When the Wildebeest Learn to Roar, the Lion Fights Dirty: An Evening with Micah White

By Tolulope Awobusuyi for the Ottawa Writer's Festival

Humans do not all live equal lives; history shows this and all sensible philosophers concede this truth. There are strong ones among us: smart, rich, powerful, cunning.

The rest, the strong considers weak, and it seems a given that most injustices perpetrated flow from the “strong” to those they consider “weak”: religious intolerance, tribal and ethnic violence, “casual” sexism, economic instability, Jim Crow. There is also within all humans a sense of justice, that we are all of us entitled to freedom, the realization of our true selves, and possibly, transcendence. It is in valuing these rights that the oppressed lash out at their oppressors. One of the more readily available and viable forms of righting societal wrongs is protest. From the protests of the citizens of Uruk against Gilgamesh’s despotism to the Protestant Reformation to the French Revolution to the British abolition of slavery, the most important injustices have been met with the cries of the oppressed and the will to act against the powers that be.

Consider this: More than half the nations on the face of the earth were birthed out of protest movements; over eighty percent of sub-Saharan Africa was, as were the U.S. and Scotland. Slaves against masters, vassal states against suzerains, the weak wrestle against the strong and break their yokes and the strong either repress or relent. It is simply the world we live in.

Like Spartacus, the Martin Luther namesakes, the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, and the Ekitis of the old Oyo Kingdom in Western Nigeria, Micah White understands this tool and has deployed it to great effect. He is credited as a co-founder of the Occupy Wall Street movement, perhaps the most visible protest movement of the last twenty-five years, and is by extension an uncle to similar uprisings elsewhere. This he has achieved alongside Kalle Lasn, a Vancouver native, using the provocative Adbusters magazine as a launching pad. White, however, considers the Occupy movement a constructive failure, and in a talk given at the Southminster United Church, Ottawa–and further explained in his new book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution—he explains why he holds this opinion and the possible futures of protests in this era.

Here are a few things about Micah White. Thirty-four, he is of mixed heritage–half African-American, half Caucasian– and he speaks in a river’s rumble of a voice. He likes to keep his hair–which is more a young lion’s mane–together using a bandanna. He has been an activist since he was thirteen and in public schools, once founding an atheists’ club and eventually landing on an episode of “Politically Incorrect.”[1] For him the visual imagery of Adbusters, combined with its rich symbolism and creativity, was what drew him to the magazine, and eventually a memo he sent out became the blueprint of the Occupy Wall Street movement. On the eventual fallout between Adbusters and the Occupy movement Micah is reticent.

In Ottawa he speaks of his work with Adbusters and the e-mail that shook the world and engendered protests in at least sixty countries, and he opines that the success of all social movements come from a combination of an established social network, a contagious mood, and creative tactics. He focuses mostly on this contagious mood and in the talk, the Q&A session and his book he is enthusiastic about the role of what he calls “spirit–the inner force that grants patience, perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity.”[2] Like the Luther-named leaders and most of his African-American predecessors, White firmly believes that a spiritual element is key to the success of all protests, and that the very act of protesting is capable of opening doors to transcendence for its participants. The absence of this element is a major critique of his for the Black Lives Matter movement, which to him has lost its way by rejecting the deep spirituality of its predecessors.

An important part of White’s work are his Four Theories of Revolution: voluntarism, which works on the premise of human action being the only way through which lasting change can come and under which most contemporary activists work; structuralism, which teaches the insignificance of human intent on the creation of lasting change and instead credits economic and natural forces for any changes; subjectivism, which teaches that outside change comes from inward change, and; theurgism, a somewhat mystical and largely forgotten theory which credits lasting change to divine intervention. White believes that all four theories are needed for effective protest, and history mostly avers. America’s Founding Fathers, actively seeking to break out from under the British monarchy, invoked divine will, called for human action against the perceived oppressiveness of the monarchy, wrote magnificent works on the “American spirit,” and provoked a British crimping of Boston’s commerce, all of which led to the American Revolutionary War. Nearly two centuries later African-American civil rights movement fought redlining and the Jim Crow economy, borrowed liturgical language from Jewish and Christian canon to state the case for equal rights, marched in the streets, and leveraged whatever economic power they had to see that they and their descendants were guaranteed equal treatment by the US government.

White also sees the current forms of protest as largely corrupted by the media and contemporary activists who prefer online rants to actual grunt work. He derides the degradation of protest into performance art, an inevitable occurrence given the way such protests are covered by media conglomerates as expressions of mostly-youthful belligerence, often with insidious racial, religious and ideological undertones. Conversely, he criticizes online activism as a form of narcissistic justification without, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it, “skin in the game.” He is right to put it that way, however unpleasant it may sound. The rise of hashtag activism and “spreading awareness” campaigns do little to confront actual, lived realities as much as comfort the keyboard warrior that one has played a part by “supporting” a cause, however far removed an individual’s immediate reality actually is from said cause. Awareness of a given injustice is a byproduct of the work done to right that injustice and should never be the goal nor a tool of any protest group, he argues.

Since he considers most of contemporary activism either too deeply rooted in certain ideologies to be pragmatic or just plain ineffectual, White looks to the rural areas, feminist activism, and protest-bots for the future of activism. These possible hotbeds have largely been overlooked, he says, and he is convinced that the perceptions of bourgeois and liberal urbanites of the rural communities as largely conservative and racist hotbeds are misguided. Rural communities are well aware the way the wind blows the world, he says, and because of the ineffectiveness of the urban, liberal-leaning left it will be they who will eventually decide how the world reacts to the winds of change. He also envisions a global female movement fighting for women’s rights the world over as a welcome future of protest, and he believes in the use of technological advances to further activist causes. However, the excessive presence of a thing inevitably signals its devaluation, and he argues that the ubiquitous nature of the Internet has served as a double-edged sword for protest movements in these times. Protest should never be easy, he says, admitting to being scared every time he has to protest.

The key to understanding Micah White and his work lies at the intersection of the mystical and the physical realities and his reasoned understanding of the machinations of our world. While his work has shown how potent human activity can be in creating global change he is keenly aware of a spiritual input to the success of his work and in no unclear terms states that all protest is fundamentally spiritual. He is loath to completely endorse one given worldview, preferring to learn as much as he can from all and adapt as needed, chameleon-like. But perhaps the deepest truth we can glean from White’s important work, no less an unhappy truth, is that protest without backing power is limited in its possibilities. An example: the global antiwar march of February 15, 2003. In an interview with Justin Campbell of the Los Angeles Review of Books, White points out the naïve assumptions made by the protesters who assumed that large numbers of protesters corresponded to increased influence over President Bush’s decisions[3]. The age of mass marches and public protest as the ley tools for effective change is drawing to a close, he argues, citing the failures of the People’s Climate March to achieve any meaningful results concerning climate change and the more recent Black Lives Matter movement to stem the nationwide killing of young black males in the U.S., amongst others.

It is the way of the world that the strong mostly win, and that the perceived weak are entertainment for the strong. But protest against injustice all humans must, remembering it is also the way of the world that few lions can survive repeated kicks to the head from a wildebeest’s hoof.

This was written by Tolulope Awobusuyi for the Ottawa Writer's Festival


[1] Mattathias Schwartz (2011, November 28) “Pre-Occupied”. The New Yorker. Retrieved March 21, 2016.

[2] Micah White (2016). The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution.

[3] Justin Campbell (2015, September 17). “The Challenge of Protest in Our Time. Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved March 21, 2016

Source: http://www.writersfestival.org/blog/when-t...