An Occupy Wall Street Founder, Provides Advice To Student Protesters

| Strategize!

Above Photo: The moment is ripe for change. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

As one of the original co-creators of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I’ve watched student protests sweep across campuses in Cape Town,MissouriLondon and Los Angeles with a growing sense of optimism. The history of protest suggests that students are often the first to sense the opportunity for revolutionary change. 

I suspect that the new wave of campus protests could be the foreshock to the global social movement that activists have been hoping for since the end of Occupy. To increase the odds, here is some advice to student protesters, based on the lessons from my time with Occupy.

First, never protest the same way twice. The birth of a new movement is exciting. But the effectiveness of a protest diminishes if the same tactic is used repeatedly. Once the occupation tactic stopped working in the face of police crackdowns and the onset of winter weather, Occupy Wall Street stopped existing.

To avoid this pitfall, the next generation of student protestors must constantly come up with inspiring fresh tactics and be quick to abandon the methods that cease to achieve results. Given the diversity of tactics used by today’s student protesters—from the hunger strike at the University of Missouri, to the#OccupyNassau sit-in at Princeton, the candlelight vigil at Oklahoma State University and the creative use of black tape to protest Harvard’s Law School seal (an action that inspired a racist backlash)—young activists appear to have internalized this lesson.

Now the challenge is for student activists to move beyond disruptive tactics and to experiment with protest methods designed to spark epiphanies, or awakenings, in people outside their social circles. This means creating a contagious mood that spreads across borders, identities and milieus.

A common misconception among activists is that campaigns should start with actions most people would not be afraid of committing—such as signing an online petition—before leading to greater militancy. That idea, known as the “ladder of engagement,” must be abandoned. 

 Mass movements arise when courageous activists do something daring. Instead, mass movements arise when courageous activists do something daring that inspires spectators to stop being afraid. When hundreds of people slept in Zuccotti Park, they spread a fearless mood that gave birth to Occupy Wall Street. People from all societies, across economic classes, languages, and religions, rush to join such movements because they share an emotion of collective liberation. It feels uplifting, and a bit intoxicating, to be part of the human wave.

This leads to the second lesson for student protestors: Never confine your protest to a single identity or issue.

Instead, maintain a global perspective that links campus protests to injustices in the wider world. This will encourage all kinds of people to rise up collectively in a bid to gain control of the globe.

 Social movements require a willing historical moment. Here, too, student activists seem to be learning this lesson. Explaining the inspiration for their #RoyallMustFall campaign protesting the law-school seal honoring the family crest of slaveholder Isaac Royall Jr., Harvard’s activists cite the ongoing student protests in Cape Town, South Africa. The Cape Town protests began in March with #RhodesMustFall and have continued to rock that country with demands for anti-racism, a freeze on tuition hikes (#FeesMustFall) and greater economic equality.

The next step is to link the campus unrest in America, UK and South Africa with the broader people’s democracy struggles everywhere. As Martin Luther King, Jr puts it: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” All protests are part of the same protest; all social-justice movements are part of the same movement. Use specific demands to coalesce energy for change, but never lose sight of the larger goal: a liberated world governed by the people.

Lastly, social movements require a willing historical moment—such as a worldwide political or economic crisis. 

This is something that student protesters can’t control. But if the timing isn’t correct, then a social movement will not erupt. That is why,according to Friedrich Engels, the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848 fizzled out after the economic situation improved. Similarly, activists in the US were unable to catalyze a social movement in the aftermath of the anti-war protests of 2003 until the financial crisis gave rise to Occupy Wall Street in 2011.

Patience may be the most difficult lesson for many young activists to accept. Still, it’s vital to maintaining a balanced perspective that knows when to act and when to wait.

It is ultimately impossible to know for certain whether we are heading toward one of those rare historical moments when the world is ripe for sudden change. However, there are compelling indications that the time for action is coming. For one, studies have shown that the rising cost of food often presages a revolutionary moment. This October saw the sharpest increase in global food prices in three years. 

If food prices continue to rise, and the ensuing economic crisis triggers political instability, then creative activists will have an opportunity to spark a worldwide social uprising. We might be closer today to a global revolution than ever before. Can you feel it?

  • Great advice on movement building and evolution. I’ve had people here in Detroit interested in movement building on new ventures and they’ve seen recent efforts not going so well. The reasons are continued attempts using the same methods. Once you become predicatble you are conquerable and become inconsequentially passed over by the press and people watching it.

    Evolving movements must realize that establishing a normal process is what corporate training leads them toward. Corporatizing movements is compromizing why activism happens. We aren’t interested in normal! “Normal has never changed anything ever.” I’ve been saying this for a few years now and each time someone hears it a “lightbulb appears”. Radical change requires radical means and efforts. Guerilla warfare is an example and how the Americas won the Revolutionary War leading to independence from English regime. Much of America has lost its luster, there is little gleam in the eye of those here wishing for change. The only way it’ll happen is moving beyond those influences we hold sacred (and reliable). Relying on something is where we are losing it. We’re forgetting how to produce on our own. Community building has to learn that doing different shouldn’t be shunned but needs to be embraced as the evolutionary path needed. Getting involved in the evolution means listening and doing. Being outspoken and responsible at the same time.

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  • occupyRUScom

    Micah White is NO ‘Co-Creator’ of Anything ‘Occupy Wall Street’ as Movement; but maybe just a Aspirant and Avid Participator and r Promoter!

    Fact/Reality: As an “OCCUPIER” Who [Also] Found an OCCUPATION (Zuccotti Park aka LIBERTY PARK Plaza) Therein-At:

    What Gave BIRTH (to ‘OWS’ The CHILD aka “Occupy Wall Street’ as Move’ant) is Begot From {FATHER} “WalkerVille” Movement JANUARY.15th+.2011 in Wisconsin!!. And The {MOTHER}”Bloombergville’ Movement JUNE.15th+.2011 that Took Place in New York City… singing “TAX WALL STREET’ Take It Back aka (The Robin Hood Tax) .. and Set-Up Tents on Broadway against City Cuncil and Als Held the 1st “GENERAL ASSEMBLIES” under the NYC ‘Municipal Building etc”

    Sooo Micah White is just Another ‘BEE’ that Unites or flocks With Us Aspirants ‘Spiritually Like’ and Leaderlessly Like too!

    PS: GET READY: Ready for the “BILLIONPEOPLEMARCH” the [New] ‘OWS!’

  • kevinzeese

    It always turns me off when Micah describes himself that way.

    The reason we published this article was because its content which we thought was right on point.

  • occupyRUScom

    Sir: This Article Is Greatly Appreciated. But

    Yu will find it interesting to know that on SUNday NOV.30th.2015 (between Noon and 5Pm) i [WE] had Gathered like Bees (Though WE didn’t Bring OUR Stingers) and That Many Many Ex-Occupiers and Current Active aspirants and Even NEW ones had Joined; in GLOBAL SOLIDARITY’ for CLIMATE-Lovers via the last-Minute call out “Global Climate March; NYC’ (Promoted by PCMNY) in that Good ole “Occupy Wall Street’ Spirit! Note: i just got the GoosePumps writing that! And

    Coalescing at CITY-HALL i Got To See Some [Original] Folks from the “WALKERVILLE (1.15.2011) Movement and the BLOOMBERGVILLE” (6.12.11) Movement and of course Met and Hugged Original ‘OWS’rs! It was BEAUTIFUL; a High in itself like Re-Living another ‘OWS’ Moment!

    Mr. Zees et al: Yu Folks are doing Great Work!

    THANKS; Brother(s) and Sister(s)!

  • occupyRUScom

    Yea n Nay.

    i [WE] Believe that PEACEFUL Revolution and or Protests; Take TIME (Which is it’s Best Medicine). And That VIOLENT Revolution or Protesting make things happen fast (but Bad Medicine) Look at Arab Spring; and How it evolved into ISLAMIC SPRING (Sectarianism and Greed) Violence… While ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Evolved into Greater Things via PEACE!

    Remember: [WE] Are The 99% When Comes to INEQUALITY; but When Comes to CLIMATE-CHAOS (see Climate March and ‘Flood Wall Street respectfully SEPt.21-22-2014; NYC+). And a Year+ Later. NOW.

  • I think there’s a typo here — he repeats “never protest the same way twice” at the beginning of two different paragraphs:

    First, never protest the same way twice. The birth of a new movement is exciting. But the effectiveness of a protest diminishes if the same tactic is used repeatedly. Once the occupation tactic stopped working in the face of police crackdowns and the onset of winter weather, Occupy Wall Street stopped existing.

    Never protest the same way twice. To avoid this pitfall . . . .”

  • kevinzeese

    Thanks Micah for that perspective. We found a lot of confluence of events and thinking occurring in early 2011 in multiple parts of the country.

    We put out our call to occupy DC in April 2011, As you can see when we went public there were already a lot of people involved as we had been organizing for more than a month before going public. We had been influenced by the Arab Spring, the Wisconsin revolt and later the Indignado movement.

    We also noticed that there were protests all over the country so there was a sense the country was ready. If these individual protests were reported on in the media it would have looked like the country was in revolt. What was needed was a way to unify all the fronts of struggle and the occupation was a tool to accomplish that:

    Often when we talked to people about the possibility of an occupation the reaction was “I was thinking the same thing”. I remember a conversation with Ralph Nader well before April, while the Egyptian protests were happening where he predicted the same would come to the US.

    When I say “we” I am talking about a couple of dozen people right from the outset of discussions. We quickly had an organizing committee of about 50 people who met weekly and took responsibility for organizing. A short time after that we had people in 36 states taking on roles as state or local coordinators.

    We kept putting out videos and articles to keep seeding the feeling we sensed and to get people ready to occupy public space.

    When you made your call to occupy Wall Street on Adbusters in June, we watched for who responded in NYC and then reached out to them. We issued solidarity statements on behalf of their work and they did the same for ours. Our NY organizers went to their organizing meetings. We had no idea how it would go. The most likely scenario we thought was they would occupy in NY for a short time, then join us in DC as a follow-up in an effort to trigger a broader occupy movement. In the end the NYC police helped it grow more quickly with their brutality and abuse.

    It is so amazing to see something evolve when it is the right timing. We ended up having more than 5,000 people on our first day of the Freedom Plaza occupation.

    As OWS developed in NY and the police came to our aid by abusing their power against nonviolent occupiers, all across the country occupies sprung up. Many of our state and local coordinators decided to stay home and start their own occupy (which we applauded). Suddenly there were hundreds of occupy’s throughout the country.

    Of course, to the world it looked like this just exploded, but in reality it took a lot of people doing a wide range of organizing for many months before it began. A combination of timing, hundreds of people organizing and police abusing their power created the occupy movement.

  • Kevin,

    Yes of course. However, to be fair, your original call did not use the word “occupy” nor “occupation.” Your action was called “Stop the Machine! Create a New World!” and only later was it renamed to Occupy.

    Clearly a movement that involves millions of people is not the sole product of any single individual or small group of people. But it does not do a service to movement history when you ignore the fact that Kalle Lasn and I invented the name “Occupy Wall Street,” picked the day (September 17), the location and oriented the movement around “one demand.”

    So when people call me the co-creator they are acknowledging my role in creating the meme Occupy Wall Street.

    Many many many people dreamed of bringing Tahrir Square to America—and these people, like yourself, ultimately became founders of the movement—but it was the tactical briefing written by us at Adbusters that ultimately succeeded in lighting the spark.

    I discuss this in my book, THE END OF PROTEST, and I hope that you will read it.

    All the best,


  • kevinzeese

    We actually did call it an occupation of Washington, DC in the first video we put out (about two minutes into it). You are right we did we did call it — Stop the Machine, Create a New World — as a way to get people involved understanding our two path approach of protest and create.

    You do get credit for the name Occupy Wall Street, but there was so much more to it. I’m very careful not to take too much credit because there were so many people involved, not just in organizing our Freedom Plaza occupation, in the NY occupation and the hundreds of occupy’s around the world because I find it to be important that so many were involved in making it happen. It takes a movement to make a movement!

    It really did not take off from your Adbusters call — although that did help; or from our numerous videos and articles resulting in thousands signing up to participate before your Adbusters call. It took more. I remember being in NYC the first few days of the encampment and being disappointed by the small turnout. I had media calling me and asking — what happened, it is so small? It was at risk of failing but it became a notable occupation because people showed up and persisted in occupying despite the slow start; and the police abused their power — which really lit the fuse. (It could have had any name, but those ingredients were the key to its success — although I do like the OWS name, a lot!) Those were the two critical ingredients that prevented NY and DC being very short term, non-historic encampments. If I were to credit any small group, it would be the 100 or so who stuck with it camping in Zuccotti Park before it exploded.

    How much time did you spend at Occupy in NYC or did you focus on other encampments?