Micah White - an architect of Occupy movement

By Carolyn Said Published December 5, 2011 in the San Francisco Chronicle

As a teenager, Micah White faced insults and intimidation when he started an atheists' club at his Michigan high school.

This year, White, now 29 and a Berkeley resident, has found a more receptive climate for his ideas.

In collaboration with a colleague at the anticonsumerist magazine Adbusters, White conceptualized and ignited a worldwide mass movement: Occupy Wall Street.

White, a senior editor at Adbusters, and Kalle Lasn, 69, its editor in chief, came up with the idea of an American version of Egypt's Tahrir Square protests. They started using the Twitter hashtag #OccupyWallStreet and developed a striking poster of a ballerina atop Wall Street's famous bull sculpture.

They also set the date - Sept. 17 - for the protest's launch.

In mid-July, they sent an e-mail blast to Adbusters subscribers and sympathizers - whom they call "our 90,000-strong 'culture-jammer' global network of activists, artists and rabble-rousers" - and then watched as the idea caught fire.

"Normal campaigns are lots of drudgery and not much payoff, like rolling a snowball up a hill," White, who declined to be interviewed for this article, told the New Yorker last month. "This was the reverse."

Adbusters, which Lasn co-founded in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1989, has long called for citizens to protest corporate dominance. Packed with in-your-face images - Joe Camel reimagined as Joe Chemo - and equally provocative articles, the magazine promotes social activism campaigns, such as Buy Nothing Day as an antidote to the excesses of Black Friday.

Ideas take off

But it was only this year, as a brutal economic downturn continued to ravage, that its message found worldwide resonance.

"They threw out an idea that people rallied around, and it took off; it's amazing," said David Meyer, a professor of sociology and political science at UC Irvine who studies social movements.

Why now? "Conventional politics really seem to have failed people. Working within institutions didn't seem to be the most promising route," Meyer said.

White and Lasn, who haven't met face-to-face for four years, according to the New Yorker, are quick to say that Occupy is leaderless and democratic, but they e-mail frequent suggestions on strategies and tactics to Occupy listservs.

Some of those suggestions are ignored. The movement makes its decisions through general assemblies, where the Adbusters ideas don't have any extra traction. White and Lasn urged protesters to focus on a single, crystal-clear message, for instance, but didn't persuade them to do so.

Some Occupy protesters think White and Lasn shouldn't be singled out as the movement's godfathers, in part because they weren't active in the encampments.

"To credit them with sparking this is only half the story," said Matt Renner, a veteran of Occupy Wall Street. "The other half is the work on the ground of organizers, people who actually made this happen, came up with real plans, executed them and had the bravery to stay in the park until other people started paying attention."

Others say that the Adbusters editors are no longer relevant to Occupy.

'Power is bottom-up'

"The movement has a life of its own now," said Alexandre M.S. Carvalho, a doctor from Brazil who has been part of Occupy Wall Street general assemblies since mid-August. "The power is bottom-up here. In the actualization of everything post-Sept. 17, I would say the role (White and Lasn) play is minimal. They send tactical briefs, but few read them. They are not thought leaders."

Nonetheless, White has proposed a range of goals he thinks Occupy should seek. Most are ideas already popular in progressive circles - restore the Glass-Steagall Act to separate commercial banks from investment banks; revoke corporate personhood, perhaps through a constitutional amendment; impose a "Robin Hood" tax on financial transactions to fund social welfare programs; set up a presidential commission to limit the role of money in politics.

White, who has a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Swarthmore, contacted Lasn for a job after graduation, according to the New Yorker. He moved with his wife to Berkeley a couple of years ago from Binghamton, N.Y., and told the New Yorker that he walks daily to UC Berkeley's Doe Library, where he can concentrate on work in an electronics-free zone.

Berkeley critic

White doesn't seem enchanted with life in the liberal bastion. In various essays, he decries Berkeley's trendy shops for fostering consumerism, mocks the "bankruptcy of leftism" among its intellectuals and blasts home-grown progressive group MoveOn.org for "ruining leftist activism" with its "clicktivism" model inspired by corporate marketing.
With the Occupy encampments largely disbanded nationwide, how the movement will keep its momentum is a subject of frequent speculation. White and Lasn spelled out their thoughts on next steps in a Washington Post opinion piece last month.

"What will be new is the marked escalation of surprise, playful, precision disruptions - rush-hour flash mobs, bank occupations, 'occupy squads' and edgy theatrics," they wrote. "And we will see clearly articulated demands emerging ... and perhaps even the birth of a new, left-right hybrid political party that moves America beyond the Coke vs. Pepsi choices of the past.

"We will regroup, lick our wounds, brainstorm and network all winter. We will build momentum for a full-spectrum counterattack when the crocuses bloom next spring."