How to rally Women's March spirit into action
CONNIE WALKER: Micah White, I want to go to you. You received a call from one of the women's march organizers after Trump was elected. What did she say to you in that phone call?
MICAH WHITE: Yeah. It was one of these like really kind of amazing conversations because I think she really saw basically the future. I mean this is a person who, she heard the original idea for the march and she jumped on it. She created a Facebook page which was later then merged into the massive Facebook page. She's watching hundreds of thousands of women sign up to this Facebook page and she calls me and she says you know I'm concerned and I'm like why are you concerned? She says I'm concerned because I just feel like what if this one day march, what happens next? What happens after this? You know I just think that maybe this isn't enough. And we talked a lot and what we really agreed on is that this could be the birth of a movement that actually takes power, but only if we can imagine a kind of women's march morphing into a women's movement that becomes kind of like a women's party. You know a global women's party. And that was the kind of idea that excited both of us. And that’s I think where, I think ultimately the edge of the women's march is going to have to go is realizing that protest alone will not give us power. We have to combine protests with winning elections and that is going to take more than just—it's going to be harder, I think, than anything that we've done but I think it’s the only solution.
CW: Well, I mean your experience with Occupy Wall Street—you have firsthand experience knowing what it's like to watch a protest movement stall in that way. Like what are the concrete things that this women's march or the people who were involved in this women march need to do to avoid the same fate?
MICAH WHITE: That's a really good question. I mean I think that the most important thing to realize as an activist is that every time you protest, what you're actually doing is you're testing a theory of social change. Okay? And so when we were protesting with Occupy Wall Street, we were testing basically this theory that if you can set up Democratic assemblies in the streets and if you’re largely nonviolent and have millions of people around the world—I mean we spread to 82 countries—millions of people join you, then somehow your elected representatives will have to listen to you because you manifest some sort of higher form of democracy, a higher form of sovereignty. That's not true. So the number one thing for people to realize is that protest alone doesn't give the people power. There is no constitutional requirement that Trump has to listen to protests if they exceed a certain size, et cetera. There's only two ways to gain political power in our world right now and that's to win elections or win wars. Those are the only two ways. And protests can be used very effectively to win elections and it can be used to win wars. And I think that moving forward, the only viable option is to win elections. So we have to figure out how do we take social movements and use them to win elections? That's really what activists need to be thinking about is these questions of sovereignty and getting beyond the idea that just protesting in the streets is enough.
CW: The one thing that I mean, just looking at the signs of the women's march, it was really obvious there was a lot, obviously a lot of people, a lot of diversity in terms of the different priorities and goals that people had in motivating themselves to get to go to the march. How do you organize that kind of diversity within a movement? I mean I assume that was something that you grappled with with the Occupy Wall Street protest, Micah.
MICAH WHITE: Yeah. Okay. So I think that the number one thing to realize is that one of the dominant kind of theories about why protest fails is a lot of people think well, protests fail when they lack a specific demand. And I actually really push back against that. I think it's really important to realize that we had a global—on February 15, 2003—we had a global anti-war march which was huge. It was like the women's march. I mean I don't know if it was as big, but it was basically the largest human protest that ever happened up until that day. And so it didn't work. Even though there was millions of people in the streets with one very clear demand which was no to the war, I think that the thing is it's not whether or not you have a specific demand or not. It's more about are you orienting in the correct direction? The reason why the anti-war march failed is the same reason why Occupy Wall Street failed which is there is no path to power. The anti-war protesters said no to the war. But you know it was up to the president and prime minister to decide if there was going to be a war. That's how it works. And so the thing is it’s okay to have these amorphous goals. The trick is to how to orient it towards an actually viable strategy because if we were able to actually elect a social movement into power like they're doing with Podemos in Spain, then we would actually be able to resolve all these different issues. We would actually be able to pass legislation on all the different things that protesters want on the street. So it's okay that there's multiple issues. It's more about how do we actually get into a position of power though?
CW: So let me ask you then. As a follow up, first step, the march organizers are asking people to send postcards to their senators voicing their concerns. Do you think that's an effective tactic?
MICAH WHITE: No, I’m going to be quite honest with you. I think that's garbage and I think that that totally underestimates the militancy of the people in the crowds. I mean I just wrote this article for The Guardian and it got shared almost 200,000 times and a lot of people pointed to the last paragraph where I put forward this idea that I had discussed with the co-creator of the women's march which is a woman's party. You know and I think that sending postcards and all of this kind of, any sort of behaviour that's predicated on putting pressure on our elected representatives and this kind of stuff, I just think that's really missing the boat and I think it's a wasted opportunity and it actually makes me really sad because we have to be honest. It could be quite possible that the women's march, in one month, people don't even really remember it. Okay? It sounds impossible right now because it sounds so big and it was so amazing. But power could slip through the fingers very easily and it made me really quite upset actually.
—This interview originally aired on CBC's The Current
Without a path from protest to power, the Women's March will end up like Occupy
Social activists have succumbed to one of the most enduring myths of contemporary American protest. It’s time to consider what happens the day after, writes Micah White in this urgent strategic briefing.
Shortly after Donald Trump’s shock election victory, I received an urgent call from one of the co-creators of the Women’s March on Washington. She was concerned at a moment you might expect her to be ecstatic. Hundreds of thousands of women in 17 countries had already signed on in solidarity, and the numbers kept growing. Yet despite the tremendous momentum, she confessed a nagging skepticism about the effectiveness of the protest.
“I’m not that interested in the march itself but in what comes afterwards,” Fontaine Pearson confided to me. I admire her candor because I know it takes courage to voice such a concern. It is her difficult question – what comes the day after? – that every supporter of the Women’s March should be earnestly figuring out today.
Without a clear path from march to power, the protest is destined to be an ineffective feelgood spectacle adorned with pink pussy hats.
It is exciting when a protest meme leaps from social networks to the streets, capturing the imagination of millions, prompting this very website to proclaim that the forthcoming protest could be among the biggest in American history and Vogue to commission glitzy photos of the core organizers dressed up like Eileen Fisher models. But it is all too easy to succumb to the false hope that a big splash is a transformative tsunami.
Don’t be fooled. It is not. I’ve been there, as the co-creator of a raucous pro-democracy meme that inspired months of Occupy protests in 82 countries. And I can tell you that raising awareness and getting media attention is never enough. Frankly, neither brings the people closer to sovereign power.
For all those who want the Women’s March to be the start of an enduring revolutionary movement, here is my advice on how to increase the odds.
Know your history: let’s go back to 1789
On 5 October 1789, during the earliest days of what would become the French Revolution, a mob of women materialized on the streets of Paris. Some historians say it was spontaneous, others that it was planned. Regardless, we know that the furious women, desperately hungry from bread shortages in the city, descended on the Hôtel de Ville, the seat of municipal government, and demanded to speak to the mayor. The national guard refused them entry but also refused to fire on them and so the women burst through the police line, ransacked city hall and raided the armory.
Now armed with swords and cannons, the crowd of protesters grew to more than 7,000 female insurrectionaries. Suddenly a far more revolutionary goal was adopted: a Women’s March on Versailles, where King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette where hosting a series of lavish banquets for royalist soldiers.
It the first protest march of women in modern history, and it was also the most effective. When the revolutionary women arrived at Versailles, they broke into the palace, murdered two guardsmen and attempted to enter the queen’s bedchamber before ultimately forcing King Louis XVI and his entourage to march with the crowd – now 60,000 strong – back to Paris.
The Women’s March on Versailles was a literal and forceful assertion of the people’s sovereignty over the king. It was a defining moment in the revolutionary history of democracy. As the historian William Doyle explains: “Louis XVI never returned to Versailles … All open attempts on the king’s part to resist the reform of France now came to an end.” The National Assembly was led to Paris shortly after and legislative decision-making power was eventually fully captured by the people. Democratic revolutionaries executed King Louis XVI by guillotine less than four years later.
The day after the women marched on Versailles was the definitive point of no return for the French Revolution. And let’s not forget that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was also initially sparked, as Leon Trotsky recalls in his definitive history, by a defiant women’s protest.
The lesson here is that protesting grandmothers, daughters and mothers have the unique power to do what male protesters cannot – such as break through a line of national guard bayonets without being fired upon. And for this reason, women will always play a foundational role in the great revolutions to come, but only when they take matters into their own hands, act unexpectedly and viscerally, and focus their collective energy on the only target that matters: concretely establishing the power of the people over their governments.
Ignore repeated failures and change tactics
The original Women’s March on Versailles involved women using direct action to force the king to listen to the people’s demands. Today’s Women’s March is entirely symbolic.
No one would ever dare to call for an insurrectionary march on Trump Tower with the goal of physically dragging the president-elect and his family out of their penthouse. No one says the Women’s March on Washington should ransack the White House or occupy Congress and appoint themselves legislators. Instead, we organize a well-publicized spectacle and hope he will listen from within his palatial accommodations.
If you’re showing up at the Women’s March on 21 January in the hopes that the world will be different on 22 January, then you need to think seriously about the goal of marching.
As a general rule, before you protest, ask yourself why this is one of your chosen forms of action. Question your tactics, not your motives. In this case, the obvious first question for any activist ought to be: why deploy a communal march in the streets as a form of protest?
Sometimes, the people march. Other times we hold general assemblies, tar and feather opponents, occupy pipelines, go on strike, dance in a circle, riot in the streets or pray together. In each case, behind every act of protest is an often unarticulated theory of social change: a story we tell ourselves about why the disobedient behavior we’ve chosen will usher in the change we desire.
So why are women marching the day after Donald Trump becomes president? It all comes down to a false theory of how the people can assert sovereign power over their elected president in 2017.
Today’s social activists have succumbed to one of the most enduring myths of contemporary American protest: the comforting belief that if you can get enough people into the streets from diverse demographics, largely unified behind a clear message, then our representatives will be forced to heed the crowd’s wishes.
If this story has ever been true, and I’m not so sure it has, then it hasn’t been the case since 1963, when 250,000 people marched on Washington for “jobs and freedom” and heard Martin Luther King Jr deliver his I Have a Dream speech. Less than a year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin” in employment and housing.
But let’s be real: there are countless counter-examples of marches on Washington that failed: the 1913 march of women to demand the right to vote, the 1978 march for the Equal Rights Amendment, the 1986 Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament, the Million Man March of 1995, the 2004 March for Women’s Lives, the inauguration protests against George W Bush’s second term in 2005 … the list is practically endless. Activists have a tendency to ignore repeated failure in favor of overemphasizing one or two anomalous minor victories.
The absolute failure of the 15 February 2003 anti-war protest, the largest synchronized global march in human history, was the last gasp of this tactic. Today’s nominally democratic governments would be more concerned by the absence of our marches, as that might suggest something darker is in the works.
The only way to attain sovereignty – the supreme authority over the functioning of our government – is to use social protest to win elections or win wars. Either we can march to the ballot box or the battleground; there is no third option.
To the ballot box, then: prepare to govern
That Trump was elected demonstrates that an anti-establishment outsider can sweep into power through elections – a fact activists should learn from and begrudgingly celebrate.
Before Trump’s victory, it was widely assumed that a candidate without the backing of the establishment could not possibly win a presidential election. Good news: now we know that it is possible. It is finally conceivable that a revolutionary movement beholden to the people could take power in America by winning elections and without violence.
I suspect the Women’s March on Washington has a role to play in this unfolding drama, but only if we cultivate a few moments of detachment from the thoughtless excitement to truly take time to consider this question: what happens on the day after the women march?
Right now, in America, there is no pro-democracy anti-establishment party that is capable of stepping forward, seizing power and governing. America needs a protest movement like Spain’s Podemos, Iceland’s Pirate Party or Italy’s 5 Star Movement. These populist democratic movements are the prototype for the future of protest. Each has achieved surprising electoral victories in a short time, but what is more important is how they are changing the way power functions.
Consider, for example, what happened when Virginia Raggi, a member of the anti-corruption 5 Star Movement, was elected mayor of Rome in 2016 only to be embroiled in her own corruption scandal. The movement didn’t make excuses. Instead, the Five Star Movement very swiftly asserted its sovereignty over its candidate and stripped Raggi of the power to make appointments and other “important decisions” without the movement’s approval. This represents a leap forward in people power: a concrete example of a social movement winning elections while still retaining a firm grip on decision-making power. Bravo!
The number one challenge standing in the way of an effective protest in America today is the inability of our social movements to actually govern. There might be a slight chance our protests could oust Trump, but there is no chance that our present-day movements could govern at all, let alone effectively.
That is because leaderless protesters don’t know how to make complex decisions together as movement. Occupy couldn’t even come up with its one demand.
Now we are seeing this capacity slowly develop among protest movements in Europe. However, until we can replicate their successes in America, the people will never be able to take back sovereignty and our protests remain an exercise in infantile futility.
And that is the great gift that the Women’s March on Washington could give us. May the angry women return home the day after the march to lead us toward a women-led hybrid movement-party in every state that is disciplined enough to govern, militantly local and single-mindedly devoted to actualizing a force capable of seizing control of city councils and mayorships during midterm elections across America in preparation for an electoral coup against the presidency in 2020.
Now that would be a goal worth marching toward.
— Micah White, originally published by The Guardian on January 19, 2017