Is protest broken? Micah White, co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, thinks so. Disruptive tactics have failed to halt the rise of Donald Trump. Movements ranging from Black Lives Matter to environmentalism are leaving activists frustrated. Meanwhile, recent years have witnessed the largest protests in human history. Yet these mass mobilizations no longer change society. Now activism is at a crossroads: innovation or irrelevance.
In The End of Protest Micah White heralds the future of activism. Drawing on his unique experience with Occupy Wall Street, a contagious protest that spread to eighty-two countries, White articulates a unified theory of revolution and eight principles of tactical innovation that are destined to catalyze the next generation of social movements.
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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