Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Message To 'Resistors' From Occupy Co-Creator: Stop Protesting. Run For Office

Micah White, co-creator of the Occupy Wall Street movement, now lives in Nehalem, Ore., where he's active in local politics. "There are no big businesses here. These are all my neighbors. You can't block traffic," he says.
Trav Williams
Micah White, co-creator of the Occupy Wall Street movement, now lives in Nehalem, Ore., where he's active in local politics. "There are no big businesses here. These are all my neighbors. You can't block traffic," he says.

Opponents of President Trump say resistance to his policies is robust, motivated — and here to stay.

They point to big demonstrations including January's Women's March and the upcoming Earth Day "March for Science."

Occupy Wall Street co-creator Micah Whitesays bravo, but there's just one problem: Big street protests don't work.

They're ineffectual, even counterproductive, he says.

"We could have large-scale marches for every year of Trump's presidency. It would do nothing!" the activist and author tells me sitting in his kitchen in rural Nehalem, Ore., near the Pacific coast.

"You would think that with the triumph of Trump there would be a fundamental re-assessment among activists. But there hasn't been. They've just doubled down on the same behaviors!"

Instead, White argues, opponents of Trump should learn from Occupy's failure and run for local office. He encourages any progressive who'll listen: Go local, rural and small to try to foster big change.

White did. He moved to Nehalem from Berkeley, Calif., a few years ago with his wife and young son. In his 2016 book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook For Revolution, White argues that America "is ripe for a digital populist (an Internet-enabled people's democracy) uprising centered in the resource-rich rural areas" of the Pacific Northwest. Work to create progressive pockets of power, he argues. Talk with those with whom you disagree.

Last November, White put his theory into practice and ran for mayor of Nehalem, Ore.

He lost. The campaign did not go smoothly.

But exactly how White got crushed says something about America's hopes and political divisions along lines of class, place and race.

Occupy Nehalem, Ore.: Population 280

"Oh, it's so nice here!" White says sounding more like a marketing rep for the Oregon tourism office than the revolutionary who helped spark a global protest movement against inequality and corporate greed. "You can basically kayak, we've kayaked, from here all the way down to Wheeler," a few miles away, he adds while walking in the sun near the public dock along the picturesque Nehalem River.

Almost on cue a kayaker comes into view up the river. "There's really good salmon fishing right here," White gushes.

We walk together through the one-traffic signal downtown along Highway 101 with its 10 or so locally owned small businesses.

A sign at Hal's Emporium boasts "dollar-ish bargains." We price near 99 cents seems a long way from the "We Are The 99 Percent" rallying slogan of the Occupy movement.

"What's so great about Nehalem is as an activist you can't use the other tactics. You can't block traffic," White says as we walk past a restaurant selling homemade chowders and ice cream. "There are no big businesses here. These are all my neighbors. You can't block traffic."

Read NPR's Extended Interview With Micah White

White now sees those "other tactics" — including mass street protests and sit-ins — as almost futile. Protesters, he says, keep repeating the same mistakes: fetishizing the pageantry of protest and confusing online social marketing wins with real change.

"Success now has become something like getting a lot of people to hear about my meme," he says. "We have become obsessed with the spectacle of street protest and we have started to ignore the reality that we are getting no closer to power."

Budgets are sexy

White reads the agenda for an upcoming council meeting posted on the door of city hall. "On the new business - the economic development council update and the natural hazard mitigation plan." Put down the protest sign, he says, and pick up the city budget. Organize. Planning and zoning are sexy!

The cornerstone of his ill-fated mayoral campaign was making government more responsive. He held open community meetings to hear concerns.

"We passionately debated things. People were on both sides — against and for," he says. "It was like the first time, I think, that people from across the political spectrum who live in this tiny town sat in the same room together and debated things like, 'Change is happening in our community. How do we navigate it? What do we want it to look like in the future?' It was really beautiful."

White says more people showed up to these gatherings than regularly attend city council meetings.

But some residents say what White called People's Associations felt like awkward experiments.

"He came out swinging with this big laundry list of unrealistic ideas," says Tracey Curtis, who manages rental properties for the tourism industry — the area's economic core alongside timber.

White's proposals to use the city's budget surplus for anti-poverty and education programs, she says, struck many as preachy and imprudent.

"That's not the way you make friends in a small town," she says at the bar of Nehalem's Bayway tavern and restaurant. "I think he's just using our town as a stepping stone and a petri dish."

Campaign gets ugly

Micah White says as a black man moving to a small, rural, overwhelmingly white Oregon town, he was prepared for challenges and the possibility of prejudice.

But White admits he did not see the whole devil-worshiping fake news rumor coming.

"People started asking me, 'are you a Satanist?' I was like, 'Whoa!' " He admits he and his supporters were slow to respond.

"When it came down to their neighbors saying, 'Well, I heard he's a satanist.' My base wasn't strong enough to stand up and say, 'No, he's not a satanist, ya know. He's a good guy!' It was crazy."

A counter-campaign cropped up complete with signs reading "Keep Nehalem Nehalem."

"It's not a racist thing," says Nehalem resident Angela Hanke. "It was a response to Micah saying he wants to change everything around here. It was keep our town the way it is because we're happy with it."

But it got worse than a few bumper stickers and T-shirts.

When White sent out a "Micah for Mayor" text blast to registered voters, one resident wrote back a racial slur telling him to pack his bags.

A local article about the racist text created a storm.

Instructive failure

There are 194 registered voters in Nehalem, according to the city manager.

On Election Day, Micah White got 36 votes. His opponent, incumbent Mayor William L. Dillard, Jr. got 139.

"It's awkward and painful, and you're a black guy living in rural Oregon talking about revolution and one out of five people really gets it and loves it. But 80 percent don't," White says and laughs. "And do they want you to leave? Yes, they want you to leave."

At the local tavern, resident Suzie Gruver was blunt. "Nobody wants him here. He's trying to destroy our town."

Still, White is undeterred. He sees his ill-fated mayoral run as an instructive failure — just like Occupy Wall Street.

He still sits on the local budget committee, which he has served on for two years. He successfully advocated to get the city to use some of its budget surplus to help subsidize meals for hungry children who attend the local elementary school.

He'd like the city to use more of its roughly $700,000 budget surplus on community needs. ("It's not a surplus," Nehalem City Manager Dale Shafer says. It's more of a rainy day fund. "You can't spend everything. You have to have money available in case of emergency," Shafer says.)

White says he wants to learn from his stumbles. Listen more. Respond quicker to fake news devil worship stories. He plans to keep on testing his rural, populist plan to engage with the right and work to gain local power and influence.

"We could have activists take over small towns for the benefit of people who live there and the people who are going to move there, and actualize all of the grand ideas that we have on the left," he says. "We have to do this. There is no other option. We could do protesting forever. And it would do nothing."

Or, White says, people can figure out how they can own and not just occupy city hall.

"I think when we figure this one out," he says, smiling, "it's going to be quite beautiful."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit

Eric Westervelt
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.