An Activist’s Confession

An Activist’s Confession April 4, 2017

Micah White of Occupy’s confession:

You’ve gone from trying to look at the big picture, global “We are the 99 percent,” stop the money in politics, end corporate greed down to 280 people. Why go small?

I think one of the things about being an activist is what you have to do is you have to first create a theory of social change and then also you have to test it out. Occupy Wall Street tested out a grand theory of social change, which was basically, “If you can get millions of people into the streets, largely non-violent, and unified behind a central message, then change will have to happen.” I think we spread to 82 countries. It was amazing. And it didn’t work.

In that constructive failure I re-assessed and I was like, “You know, I think the reason it didn’t work was because there’s something fundamentally broken about protest.” I ended up moving to small town Oregon and realizing, “Here’s another theory of how social change could happen.”

There’s certainly debate about Occupy’s overall impact, but ultimately, both in your book (The End Of Protest: A New Playbook For Revolution) and in your talks, you seem to come down pretty firmly on one side of that debate, as someone who helped co-found it and get it started. You see it as a failure.

This is the fundamental thing. I think one of the problems with contemporary activism is that we’ve really lowered our horizon of possibility. We’ve really changed what we think success is. If you look at the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries, what did success mean as a political activist, a political revolutionary? It meant the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution, or the American Revolution. Taking control of one’s government, changing the way power functions.

Success now has become something like getting a lot of people to hear about my meme. Or changing the discourse. We changed the discourse. We trained a whole new generation of activists, but we didn’t change how power functions. That’s what our real goal was. I think that’s an indictment of contemporary activism. We spread to 82 countries faster than any social movement has ever spread that fast. And it didn’t work. I think it’s really important as an activist to constantly learn from one’s past failures. I think a lot of activists don’t want to learn from Occupy Wall Street.

When I look at activism in the six years since Occupy, they’re repeating the same mistake over and over and over again. We have become obsessed with the spectacle of street protests, and we have started to ignore the reality that we are getting no closer to power. You would think that with the triumph of Trump there would be a fundamental reassessment among activists. But there hasn’t been. They’ve just doubled down on the same behaviors!

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