An integral player in the Occupy movement now says protest is dead; what activists should make of the future of social change
Reading Time: 9 minutes
By Alex McKeen
As the seasons change, people walking through St. James Park in Old Toronto are likely to witness charming springtime weddings with couples posing under the picturesque archway marking its entrance.
Occupy Toronto began on October 15, 2011, just one month after protesters under the same banner set up camp at Zuccotti Park in New York City’s financial district. The thousands of protesters who arrived at the scene after marching down Bay street were an eclectic mix, ranging from concerned parents to spirited students. Neither their purposes nor their messages were cohesive, but together the group called for change. Within a short period of time Occupy had spread to 82 countries.
As another month passed, however, the movement came to an abrupt end. In Toronto, the police had struck a deal with the protesters to clear out of St. James’ Park; a quintessentially Canadian end to the peaceful, month-long demonstration.
In the aftermath, the Occupy movement continues to captivate the minds of activists and those interested in social change. Its scope and its capacity to draw support seem indicative of a raw, widespread appetite for social change around the world. And yet, despite its size and tenacity the occupations are over, and the world continues to go on, in much the same way that it did before.
For Micah White, one of the people responsible for the generation of the ‘Occupy’ concept, this impotence indicates that activism is currently at a critical juncture. At U of T, activist movements have taken on a unique ethos. After a call for social change that dissolved into history, it seems that activism is finally on the brink of transformation.
Micah White describes himself as having been born in between two worlds: his father is black and his mother is white, which left him struggling to identify with either race. “I think that always put me at a skew, seeing society at some kind of slightly different angle,” he says.
This was the beginning of my conversation with the activist, author, and co-creator of the idea that sparked Occupy Wall Street. White’s new book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution was released in March.
White describes his liminal identity in response to my question about the origin of his activist leanings. He hastens to add that activism is not an easily traceable interest of his but an integral part of his identity. “It’s kind of asking like why did a painter become a painter? Why did an artist become an artist? It’s just some sort of internal passion that I’ve always had and always followed,” he tells me.
The future of social activism is at the core of White’s new book. As an editor at the Canadian magazine Adbusters, White, with the magazine’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, Kalle Lasn, sent an e-mail to subscribers in July 2011 in the hopes of motivating an occupation of Wall Street beginning in mid-September. The purpose of their occupation was to protest the presence of corporate money in the American elections.
Reflecting on what became of that movement, White concludes that it was a “constructive failure.”
“[W]hat a success would have meant for Occupy Wall Street would have been a fundamental change in… the way that power functions in our democracies,” White says. Instead, those in power were able to suppress the Occupy movement without responding to its demands; this can be interpreted as a call for activists to reevaluate their tactics.
“[M]ost activism is premised on the idea that what creates social change are material forces,” White explains. He points to his involvement with the movement against war in Iraq, in the early 2000s, and the current Black Lives Matter movement as examples of knowledge-spreading platforms for creating social change that no longer seem effective.
“But of course people [knew] that the war [was] wrong. People know that racism exists,” he says. “Spreading a message is merely a byproduct of making noise… If you bang a pot, people will hear it, but it doesn’t mean that they will change their behaviour.”
Aware that this perspective sounds less than optimistic, White adds that he supports movements like Black Lives Matter, but that “we’re in a time when it seems that protest does not work.”
There is still hope in White’s ideas. He says activists should move beyond the assumption that material forces dominate social change. To him, intangible factors like perspectives on reality and even divine intervention may play a role in defining revolutionary moments. It is the role of the activist, he says, to explore all sides of social change and to gauge the onset of revolutionary moments.
In this context, the lessons of Occupy might still carry significant weight. “Occupy in 100 years might not be considered a failure or considered defeated, because we might see it as integral to the long process of revolutionary awakening,” says White.
“Occupy in 100 years might not be considered a failure or considered defeated, because we might see it as integral to the long process of revolutionary awakening.”
White’s book, seeks to motivate tactical change among activists and arrives at a time when organizers at this university are already plugging into new ways to incite change. Ellie Adekur-Carlson, a geography PhD student, is a veteran student activist.
In one of her undergraduate classes, Adekur-Carlson remembers feeling isolated and scrutinized when she was the only black student present, and a white peer proceeded to make a racist comment. “So I want to say that my activism started, at least on campus, just because I was so angry at some of the things that were happening to me and to my friends,” she says.
Adekur-Carlson is a the former executive communications internal liaison officer at CUPE 3902, the co-founder of the Black Liberation Collective at U of T, Silence is Violence, and a TA. For her, the key to resistance has very little to do with traditional protest methods; the essence of building strategies for social change requires coming together with like-minded people.
“[E]ven if it’s not coming together to do something super visible like a protest or a rally, I think that there is a lot of resistance in even having a support group,” she explains. “Once you’re in a group and you sort of realize this is happening to all of us… [a}nd then you can form an organizing strategy, call those things out very publicly, very deliberately.”
“[E]ven if it’s not coming together to do something super visible like a protest or a rally, I think that there is a lot of resistance in even having a support group.”
She cites the Black Liberation Collective as an example of this kind of process: after coming together, they issued a series of demands to the university.
The kind of activism that Adekur-Carlson describes is not owed to a certain tactic or method, but it is rooted first and foremost in building shared experiences.
“Whenever we do choose to use protest or any form of direct action… It shouldn’t be the strategy, it should just be one of many particular strategies that any organization has. That must be followed up by some form of action, or community building, or something that brings people back together [for]… Skills sharing, skills development, [or] even just to plug them into a network of like-minded people,” Adekur-Carlson says.
She also promotes self-criticism in movements, especially when providing inclusive spaces within movements and for demonstrations.
Adekur-Carlson was involved in organizing the Feminist Strong Rally after anonymous threats were levelled against U of T feminists online; she says that she and the other organizers failed to provide inclusive access. “[T]he other thing that comes with dedicating yourself to building inclusive spaces is that… you’re dedicating yourself to really uncomfortable moments of failing at that… it’s something that goes beyond pride,” she says.
Inclusivity stands out to me in how Adekur-Carlson talks about her activism. Even though she knows organizers will sometimes fail to provide it, she describes it as “the foundation of our organizing and not secondary to it.” This seems to typify Adekur-Carlson’s insistence that movements embody the change they seek to create.
To activists like Adekur-Carlson, the act of engaging, regardless of whether that engagement occurs in private or public settings is every bit as essential as the messages that movements espouse.
While White cautions that student activism might be particularly susceptible to repeating worn tactics, members of the U of T community are aware of the need for rejuvenation in their activism.
“The thing with student protesting is… students lack a kind of long-term memory because they haven’t been doing it as long, and so they very easily fall into the trap of repeating the same behaviour year after year after year,” White tells me.
Adekur-Carlson echoes this sentiment and proposes a solution. “I wish that there were more solid ties between different types of students and faculty and employees at U of T, just because the turnaround for students is so fast here,” she says. When black student organizers on campus have connected with faculty, Adekur-Carlson points out that they were able to create a timeline of struggles dating as far back as the sixties, which helped to inform their organizational strategies.
“There’s a sense of… global connectivity around wanting things to be different that is new and really significant,” says Megan Boler, professor in the Department of Social Justice Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Boler, whose research has focused on digital activism, credits this sense of connectivity to our position in history. In 2003, during the protests against war in Iraq that she participated in — there was a “crisis of faith… regarding the media and politicians and where was one to get a trustworthy account of political events.”
This was also the dawn of Web 2.0. In Boler’s view, the combination of a collective crisis of faith, and a fundamental shift in how people communicate birthed a new form of activism. Part of this, she says, is so-called peripheral engagement, which she thinks “plays a significant role in different kinds of social change that we’re seeing around protest and activism today.”
Others refer to this kind of engagement as ‘slacktivism’ or ‘clicktivism.’ White says that the metrics generated from these online forms of engagement are not good indicators of a successful movement. “[T]he thing about clicktivism that I think activists need to avoid is that we have to always trust our intuition about what makes a good campaign over any sort of metrics and these kind of external analytical tools,” White says.
It seems inevitable, however, that technology has a role to play in activism. White imagines a scenario where the technology of chat bots is harnessed to propagandize movements. The bots, he points out, could act as a permanent fixture for promoting movements, even when the people involved and their organizing are arrested or otherwise disrupted.
For Adekur-Carlson, technology plays an essential role in the transparency of movements. “I’ve always used that as part of my activism as part of my organizing… I really believe that the best forms of organizing lean on this unapologetic transparency,” she explains, adding that she has been criticized in the past for “oversharing” online.
A common thread in what White, Adekur-Carlson, and Boler tell me about the future of activism is that there seems to be a cohort of young organizers who genuinely desire social improvement.
“My research confirms that there were so many first time activists, young activists… who hadn’t done that before [Occupy]… [W]hen we asked them [about] their motivation it was not about ‘I want a better world for myself’ or even ‘I want a better world for my children…’ The answer was about… a vision [that] the world can be a better place,” Boler says.
Boler adds that educational institutions have a role to play in preparing a critical citizenry. “Critical inquiry allows us to see alternatives to how things are, to see beyond a dominant ideological perspective, to be able to see that things could be different, and to be able to question, at a very personal level even… our most cherished values, beliefs, and assumptions,” she says.
White believes that his book will reach those people who are primed to incite change, and that this will spark a “wave of social revolutions.” He says, “[T]here’s going to be someone out there who’s, you know, 25-year-olds [who] is going to read my book and is going to spark the next social movement. And they’re going to learn from Black Lives Matter, learn from Occupy Wall Street, learn from all the movements that happened before and really start something that’s going to make the world fundamentally better for the billions of people who have to live here.”
For Adekur-Carlson, the task ahead for activists is great. When I ask her about the long-term aims of her activism, she doesn’t know where to begin; she eventually lands on a vision for U of T.
“[T]he easiest way to think about what I’m out for at U of T is to create an institution that is accessible, to create an institution that is affordable — ideally tuition free — and to create an institution that is very critical of its own… colonial roots,” Adekur-Carlson says. She laments the fact that activism at U of T continues to be troubled by “internal politics,” and that students face consistent barriers of racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other forms of prejudice.
I am left to pause on one of the first things Adekur-Carlson told me: that anger at the injustices she observed is what motivated her to activism. It seems to me that she embodies the critical citizen that Boler describes, and people like her might just define the future of activism.