Why Protests Fail: Micah White ’04 discusses the End of Protest

Micah White ‘04, a key organizer in the Occupy Wall Street movement, came to speak at Swarthmore on Thursday regarding the effectiveness of street demonstrations.

He preluded the speech with remarks on discomfort. “I look for ideas that make me slightly uncomfortable […] instead of running away from uncomfortableness, I take note of it,” White said. 

In addressing the title of his talk, as is the reason most of the audience was in attendance that evening, he broke down the words of his title:

“What are we trying to achieve?” White inquired of the audience. Protest is the behavior activists believe will enact change.

Secondly, regarding failure, White asked, “What is success?” He explained that revolution is success and is “a legal regime change.”

He moved on to question where the revolutions are that are supposed to come on the heels of such protest movements such as Black Lives Matter, Anti-Iraq War protests, and the Women’s March.

With the assistance of a nifty parable, White insisted that in order to ensure the efficacy of revolution-making, one must “develop a social theory of revolution”

The most common form of revolution is “voluntarism”, according to White, where humans seek to intersect their lives with the essence of the material world. Activists must diverge from the traditional aspect of intersecting humanity with that of earthly wealth.

White then provided some common reasons for “ineffective protests,” some of which being police repression, too few people, lack of sufficient disruption, and lack of demands put forth.

The missing link? A lack of leaders, as well as a lack of movements with “a deeper need for decision-making.” Furthermore, White explains that tact is important in constructing revolutions, specifically through asking the question “What are we doing?” The social contract theory claims that sovereignty is passed on either through elections or war. The latter is not acceptable, according to White. Through various movements like Podemos in Spain, 5-Star in Italy, or the Pirate Party in Iceland, protest via electoral power with a globalized focus seems to be the most potent form of revolution.

An audience member asked: “Is revolution about reforming capitalism or going beyond it?”

White replied by citing Marxism’s inevitability of revolution and the necessity of showing the people the benefit of revolution at a given time.

After his talk, White answered some more personal questions.

On why he came back to Swarthmore, White said “I came back for my 10-year reunion. It’s been a touching experience, and I wasn’t such a celebrated activist on campus.”

He hopes that current Swarthmore activists will “create movements that can spread to other campuses. Make Swarthmore an incubator, a playground for activism.”

Featured image courtesy of https://www.micahmwhite.com/.


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