Beginning in September 2011, Micah White and fellow Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn sparked one of the largest protests in modern history: Occupy Wall Street. But today White describes the global movement as little more than a learning experience.
“What it taught us is our theories of social change that underpin contemporary activism are not true,” White said in a telephone interview. “Activists are now faced with coming up with new theories of social change, new tactics, and new ways of trying to effect social change.”
In his new book The End of Protest, White argues that, more than an isolated mistake, the Occupy movement signals a failure of tactics, objectives, and beliefs. What’s required now is a total rethink of activism in the 21st century, he suggests.
“One of the things that I think we tested—that we found out not to be true—is this idea that you can basically build the ideal society, the ideal microcosm, that you don’t need to become the ones in power,” White explained in reference to Occupy camps that sprouted up around the world, including one on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery through October and November of 2011.
The Occupy movement may have given birth to something beautiful in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and hundreds of copycat encampments around the world, White continued, but those isolated pockets where change began were also where it ended.
“Now we are realizing, ‘No, actually, sovereignty can only be achieved through winning wars and winning elections.’ And so social movements need to figure out how to win elections, because I don’t think the war route is very productive.”
The next step is the subject of The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, which spends more time on the future than it does reflecting on Occupy and the past. It’s also the question White plans to discuss next Wednesday (April 13) as part of the Vancouver Writers Fest’s Incite series.
In hindsight, White writes in the book, Occupy’s failure was foretold.
“The anti–Iraq War movement collapsed after its global march on February 15, 2003, the largest synchronized protest in human history, failed to sway President Bush and Prime Minister Blair to halt the pre-emptive war on Iraq,” it reads. “Activists in 2003 believed that if millions of people around the world said no in unison on a single day, war would be impossible. Like Occupy, the anti-war movement vaporized when the theory of social change underlying the movement—that governments will bend if millions of people assemble in the streets, march and make a single demand—was proven ineffective.”
Street protests have become ineffective because they are so predictable, White explained. They are calculated into a government’s decision-making process, with police resources deployed accordingly.
Where does that leave activism? With far-reaching knowledge of protest theory and history, White has specific and tangible ideas.
In Spain, for example, he’s observed a conscious shift where groups that once boycotted elections now field candidates.
“They are building a social movement called Podemos that is winning elections,” he said. “They are starting to become the people in power….When we think, concretely, ‘What is the future of social protest?’, it is precisely that; it is to build social movements that can win political power, that can swing elections.”
What might that look like in North America? What advice would White offer to, for example, a group trying to end police violence against a visible minority?
“I would build a social movement specifically around ousting the person who is currently in charge of appointing the police commissioner or police chief,” he said. “And then I would appoint someone else. Basically, I would become the police.”
A founding member of the Black Lives Matter movement appears to be doing just that. On February 3, DeRay Mckesson declared he was running to become the mayor of Baltimore. “I have come to realize that the traditional pathway to politics, and the traditional politicians who follow these well-worn paths, will not lead us to the transformational change our city needs,” he wrote in a blog post announcing his campaign. “We must challenge the practices that have not and will not lead to transformation.”
Where else might we see this next manifestation of protest hit? What unrest does White see on the horizon?
“I think women are the most oppressed class in the world,” he replied. “We are going to wake up, we are going to look outside one day, and we are going to see women of all ages protesting. Protesting in ways that surprise us, just like the Occupy movement surprised us. And then we are going to see this movement spread globally in a tremendously quick way.”
White encouraged activists to learn from his mistakes.
“It is time for protesters to realize that we can both topple governments and we can become governments,” he said.
Micah White will appear with fellow authors Andrew Nikiforuk and Carrie Saxifrage in the Alice McKay Room of the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch, next Wednesday (April 13), as part of the Vancouver Writers Fest's Incite series.