Attracting millions of people to the streets no longer guarantees the success of a protest, says Micah White, 33, the cocreator of Occupy Wall Street.
"Occupy was a perfect example of a social movement that should have worked according to the dominant theories of protest and activism. And yet, it failed," says Micah in an interview with Folha de SÃ£o Paulo, the largest daily newspaper in Brazil.[tag]
Micah White argues that the use of violence in protests is effective, but only in the short term. And he argues that learning to use social networks to benefit social movements is one of the greatest challenges of activism. "The biggest risk is becoming spectators of our own protests," he says.
Living in a rural community on the Oregon coast, with about 300 inhabitants, Micah, and his partner Chiara Ricciardone, now run Boutique Activist Consultancy, an activism think tank specializing in impossible campaigns.
Micah was in SÃ£o Paulo, Brazil on May 26th to participate in the launch event of GUME ("Knife Edge"), an engagement agency founded by Regina Augusto.
Micah White: This is the big question and of course I've been thinking about it since the end of Occupy. For me, the Occupy movement was a "constructive failure," which basically means it was a failure that taught us something about activism.
The real benefit of Occupy Wall Street is that it taught us the contemporary ideas and assumptions we have about protests are false. Occupy was a perfect example of how social movements should work. It accorded with the dominant theories of protest and activism: it was a historical event, joined millions of people across demographics from around the world around a series of demands, there was little violence. And yet, the movement failed. So my main conclusion is that activism has been based on a series of false assumptions about what kind of collective behavior creates social change.
F: What are these assumptions?
MW: First, the central idea of contemporary activism: urban protests, with large numbers of people in the streets, primarily secular, and that revolve around a unified demand. The idea is basically, "Look, if we get a million or ten million or a hundred million people in the streets, finally our demands will be met." However, if you look at the last ten, fifteen years, we have had the biggest demonstrations in history. And the protests continue to grow in size and frequency, and yet they have not resulted in political change.
MW: What we learned from Occupy, and also with the Arab Spring, is that revolutions happen when people lose their fear. So I think the main trigger for the next revolutionary movement will be a contagious mood that spreads throughout the world and infects the human community.
For me, the main thing we need to see is activists abandoning a materialistic explanation of revolution--the idea that we need to put people in the streets--and starting to think about how to spread that kind of mood, how to make people see the world in fundamentally different way. That's about it. The future of activism is not about pressuring our politicians through synchronized public spectacles.
F: It's not about pressuring politicians?
MW: No. I think the standard forms of protest have become part of the typical pattern. It's like our protests are expected. And the key is to constantly innovate the way we protest because otherwise it is as if protest is part of the script. It is now expected to have people in the streets, and these crowds will behave in a certain way, and then the police will come and some of the people will be beaten up and arrested. Then the rest will go home. Our participation in this script is based on the false story that the more people you have in the streets the higher your chances of getting social change.
F: Can you explain better what you're proposing?
MW: What I am proposing is a type of activism that focuses on creating a mental shift in people. Basically an epiphany.
In concrete terms, I think there is much potential in the creation of hybrid social movement-political parties that require more complex behaviors of people like running for political office, seeking votes, participating in the city administration.
F: The use of social networks is quite controversial among contemporary activists. Some say it is a key tool to increase the reach of the protests, others say it exposes the movement to monitoring by the authorities. What's your opinion?