- The most important thing we learned from the constructive failure of Occupy Wall Street is that social movements are born when two things happen. One, when there is a new tactic that arises that unlocks the people’s collective hope and imagination. And two, when a new kind of mood spreads throughout society. For example, during the Arab Spring, a Tunisian fruit seller set himself on fire, triggering a mood of fearlessness that spread all over the world. People were no longer afraid of the authorities or of losing their jobs and rushed into the streets to protest. And at the same time, with Occupy Wall Street, we gave the people a new tactic which was the combination of the acampadas with the Tahrir Uprising: let’s go into the financial districts and set up consensus-based assemblies. The combination of these two ingredients is the formula for social movement creation.
- There is a detrimental narrative that activists like to repeat which is that everything is a success. We like to tell each other that Occupy wasn't defeated, it just splintered into a thousand shards of light. And you know, that is a positive story, but it is not actually the truth. And false positivity won't get us closer to an effective revolutionary strategy. The truth is that Occupy set out to achieve very specific goal: to end the power of money over our democracies. And we failed. So I call Occupy Wall Street a constructive failure because in failing it revealed the limitations of contemporary activism. The movement was not a total failure, it did achieve some things and it did have some positive outcomes. But it was a constructive failure because it showed us that our methods of protesting and our theories of activism are false.
Occupy Wall Street gave birth to a new generation of activists. It made activism cool again; it made protesting cool again. And I think a lot of those people, and the ethos of Occupy, filtered into Black Lives Matter. But at the same time—and I totally support Black Lives Matter—if I could give a gentle criticism of the movement, I think that Black Lives Matter learned the wrong lesson from the constructive failure of Occupy Wall Street. The truth is that Occupy Wall Street did not fail because we weren’t disruptive enough. Occupy didn't fail because we didn't block enough streets during rush hour. Occupy failed because contemporary protest is based on false assumptions. The number one false assumption is that if you can get millions of people into the streets and be disruptive and have a unified message then our elected representatives will have to listen to us. Occupy Wall Street completely demolished that assumption. We had occupations in 82 countries, we had millions of people in the streets and Obama did not even mention the movement until we were evicted from Zuccotti. So we learned that our elected representatives do not have to listen to street protests: they are not required by the Constitution, they are not required by any sort of law. In fact, they can ignore us because protesting has become part of the daily work of the state. Protests happen and they manage protests and protests are irrelevant to the daily decisions that are being made. The continued reliance on disruptive protest tactics, like blocking traffic, demonstrates that Black Lives Matter learned the wrong lesson from the constructive failure of Occupy Wall Street.
Black Lives Matter actually represents a regression from the planetary perspective of Occupy Wall Street. I think what Occupy achieved is that we created a social movement that linked up with all the global struggles simultaneously: the people in Spain’s indignados movement, the people in the Arab Spring, we were all fighting the same struggle. And that was the most beautiful thing about Occupy Wall Street. We were part of a global social movement. And I see Black Lives Matter as a kind of a regression back to national social movements and a return to national concerns and American-centric politics. We need to keep imagining global social movements because that really is the future of protest.
Here is something most people don’t consider: why was one of the greatest social movements in recent American history created by a Canadian magazine? Why didn't the call for Occupy Wall Street emerge from an American activist organization? And the answer is that American activism is fatally risk adverse. Too risk adverse to call for something like Occupy Wall Street. It is important to remember that people died during Occupy. A person died in Oakland, another person died in Vancouver and there were other deaths of participants in our movement. And that is a really intense truth and responsibility. Occupy Wall Street was one of the most grassroots movements that America has ever had precisely because it was started in Canada: we relied on local activists in New York City and beyond. Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters, and I did not go to Zuccotti and try to direct things. Occupy’s origin within a Canadian magazine actually amplifies its grassrootedness.
Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street are the manifestation of a collective awakening. Social movements are moments when people suddenly wake up and something that has been happening all the time—like police shooting black people—suddenly becomes something that is no longer tolerated. Or, with the example of Occupy, the fact that corporations were giving unlimited campaign donations to elections suddenly became intolerable. So these movements are manifestations of collective awakenings, collective epiphanies. And we’re going to continue to see these collective awakenings. But the challenge now is how will these social movements become more effective. How will these movements use protest in ways that are even more effective?
Black Lives Matter did not fully internalize why Occupy Wall Street failed. The next social movement that truly understands why Occupy failed will be more powerful than both Occupy and Black Lives Matter.
One of the things that Occupy Wall Street was unable to do was develop the processes of complex decision making. If you look at the original poster for Occupy Wall Street, you’ll see that it says at the top: “What is our one demand?” Well the movement was never able to figure out its one demand because our general assemblies were not able to agree on a one demand. But at the same time, I think you must distinguish between revolutionary aims and reformist aims. A revolutionary aim for Black Lives Matter would be to become the force that appoints the police, to become the force that controls the police. Whereas a reformist aim would be something like putting body-cameras on the police. We need to dream even bigger than reform. One of the problems of contemporary activism is that we’re dreaming at a low level. Black Lives Matter can achieve something even greater that body-cameras. It can achieve something like being the President or maybe even being the President of multiple countries. A social movement is going to arise that will win elections in multiple countries in order to carry out its agenda globally.
We have prototypes of this World Party in Europe. We have the 5 Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain. The difference between what they’re doing and what we’re going to see next is that we’re going to have global social movements that spread across borders—like we saw with Occupy Wall Street—but that these movements will win elections in multiple countries. Protest will be used not to influence elected representatives, but to win elections. One way to imagine how this could happen is to place all of the elections of the world in chronological order. Then you’d build a social movement that didn’t happen simultaneously around the world but happened, instead, sequentially around the world, leaping from election to election.
Black Lives Matter, or the movement that comes next, needs to figure out how to be both a social movement and a political party. We need to become the ones in power rather than protesting the ones in power.
There are some things about Black Lives Matter that are more advanced than Occupy Wall Street. And one aspect that is more advanced is that for Occupy the tactic was synonymous with the movement. So once the tactic of occupy stopped working then Occupy Wall Street was defeated. Whereas with Black Lives Matter, it is smarter not to have your movement be synonymous with a specific tactic. Instead, the movement is synonymous with its message.
There have been large scale protests and revolutions every generation. And we have records of revolutions going back to ancient Egypt where there is a papyrus that talks about the king being overthrown by the poor people. Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter are all episodes in a multi-thousand year uprising that has been going on since the beginning of inegalitarian society. And during Occupy, we were very consciously channeling the spirit of the Arab Spring. And I think that Black Lives Matter very consciously channeled the spirit of Occupy Wall Street. And there will be another movement that will channel the spirit of Black Lives Matter into its movement. This is how we pass along the torch of revolution. It is a beautiful thing.
The intensity of the protests are increasing and the frequency of the protests are increasing too. But I want to push back and say: I don’t know if the effectiveness of the protests is increasing. And that is one of the core messages of my book, THE END OF PROTEST. The frequency and intensity might be increasing but is the effectiveness? And that is something that, as activists, we really need to be careful about. There have always been protests and there will always be protests. It is easy to settle for just protesting but we also need to be concerned with whether these protests are working to achieve revolutionary social transformation. At the same time, the only way to overcome a broken paradigm of protest is to replace it with a new paradigm of protest—critique is not enough to spark a revolution. And that is the task I've set for myself with THE END OF PROTEST: I've tried to go beyond critique to develop a new unified theory of revolution, and a method of tactical innovation, that will be the foundation for the next planetary revolution.
—Micah White lives in Nehalem, Oregon