Micah White on where the Oc­cupy move­ment went wrong, and de­vel­op­ing ‘new tac­tics for so­cial change.’

Toronto Star - - INSIGHT - Jen­nifer Hunter [email protected]­tar.ca

The Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ment in 2011 spread al­most overnight from a New York park to more than 30 other coun­tries. It was a brief, shin­ing mo­ment of protest, familiar to those who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s and lived through demon­stra­tions about the Viet­nam War, gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion, the es­tab­lish­ment. One of the peo­ple who in­spired Oc­cupy and its mes­sage of con­cern about the cor­po­rate fund­ing of po­lit­i­cal par­ties is Micah White. White has writ­ten The End of Protest: A New Play­book for Rev­o­lu­tion.

It ex­plains his un­der­stand­ing of so­cial move­ments and his sug­ges­tions for fu­ture ac­tivists. Our con­ver­sa­tion has been edited for length.

Jen­nifer: You say at the be­gin­ning of your book that the Oc­cupy move­ment failed. Re­ally?

Micah: Yeah, I think I am try­ing to re­sist the com­mon nar­ra­tive. There is this story we tell our­selves as ac­tivists, which is that noth­ing is a de­feat. It is an en­light­en­ing, beau­ti­ful story. But that story stops us from un­der­stand­ing why we didn’t ac­tu­ally achieve our ob­jec­tives. Why didn’t our en­camp­ment solve what it meant to solve: get­ting money out of pol­i­tics? For me, when we cel­e­brate our fail­ures as suc­cess, we hold our­selves back from un­der­stand­ing how they failed. We failed be­cause we didn’t achieve what we set out to do, that is, to get money out of pol­i­tics. But we achieved a lot of other things. That’s why I call it a con­struc­tive fail­ure.

Jen­nifer: I don’t think you failed. You changed the way the world is now think­ing about eco­nom­ics and work. Bernie San­ders and Hil­lary Clin­ton were lis­ten­ing to you. Was it a fail­ure be­cause it didn’t incite a so­cial rev­o­lu­tion?

Micah: In Hil­lary’s emails, there is in­for­ma­tion about Oc­cupy. Some­one went down to Zuc­cotti Park and asked to get a poster for her. So clearly they are as­sim­i­lat­ing our lan­guage.

But it is im­por­tant — and I think this is hard for peo­ple to un­der­stand — you shouldn’t con­fuse the head with the tail. Oc­cupy Wall Street was the head and all of these other things are symp­toms; they are the tails.

Ob­vi­ously, Oc­cupy had ef­fects and con­se­quences. It raised aware­ness around this is­sue, but those are just symp­toms of our cre­ation of a mass move­ment.

Take the ex­am­ple of Black Lives Mat­ter: yes, it has raised the is­sue of black men be­ing shot by police, but noth­ing has changed re­ally. Black men are still be­ing shot. If you start cel­e­brat­ing the aware­ness, you lose per­spec­tive about the deeper ques­tions.

We made an ef­fort to get money out of pol­i­tics and it didn’t hap­pen. I am not say­ing Oc­cupy had no pos­i­tive con­se­quences. It buoyed a lot of so­cial pro­test­ers. It made ac­tivism cool again. It brought cer­tain ar­gu­ments to the fore.

Jen­nifer: There is a ti­dal wave of change in the way peo­ple, af­ter Oc­cupy, think about the econ­omy. You say Oc­cupy didn’t cre­ate a rev­o­lu­tion. What did you re­ally want?

Micah: A rev­o­lu­tion, I ar­gue, is a change of le­gal regime and Oc­cupy Wall Street was try­ing to change how cor­po­ra­tions and unions give money to po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates. When you cre­ate a so­cial move­ment, your goal is not to raise aware­ness. Rais­ing aware­ness is merely a symp­tom of the fact that you’ve cre­ated a so­cial move­ment.

Are we con­tent in creat­ing move­ments that make the pow­er­ful stay in place and let the es­tab­lish­ment use our lan­guage? Or are we try­ing to say, no, we want the peo­ple them­selves in power.

Jen­nifer: Don­ald Trump is es­sen­tially lead­ing a rev­o­lu­tion. The core group sup­port­ing him is made up of dis­af­fected, un­em­ployed men who feel they have been de­serted by the fed­eral and state gov­ern­ments.

Micah: The left shouldn’t just as­sume they are go­ing to be the best at creat­ing mass move­ments.

There is a yearn­ing to be part of a col­lec­tive. Part of what was beau­ti­ful about Oc­cupy is that you would go to these assem­blies, you’d be im­mersed in the col­lec­tive, ev­ery­one would be chant­ing in uni­son. It was a beau­ti­ful, spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence.

Jen­nifer: Your book was sup­ported and pub­lished by Cana­di­ans, even though you are Amer­i­can. Could it have been pub­lished in the States?

Micah: No. We tried to find an Amer­i­can pub­lisher but we got an in­sane num­ber of re­jec­tions and the re­jec­tions all said the same thing: This book is fas­ci­nat­ing, it is well writ­ten, it is im­por­tant, but there is no mar­ket for it.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple around the world were in­volved with Oc­cupy. The Amer­i­can pub­lish­ers were just wor­ried about the saleabil­ity of the book.

What pub­lish­ers didn’t un­der­stand was that peo­ple are very hun­gry for crit­i­cal think­ing and a per­spec­tive on ac­tivism, both spir­i­tu­ally and philo­soph­i­cally.

Jen­nifer: Rev­o­lu­tions can be good and bad. Je­sus was a protest leader. Protests against the war in Viet­nam helped push Lyn­don John­son out of the White House. But look at the Bol­she­viks, the French Ja­cobins in the 18th cen­tury, the Nazis who both started as street par­ties, and Mao, too.

Micah: Yes, but we can’t con­tinue to blindly fol­low the con­tem­po­rary par­a­digm of ac­tivism, which is to get peo­ple into the streets. We saw that ex­pe­ri­ence in World War II by Nazi Ger­many to give peo­ple a sense of col­lec­tive­ness. Protest is a form of war­fare and a kind of weapon. Ul­ti­mately I am op­ti­mistic that so­cial move­ments will be more demo­cratic than they are to­tal­i­tar­ian. We have to cre­ate so­cial change and Oc­cupy didn’t work be­cause it wasn’t able to get money out of pol­i­tics. Even though Bernie San­ders is spout­ing ideas that sound very much like the Oc­cupy party line, you have to un­der­stand that what was revo­lu­tion­ary in 2011 may not seem revo­lu­tion­ary the next year.

In my book, I am try­ing to of­fer new tac­tics for so­cial change.

The core idea would be to build so­cial move­ments to win elec­tions and govern cities and carry out a so­cial agenda. There is a model like that de­vel­op­ing in Europe. The first model is In­ter­net-en­abled so­cial move­ments that are able to de­velop com­plex de­ci­sion mak­ing to cre­ate plat­forms and agree on laws. There is an emer­gence of new tac­tics.

We have be­come good at creat­ing glob­ally syn­chro­nized events. If you look at all the elec­tions in the world and put them in chrono­log­i­cal or­der, you can then imag­ine a so­cial move­ment that can arise quickly and swing the elec­tion and then go to an­other coun­try and swing the elec­tion there. So you go around the globe and try to win elec­tions in each coun­try.

Ideas from the edges of pol­i­tics are the ones that sud­denly in­spire peo­ple and take off.

Jen­nifer: Rev­o­lu­tions have long-last­ing re­sults.

Micah: Some peo­ple say it takes three gen­er­a­tions for a rev­o­lu­tion to be truly com­plete. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The gen­er­a­tion which com­mences a rev­o­lu­tion rarely com­pletes it.”

Oc­cupy changed my life for­ever. It changed other peo­ple’s lives for­ever. But what I am try­ing to get across is that we can do big­ger and bet­ter. Peo­ple didn’t think we could do some­thing as big as Oc­cupy, but I think we can do some­thing big­ger than Oc­cupy. It re­quires a re­assess­ment of our the­o­ries of so­cial change and broad­en­ing our hori­zon of so­cial pos­si­bil­ity.

Jen­nifer: Good luck.


Union mem­bers and Oc­cupy Wall Street demon­stra­tors protest bank bailouts, fore­clo­sures and high un­em­ploy­ment near Wall Street in New York in the fall of 2011.

Micah White, who helped in­spire Oc­cupy, of­fers his in­sights into so­cial move­ments and pro­vides sug­ges­tions for fu­ture ac­tivists in The End of Protest.

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