An Interview with Micah White

Adam Rothman


Micah White will be presenting the Opening Address, titled “The End of Protest”, at WAC 2018. I spoke with him briefly in advance of the conference to give a preview of his opening address.  

Micah White, PhD is a public intellectual and lifelong activist who co-created Occupy Wall Street, a global social movement that spread to 82 countries, while an editor of Adbusters magazine. White’s first book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, was published in 2016. He has been a featured guest on major network television shows such as Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, the BBC’s Newsnight and The National. In recognition of his contributions, Esquire has named him one of the most influential young thinkers alive today.

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What are you working on now?

I’m starting a online school for activists. I got two grants from foundations to start the Graduate School of Activism. The idea is that activists who wanted to go deeper can take online classes from other activists. It’s one of the first online schools exclusively for the study of activism and actually taught by activists themselves.

 

What is the legacy of Occupy Wall Street today?

When occupy happened the whole world was protesting. The Arab Spring was ongoing in the Middle East, people were protesting in Spain, Occupy spread to 82 countries. At that time almost the whole world was protesting. It was a magical time. Now in 2018, there is protest happening but not with the same intensity and feeling that we can impact dramatic change. One of the impacts of occupy is it tested our theory about activism and one of the gifts of occupy is it made us more self critical. So that’s what the legacy is, it frees us from having to create another Occupy.

 

What are your thoughts of the NFL Kneeling protest?

It gets back to the question of how do you think change will be achieved. A protest like kneeling is an example of subjectivism- the idea that we can change the world by changing how people see it. It’s not like players are thinking if we kneel we can actually become the government of the United States. Somehow by kneeling we change how people think about injustice in America. I think it’s fine, I would never “poo poo” on someones activism. But at the same time, I feel like I don’t have much patience for protest that is oriented simply around the symbolic. And so I think it’s a good thing but that alone will not make the world a better place. I wish I could believe that, but I’ve been an activist since I was 13 years old and I think you need to go much further than kneeling in the NFL.

 

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange recently tweeted, “Bitcoin is the real occupy wall street.” What are your thoughts on that?

I think cryptocurrencies are super interesting and if I were a highschool student I would be talking about becoming a crypto currency day trader or smart contract programmer. The creator of bitcoin actually wrote into the original coding a reference to the 2008 financial collapse. It happened around the same time of the birth of occupy wall street. There are a lot ideological similarities in bitcoins origins, though it has changed a bit today. It’s also arguably the world’s most unequal monetary system- the distribution of wealth is even worse than the US dollar. There are a smaller number of people who hold the vast majority of bitcoin wealth. I think occupy truly did want to create a better world but I don’t think bitcoin itself will create a better world. Just like the internet- we thought the internet would magically create a better world just by existing and now we are at a point where aren’t even sure facebook is helping the world. So I’m at a point where I’m not convinced bitcoin will make the world a better place, but it is definitely the future.

People don’t rise up when they’re terrified, they rise up when they lose their fear

Is Donald Trump good or bad for protest?

There’s this one narrative that goes back decades, this idea that if things get really bad everyone is gonna start protesting so in a way it’s good if things are bad. This is actually a very dangerous idea and if you go back to the rise of fascism in Germany, the communists said that workers will revolt because things are so bad under fascism, and of course that never happened. People don’t rise up when they’re terrified, they rise up when they lose their fear. It’s not Trump that’s the problem with protest- he’s just the symptom. I don’t think there are many people protesting Donald Trump who actually want to overthrow and then replace him. So everyone loves to hate on trump but no one wants to replace him. Is he good or bad for protest? He stimulates protest but I don’t think he’s good in that protesting him will lead us to create a better world.

High school students have this amazing capacity to do activism and largely not suffer the consequences

What is the role of young people in protest and activism?

I started doing activism even before high school. When I was 17 I did a campaign that got on national television. High school students have this amazing capacity to do activism and largely not suffer the consequences. You kinda get a pass. I was suspended from school but it wasn’t a big deal and I got into college anyway. The advantage of a young person is that you’re free to experiment and you don’t need to have all the answers. When you’re older, people expect you to know everything, but when you’re young you can just be like “I’m testing this out.” I also think there’s a dangerous side where our culture worships youth and tells young people you’re actually the vanguard of the revolution, that you’re the face of protest. I think that can be destructive in a certain sense because power in our world is actually held by 60 year olds. So young people should be able to experiment but it shouldn’t get to your head- think of it in the long term towards change- this isn’t the peak now.

 

Come hear more at WAC…