so desperate to co-opt social protests back into getting themselves into power that ultimately I think they're very, very detrimental to our success. I'm not into the Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Democratic Party resurgence stuff. I think that those people will constantly pull us back into a vision of globalism that seriously is broken. They're not challenging the way power functions. They're not saying, "Let's use Internet voting." They're not putting forward any different way for how power should function. They're just basically saying, "I'm a better person, so I should be in power."

What's fundamentally wrong about Donald Trump isn't whether or not he's a good or bad person. It's about how he thinks power should function, which is autocratically.

President Trump has explicitly stated an anti-globalist view. He has said, basically, "I'm not president of the world. I don't salute some world flag. I'm president of the United States and it's America first."

That's the deep irony and every time I end up talking about Donald Trump I give him some weird underhanded compliments. What he really represents is he's the shadow of Occupy Wall Street. He's the shadow of the anti-globalization movement. He basically is the "get-money-out-of-politics" candidate. He won the election by spending half as much as Hillary Clinton. We thought that wasn't possible. Look, he did it. He's anti-globalization. He's the negative shadow of the positive vision that we were trying to put forward.

You're giving Donald Trump a kind of grudging hat tip. He's an outsider who harnessed populist power to win an election. He didn't spend a lot on advertising. He held rallies. He mobilized ordinary people and they won real power.

Yeah, Donald Trump proves that it's possible for an outsider to win elections in America. So I celebrate him for that. I love his spirit. I love things that he said during the debates. I love his anti-establishmentism. I love that he says things like, before the election he said, "If I don't win the primary there's going to be riots in the streets." I love that. And I love Steve Bannon's Leninist spirit. I love all that stuff. Ultimately what's wrong with it is that they are ill-equipped to deal with the actual challenges that we face. They're scapegoating the weakest people in our community in order to not solve the real challenges like economic and environmental problems.

When you look at people planning things like the March for Science coming up in April and other planned marches and protests, what would be your message to them?

I think that my message to activists today is — never protest the same way twice. Social protest seems to work most effectively when the tactics that we use are new. I think that as activists, we have a tendency instead to do the opposite. We have the tendency to repeat. If you look at Occupy Wall Street, it started as Occupy Wall Street, and then it became Occupy London, and then it became Occupy Sandy, like we occupied a storm. Basically everything becomes Occupy. Every time you repeat a tactic it becomes less effective. So if you're going to use traditional social protest, at least, at the very least vary your tactics such that it's always a surprise.

When you look at the history of direct action protests, sometimes smaller change-it-up groups, like ACT UP, arguably had a bigger impact overall than some of the big anti-war marches.

We do live in a time of increasing frequency and size of social protests. But that does not mean that these social protests are becoming more effective.

You can get 4 million people into the streets and there is no requirement in our Constitution or in our laws that the president has to listen. He's able to say, "Thanks, go home now." And they go home. We need to stop with this naïve belief that if we just get more people into the streets, then we'll get what we want. No, it's not true! They don't have to listen anymore.

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