Want to be part of the next wave of activism? Move to rural America
Traumatized by Occupy’s dissipation, the founder of the movement realized that street protests have become outdated. Now he’s focusing on hyper-local activism
By Mary Wang for The Guardian published on January 6, 2017
It took a few years before Micah White, the co-founder of Occupy Wall Street, could speak of the movement as a failure.
When White released the call for Occupy on 13 July 2011, the year was filled with optimism from the Arab Spring and an untested faith in the power of social media. At the time, White worked as an editor at activist magazine Adbusters. Together with its founder, Kalle Lasn, he sent out the call to 90,000 email addresses that led to the viral movement that spread to more than 750 locations worldwide.
Five years later, White found himself in a radically different spot: he announced his run for mayor in Nehalem, an otherwise quiet Oregon town of 278 residents. These days, White argues that rural areas are where the efforts of activists should be focused. Occupy Wall Street, as a movement, was unable to effect political and legislative change. But moving to small-town America still might.
Traumatized by Occupy’s dissipation, White and his wife decided to move from Berkeley to Nehalem in 2012 on the basis that it was “the most beautiful place they’d ever been” – a town whose city limits contains a total of 0.24 square miles of land.
After his move, White started to think deeply about the failures of Occupy.
Trump doesn’t sit around whining whether he’s able to govern. He just does
“It took me a year to even think that Occupy could be the end of protest. And then it took another year after that to be able to talk about this publicly,” White explained. “Many activists don’t want to hear about it, because protest is an industry.”
The brutal removal of the Zuccotti Park tent camp by police forces made White realize that street protests have become outdated. “It demonstrated that a mass movement in the streets doesn’t attain higher sovereignty over its government,” White told me. “It’s not protected from police violence or eviction.”
Instead, White focused on hyper-local activism.
As word spread about the arrival of an Occupy founder in town, White’s neighbors – some who were hippies who moved in the 1970s, others who were priced out of nearby Portland – started approaching him with questions. How do we protect the local watershed? How do we vote on the construction of the parking lot?
White realized that activists can’t just take to the streets to gain power. “The only thing that works is to merge protest with political parties,” White explained. “You have to win wars, or win elections.”
Prior to White’s candidacy, Nehalem’s city council meetings were reasonably routine affairs. Its five members came together once a month in Nehalem’s city hall, a single-story wooden structure that reminds of the history of western pioneers that preceded the town.
One month the vote is on the renovation of a parking lot, and another month the discussion is about the timber harvest, an industry that once made Nehalem thrive but has since wound down. Most of the time, meetings take no longer than 30 minutes. Even in a year of unprecedented political strife on the national stage, White was the only candidate to challenge a mayoral race in Nehalem’s Tillamook County.
White staged his first protest at 13 years old and is as close as one can get to be considered a career activist. Yet, moving to a rural community made him reconsider the techniques he had been employing.
“People in urban areas forget that there’s a whole other reality,” he said. “In rural America, you can’t use standard activist techniques such as blocking the streets, because those people are your neighbors.”
When White made his announcement on 15 July, the national media had not yet started to show the interest it now holds in America’s heartland. It was almost four months before that election night, when America, glued to the television, watched former Democratic strongholds flip red piece by piece, leading Donald Trump to victory. (Tillamook County, which had voted Obama for both terms, ended up electing Trump. It hadn’t voted red since Reagan’s win in 1984.)
White’s rural mission had started much earlier. His book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, was released in March 2016. In it, he describes Occupy as a “constructive failure”, urging activists to apply lessons learned: “Change won’t happen through old models of activism. Protests have become an accepted, and therefore ignored, by-product of politics-as-usual.”
Small-town America, on the other hand, was where White saw the potential to apply the participatory democracy that Occupy’s leaderless organization failed to achieve.
“Nehalem represents one revolutionary scenario for building power in rural communities,” White writes. “The rural uprising begins when revolutionary activists distribute ourselves into pre-existing micro-cities in Cascadia [the Pacific north-west region that includes Oregon], ensuring that in each place there are enough of us to sway every local election.”
White released his announcement to run in an open letter he sent to every registered voter in town. He wrote, “I’m concerned because the majority of our city council – four out of five – were not elected by voters: they were appointed to their current positions by decree.” He continued by pleading for more power to the residents: “Sadly, the undemocratic process of appointments has fostered a city council culture that is unresponsive, unimaginative and unprepared for navigating our city into the future.”
In the same letter, White also called for the first meeting of the Nehalem People’s Association, a neighborhood organization whose meetings would provide an open platform for residents to discuss local issues. More than 60 people showed up at the first meeting at the local community centre, which amounts to 20% of Nehalem’s total population.
“Imagine that in New York,” White said. “That would be the equivalent of 1 million people.” For White, Nehalem can be seen as a microcosm of America: no matter how small the town is, it has its own portion of income inequality and political strife. This means that if a new form of democracy can be created in Nehalem, it could be possible in every other city in America.
“The left is not revolutionary and doesn’t want to govern. The real revolutionaries now, unfortunately, is the right,” White explained. “Trump doesn’t sit around whining whether he’s able to govern. He just does.”
‘What makes you an expert?’
If Nehalem is a microcosm of America, then the arrival of the newcomer has caused a similar division among the town’s population.
At the first Nehalem People’s Association meeting, a group of residents showed up wearing “Keep Nehalem, Nehalem” sweatshirts. One of those residents, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said that half of the 60 people at the meeting showed up just to express their dismay at White’s efforts. The loosely bound organization has been vocal against White’s efforts in Nehalem. Recently, a resident started offering bumper stickers featuring the campaign’s motto on the group’s Facebook page.
The support of the resident-led movement goes out to Bill Dillard, White’s opponent in the mayoral race. Dillard, who grew up in Nehalem, is a familiar face to many. He has been on the city council since 2003, his father served on the city council for many years before, and he’s worked as a local firefighter for 14 years. If Micah’s agenda was change, then Dillard ran on the sentiment of those who wanted to maintain the status quo.
In a letter addressed to White, Dillard writes, “Your newsletter has quite a laundry list of things that you envision for Nehalem’s future. After your three and a half years here, what makes you the expert on what the City of Nehalem needs?” His letter ends with a word of advice: “Mr White, Nehalem is not a political experiment. It’s our home.”
Nehalem’s local press fell between the gaps of the increasing divide. In an article titled “Nehalem and the n-word: campaign tactics go low and grow”, the North Coast Citizen, a local newspaper, reported on racial slurs targeting White since he announced his bid for mayor.
White is African American while Nehalem, according to the latest census, is 93% white. One resident, Steve Meadows, is reported to have sent White a text containing a photo of ‘Nehalem’ tattooed over a bare stomach. The paper quoted him saying, “Because he’s a nigger, that’s why.”
This could be the end of protest. Many activists don’t want to hear about it, because protest is an industry
After the article’s publication, the paper received backlash from some readers, angry that their town had been painted racist over the actions of a few – some even called upon their neighbors to cancel their subscriptions. The reporter left the paper soon after the article’s publishing, and the article has since been removed (a transcript can still be found here). Joe Warren, the paper’s publisher, told me her leave was not related. “It’s a little community, they don’t get a lot of hard news written about them,” he said. “And suddenly there’s a new twist in a small town that they had never seen before, by someone well-known nationwide trying to make his way in.”
Jeremy Robert Mulcahy-Hill, a 30-year-old resident who has lived in Nehalem for over half of his life, explained: “Very little of us knew that Micah even lived here. We just didn’t know how he fits into the community, how he’s been giving back, and how he’s been interacting with the rest of the population. And all of a sudden, he was running for mayor.”
Mulcahy-Hill ran for city council this cycle but unwillingly got dragged into the controversy. A millennial, he is from a different generation than the incumbent council. He explained: “It turned into an us v them, the incumbents v the challengers. And if you were a challenger, you automatically got lumped in with Micah’s theology.”
According to Mulcahy-Hill, the tension grew so strong that one perspective council member retracted from the election. “It started as adults being adults, and wanting the betterment of the community, and it turned into a high school popularity contest.”
The exact measure of the national and local divisions became clear on 8 November. White lost the election with 139 votes to 36, while Mulcahy-Hill lost to incumbent Stacy Jacobson, a longtime Nehalem resident with many ties to the community.
After his loss, White continued to attend city council meetings and is set on continuing his political mission. “There’s never been a positive social change that hasn’t been met with a tremendous amount of negative resistance, and that resistance always starts with the majority,” White told me. “Look at women’s rights, or even American democracy. If you go back to the American revolution, there were tons of royalist Americans who were opposed to it.”
But what if Nehalem simply isn’t ready for change? If this year’s political upheaval has made anything clear, it’s that in politics, timing is as decisive as reason. Trump’s rise to the presidency is only possible after a time in which the nation’s rural-urban divide and income gap have been brewing for decades. White had attempted viral movements before, but Occupy only spread when it fed on the right mixture of internet culture and economic meltdown.
Now that many democracies seem to be making an unthinkable return to authoritarianism, it has never been a better time to stop thinking of our post-war stability as the end point and start to reconsider what the future will look like. White, as a abstract and explosive thinker, is more often too early than too late. The success of his efforts will depend on whether he can sustain his movement until the window is right, and when rural America will be ready for the change foreseen by the pundits on the coasts.
For now, the seeds have been planted in Nehalem’s soil. “Before Micah was here, you’d hear about council meetings and there were two or three people who attended,” Mulcahy-Hill told me. “Now it’s a full house – you might as well buy tickets.”
After co-founding the Occupy movement, Micah White moved to rural Oregon to set the stage in the next step of the revolution. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Think Out Loud checked in with him to see how that is working out. Listen here:
Concretely speaking, activists must reorient all efforts around capturing sovereignty.
TWO PATHS FORWARD
Lots of people have been emailing me to ask: what do we do now? My advice is that activists should immediately start moving into rural cities—low population areas of America—and prepare to sweep local elections in 2 years. This is the solution on many levels.
My campaign for Mayor of Nehalem demonstrated that this rural path to power is not easy but it is viable. I achieved 20% of the vote in Nehalem, Oregon on an unabashedly revolutionary democracy platform. The Green party got less than 1% nationally. Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, who raised $222,000 for his campaign, won just 2% of the vote in the primary in Baltimore, an urban city.
I was the only person to challenge a Mayoral election in Tillamook County, Oregon. In every city except for Nehalem, the people were given no choice. In nearby Bay City there weren’t enough candidates to fill all of the open city council seats. If an activist had run, she’d have won outright. This signals a tremendous opportunity.
During my campaign, I discovered quite painfully why elections here are traditionally uncontested. My political opponents spread terrible, malicious lies accusing me of Satanism and worse. Rallying under the reactionary slogan "Keep Nehalem, Nehalem" they resorted to bullying and social ostracization against anyone who supported my candidacy. And in the final days before the vote, some turned to overt racism and outright harassment. Now that we know their tactics, we are better prepared to win the next election.
There are two paths forward.
We must double down on showing the good people who already live in rural communities that it is in their family's best interest to demand greater democracy. As we can see in Nehalem, one out of five people is convinced by this message. And it is already changing the way power flows here: now, at least, the people are watching. In January, only one person attended the Nehalem City Council meeting. This week, so many citizens crammed into council chambers that they had to bring out more chairs.
Second, we need urban activists—you!— to relocate into rural America. This is an entryist strategy that requires a leap of faith. It takes courage to uproot your life in pursuit of an ideal. The reward in this case is sovereignty and the power to transform the movement's positive dreams into concrete reality.
If we were to control the city council of Nehalem, for example, we could eradicate hunger in our city; establish a citizen advisory council; and end the disenfranchisement of the vast majority of people who live within Nehalem but outside of Nehalem's city limits and are therefore unable to vote or run for office. This would be just the beginning of a reimagination of democracy that could spread across the world.
When the people have sovereignty, all things are possible.
At the heart of the essential conflict within America is two competing visions of populism. On one side is Populist Authoritarianism, a dangerous regression to charismatic leaders and the perils of the 20th century. On the other side is Populist Horizontalism, a forward-looking people-centric vision of planetary democracy.
This is an invitation to join us in Nehalem, to become our neighbor and to help us as we continue on the uncharted path toward people's democracy.
Only by grace,
— Micah White
OPEN LETTER TO ACTIVISTS
ON THE RESISTANCE TO TRUMP
The astonishing triumph of Donald Trump can be traced to the bitter defeat of Occupy Wall Street, a pro-democracy movement that transcended left and right, sparking unrest in hundreds of rural towns and urban cities in 2011. Occupy’s consensus-based encampments demanded that President Obama get money out of politics but instead we got mercilessly smashed by his progressive administration. Now the dark irony of history is bashing back.
Trump—an uber-wealthy, partially self-financed candidate who promises to “drain the swamp” and whose campaign spent half as much as Hillary Clinton—was elected President just one week before the five year anniversary of Mayor Bloomberg’s paramilitary eviction of the Zuccotti Park encampment.
Crushing the leaderless Occupy movement was an epic strategic blunder that alienated the horizontalist left and populist right away from the centrist establishment. In stark demonstration of her obliviousness, Hillary Clinton prominently featured Bloomberg, one of the wealthiest men in the world and a former Republican, at the Democratic National Convention. No wonder more Democrats voted for Trump than Republicans voted for Clinton.
The nascent Occupy Wall Street-Tea Party alliance that could have developed had the leaderless, populist occupations continued to grow in 2011 was shattered by the establishment. The horizontal left went one way—toward more disruptive street protests—and the populist right went the other: toward an electoral insurrection. It seems that the populists took the correct path to power.
President-elect Trump, a charismatic strongman with an autocratic temperament, is not what millions of Occupiers were dreaming of when we took to the streets against the monied corruption of our democracy. Now, as the nation experiences a disturbing rise of hate crimes against the groups singled out by Trump during his campaign, protests descending into riots are rocking our cities. These visceral protests will undoubtedly continue into 2017. Celebrated progressive Kshama Sawant, a socialist councilwoman in Seattle, has already called on people to disrupt Trump’s inauguration in January.
At the same time, despite the excitement of seeing militants marching in the cities, leftist activist networks are buzzing with the painful realization that contemporary protest is broken. The dominant tactic of getting people into the streets, rallying behind a single demand and raising awareness about an injustice simply does not result in the desired social change.
Nominally democratic governments tolerate protest because elected representatives no longer feel compelled to heed protest. The end of protest is not the absence of protest. The end of protest is the proliferation of ineffective protests that are more like a ritualized performance of children than a mature, revolutionary challenge to the status quo.
Activists who rush into the streets tomorrow and repeat yesterday’s tired tactics will not bring an end to Trump nor will they transfer sovereign power to the people. There are only two ways to achieve sovereignty in this world. Activists can win elections or win wars. There is no third option.
Protest can play an important role in winning elections or winning wars but protest alone is insufficient. Just think of the three years many activists spent on Black Lives Matter versus the 18 months it took Trump to sweep into power. It is magical thinking, and a dangerously misguided strategy, for activists to continue to act as if the masses in the streets can attain a sovereignty over their governments through a collective manifestation of the people’s general will. This may have been true in the past, but is not true today.
What is to be done now? American activists must move from detached indignation to revolutionary engagement by using the techniques of social movement creation to dominate elections.
The path forward is revealed in the rallying cry of the people in the streets: ”Not My President!” This protest slogan is eerily similar to the one used by Spain’s 15-M Movement of indignados who set up anti-establishment general assemblies in May of 2011 and chanted “No Nos Representan!” (“You Don’t Represent Us!”) during their election. Their assembles inspired the birth of Occupy. But when the refusal of the indignados to participate in the election resulted in a shocking victory for Spain’s rightwing, the movement’s activists and supporters quickly internalized an important lesson that American horizontalists must now embrace.
Realizing that new forms of social protest are better equipped to win elections than disrupt elections, many of the indignados transformed themselves into Podemos, a hybrid movement-party that is now winning elections and taking power. A similar story can be told of the Pirate Party in Iceland, or the 5 Star Movement in Italy or the pan-European DiEM25. Focus on the form, not the content, of these hybrid movement-parties for their organizing style is the future of global protest.
Concretely speaking, activists must reorient all efforts around capturing sovereignty. That means looking for places where sovereignty is lightly held and rarely contested, like rural communities. Or targeting sovereign positions of power that are not typically seen as powerful, such as soil and water district boards or port commissions. Protests will remain ineffective as long as there is no movement-party capable of governing locally and nationally.
This is a struggle for sovereignty. The endgame is a horizontalist and populist movement-party that wins elections in multiple countries in order to carry out a unified agenda worldwide. The spark for this planetary electoral movement is bound to emerge from an unexpected place.
It could start from an women-led backlash against the pack of patriarchs governing the globe: Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Duterte in the Philippines, Xi in China and now Trump in America. Or maybe activists will start moving into neglected rural cities—low population areas of America—and prepare to sweep city council elections. That is the strategy I’m pursuing in Nehalem, Oregon where I recently ran for Mayor. In any case, avoid falling for the exhausting delusion of endless urban protest or the nihilistic fantasy of winning an insurrectionary war.
The difficult path of merging innovative protest, social movements and electoral parties is the only viable way forward. And with only two years until the next election in America, there is no time to waste.
— Micah White
an abridged version of this open letter originally appeared on The Guardian