The End of Protest

Micah White

I've sometimes observed some of the more in the know followers of American Politics describe Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in odd terms. To quote one, “almost everything he writes is extremely consistent and based on perfectly logical reasoning, from insane premises.” That was the feeling I had while reading The End of Protest. It was a perfectly logical, reasonable, highly researched, and well versed discursive on the methods and effectiveness of non-violent protest. ... but only so long as you implicitly agree with all of the nuts and bananas that congeals around White's central premise: that social revolutionary fervour is a total good in-and-of itself, completely notwithstanding any possible justification or even in what direction it goes. I suspect he took this incredibly odd approach in order to talk about his subject while getting around the usual political partisanship, taking his blend of left-wing political activism and trying to broaden its appeal to reach possible right-wing allies to achieve common ground on some strangely unspecified causes. I choose to suspect this because the alternative makes him look like a power-hungry madman, not necessarily caring when, where, or why a social revolution is taking place, only so long as he is somehow involved.

Micah White was one of the original organizers for the Occupy Wall Street protests which coincided with the Arab Spring a few years ago. Occupy Wall Street was—in turn—an extension of Ad-Busters Magazine, which White was a contributor. I do not doubt that the magazine was once important, especially to most of my own teachers, but having not lived through the most of its lifetime I could only ever approach the magazine from a forensic angle. By the time I had become interested in its particular bend of politics it already came with a history, and in that very recent history some things had gone Horribly Wrong™. Naomi Klein's No Logo is probably the most prominent example of what happened; how the vanguard of Ad-Busters' style of politics got collectively warped and twisted from being anti-business to pro-business, often against its own will. For its part, Ad-Busters suffered a death by a thousand paper-cuts along the same route. To quote someone who is more familiar with it than I am:

In about 1992, I am turning 13 and pretty naïve of the world. However, the rest of the world is still naïve: most of the pop culture is really light and pop. Then, just as I enter puberty, the pop culture gets much more socially and politically aware and confrontational. The birth of “alternative” culture. And then, just as I enter my mid-teens, the confrontational alternative culture kind of gave way to a more twee alternative culture. Its how we got from, say, Nirvana to No Doubt. And along with that, a lot of political and social commentary starts focusing not on confrontational politics, but on deconstructing social messages, looking at how consumerism and social expectations effect society. Ad-Busters is part of that.

... But at the same time as that is happening, that just feeds back into another type of consumerism, because a big part of Ad-Busters is “I am too cool for mainstream culture!” ... which is the exact same attitude that advertisers are going for. So that is kind of part of the fall of the 1990s, the switch from being confrontational to being cool. I think for the Ad-Busters crew, and for their impressionable young audience, media awareness was a magic bullet that would automatically transform people and make them question “the establishment.” When that didn't happen, they thought of other hypotheses, or just doubled down on the media awareness needing to be more absolute, cutting out any type of culture that was at all attached to the “mainstream.”

Despite everything, Ad-Busters was not consigned to just be a “product” of its own time. It tried out a hodgepodge of many counter-cultural things, and Occupy Wall Street was its most recent and visible, both in success and failure. Before the months-long protest was eventually put down by the New York Police Department, it had spawned multiple similar protests throughout the English speaking world and even added new terms into our lexicon. We are the 99%, without any statistical question. Yet now, Occupy Wall Street is considered a failure and only mentioned in passing, while their smaller right-wing counterpart in the “Tea Party” movement has survived for many years on, even attaining some degree of political and legislative power. (Though not without some co-option from special interests who suppressed the original message about protecting Medicare and Social Security from cutbacks. ... and that's assuming the whole thing wasn't just an astro-turf in the first place.) The unfortunate corollary could be found in the 02011 Arab Spring; how protest erupted across the middle east, but only resulted in change of governance in countries to whom it was either indifferent or beneficial towards western hegemony. Any place where the protests were fully in opposition to hegemonic interests were quickly suppressed, even at the cost of plunging some countries into civil war. The Arab Spring was the grand experimental hypothesis on the effectiveness of non-violent revolution, complete with fully delineated control groups and everything. Frustratingly, Micah White follows in Ad-Busters' tradition of refusing to admit they might be wrong in the grand scheme of things, regardless of noble intentions in the moment. White calls his book “the end of protest,” only to dance around the subject, and still calls for even more protest at the end of it.

I can't bring myself to call this a bad book. It's annoying, shrill, and difficult to read more than a few pages at a time. I regret finishing this book to its final chapter, as it only brought me frustration. In any other instance, it would deserve the classification of the trashbin and it wouldn't even be mentioned here, much less granted a place on my shelves. (Look at this long review! Look at how much I take issue with!) Despite this, I cannot factually call it a terrible book. I cannot throw it away, perhaps for the same reason I gave so much respect to Ad-Busters even though they deserved none of it. I can see, throughout all the heterogeneous mixture of ideological double-talk and neo-spiritualist nonsense, the calm and reasoned voice of someone who knows this topic much better than anyone else. Someone who has given a lot of hard thought on the matter and has reached a constructive thesis. I simply regret that person has to be Micah White; as I desperately cling to the 20% that is still worth saving, while the other 80% rockets off into space. Perhaps it simply would've been easier for me if he really was the anarchistic sonuva bitch that his writing style suggests he is.

In some part of my mind, I've always admired the nonviolent protest movements that White was so involved in. I was never a protester myself, but I held deep respect for those who were, for their bravery if nothing else. I admired how they could march to a cause; how instead of simply sitting back and complaining they would actually go and do something to stop it. Which is why how it always ends up being pointless frustrates me to no end. It never accomplishes anything. It takes all that precious energy and willpower and wastes it away. The political left is so enamoured with nonviolent protest as a means of social action, but only because they want to appear as “the good guys” in any given scenario, to achieve results with “legitimacy.” Yet those results never come about, and they can only deny the “legitimacy” of that non-result. Perhaps it is because the forces to which nonviolent protest is known have become inoculated against its effectiveness (as White might argue), or perhaps because nonviolent protest has a completely misunderstood history and we're not even using it for the thing it was intended. Maybe nonviolent protest, as it is used right now, never actually achieved anything of its own merit that wasn't going to already be done anyway. Peaceful protest is a rather modern concept that is advanced in its methods; so when White attempts to weave it with a 2000-year-long history of other protest events that were most definitely not peaceful while still proclaiming a modern virtue, he sounds like a thin layer of skin covering up something borderline. Martin Luther King Jr. operated a peaceful protest movement in the same context as Malcolm X did a violent one. Gandhi was only one participant in the quagmire that led to India's sovereignty. In the cases where peaceful protest wins out, it is almost always done as an alternative to a real non-peaceful threat. Even when White talks about it in his sections on voluntarism, peaceful protest has a very strict upper-limit on what it can achieve before it must become unpeaceful to progress any further, no matter what way you cut it. For this reason, I suspect, many police forces take action on peaceful protests as if they were violent anyway, since in their view its only a matter of time before police action would be justified. This is often where peaceful protests are most powerful in their own right, by baiting themselves towards a kind of martyrdom. Yet, it's never enough, no matter how many career photographers capture that moment of unjustified oppression. Hannah Arendt possibly puts into one paragraph what Micah White refuses to acknowledge in an entire book:

[The] decisive step in the preparation of living corpses is the murder of the moral person in man. This is done in the main by making martyrdom, for the first time in history, impossible. How many people here still believe that a protest has even historic importance? This skepticism is the real masterpiece of the [Nazi] SS [in the concentration camps]. Their great accomplishment. They have corrupted all human solidarity. Here the night has fallen on the future. When no witnesses are left, there can be no testimony. To demonstrate when death can no longer be postponed is an attempt to give death a meaning, to act beyond one's own death. In order to be successful, a gesture must have social meaning. There are hundreds of thousands of us here, all living in absolute solitude. That is why we are subdued no matter what happens.

The George Floyd Rebellion and the subsequent police riots forced me to revisit some of the material in this book. My updates are as follows:

This book is limited by being a product of its own time. It was written in that interlude just after Occupy Wall Street ended. Black Lives Matter existed as an Internet media campaign following the full acquittal of the murderer of the young Trayvon Martin, but was still before the police killings of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City, which prompted mass unrest. This book is situated precisely in that very narrow window of time, and suffers for it. Even though Micah White's stance on violent-versus-nonviolent protest seemed fleeting, the neucleus of this book still remained perfectly bloodless, in a way which typified the popular protest literature which existed at that time in history. Unfortunately for it, things have accelerated, and we've borne witness to a mountain of corpses.

The grand experimental hypothesis regarding the effectiveness of nonviolent protest continued when the George Floyd protests reached the Battle of Portland. Street activism was split between two groups: the “moderate” nonviolent protest group called Rose City Justice who primarily operated during the daytime, and the “radical” protest of (what soon expanded, but was at first the) Youth Liberation Front who operated after nightfall. Rose City Justice brought together a very large constituency of people in Portland who stood against police brutality, once amassing a street protest large enough to completely occupy the Morrison Bridge. They were disciplined and well-organized, but also so committed to nonviolence that they actively avoided any direct confrontation with the police. They ran many “successful” marches, but could affect no change whatsoever. The few times the Portland Police actually did interface with them, they were able to completely rout and demoralize the RCJ using very simple propaganda techniques, no police brutality required. Within a month, these protests dwindled, to the point when RCJ announced they would suspend all further operations—but not before having their core leadership team spend all the anti-brutality money they raised on a group trip to an expensive spa.

The Youth Liberation Front were, at the end of the day, the only ones who managed to keep the protest pressure at a relative constant. Though they started off small and the police were very easily able to control them through street kettling, they were able to adapt to the state-sponsored terrorism which the Portland Police would later commit on the downtown area. After the passage of “Tear Gas Tuesday,” YLF erected a network of electric fans and leaf-blowers to control the dispersal of police gas, and they also were only ones who had enough trained street medics to tend to the afflicted. There was more of a focus on setting up infrastructures of mutual aid and other logistics systems to actually keep the protests going, instead of just being one-off events to pose for the cameras which may or may not end up on the news. Eventually, when the federal government would send in hired mercenaries to subdue the Portland downtown, they were the only ones who were able to document the non-police security forces “disappearing” random persons into unmarked vans. In any other time, they would've been the “black bloc” of rowdy troublemakers who always show up to “disrupt” or “discredit” an “otherwise” peaceful protest, but when government terrorism descended upon their town, that same “black bloc” was the only thing remaining to stand up and protect everyday people from partisan government agents. This is not to say the YLF were rioters itching for a fight; so many of the Portland YLF's innovations in countering the onslaught of rioting policemen were precisely based around increasing protester safety, especially in the face of overwhelming force and mass surveillance. This focus on protest safety was a new facet for the time, especially for the black bloc, as beforehand their sudden appearance was too often synonymous with police infiltration and “agent provocateurs” whose interest was in quelling all street protest as quickly and effectively as possible, no matter how unsporting the tactics involved.

Even the well-armed “boogaloo boys” subgroup of protesters, the nihilistic attention seekers in military gear who giddily spoke about going to war against the oppressive government and flaunting their conspicuous displays of freshly-bought automatic rifles, were too-often nowhere to be found once the feds actually started firing. (Wouldn't want to get arrested and have all this very expensive equipment confiscated by the police now, would we?) Yet the 2nd Amendment Aficionados and the Perfectly Docile Liberals of Polite Society were not the only “nonviolent protesters” who mysteriously vanished once things turned for the worse, leaving behind only a group of anarchist misfits to clean up after their mess. When shit hit the fan regarding the George Floyd protests, or the Hong Kong protests in the year before, or even the strangely astro-turfed and curiously well-armed “reopen the economy” protests which occurred inbetween on the heels of the Novel Coronavirus plague of early 02020... Micah White, too, was nowhere to be seen. Thinking he would have something worth saying, I tried looking him up again, only to find he was on “indefinite hiatus.” Protests had engulfed the world over, yet he had abandoned his position. It led me to wonder, like some previous authors in my library, what the exact angle in this book even existing precisely was. If I had to make any guess as to what his take on the police riots would be, all roads would lead to one conclusion. If it was a triumph of Voluntarism that the Battle of Portland could last for more than two months, then that would mean he was right. If it was a tragedy of Voluntarism that the Battle of Portland even happened in the first place, then that would also mean he was right. If peaceful, nonviolent protest was a resounding success, then he was right. If peaceful, nonviolent protest accomplished absolutely nothing, then he was also right. All of these statements can't possibly be true at the same time, but it would be what White would claim nonetheless.

The core thesis of the book relies on his “unified theory of revolution” and his four categories of protest, which could be arranged like a political compass along the axes of “subjective/objective” and “material/spiritual.” Subjectivist protest is simply about changing people's inner opinions, but not much beyond that. Structuralist protest would state that revolutions primarily occur by forces which are outside of individual or even collective choice, and thus tends to measure the likelihood of uprisings and revolution through things like the United Nations Food Price Index, insofar as those statistics are correctly measured and readily available. Voluntarism as the most prominent field of protest would posit that revolutions exist as a result of human action, and thus revolutions may be triggered as a result of it too, for both good-faith and bad-faith actors in unfortunately equal measure. Lastly, there is Theurgist protest, which is utter nonsense requiring a baseline assumption of “if all else fails, use witchcraft.” The fact that it was even listed at all (despite being technically correct in the most generous interpretation of what we, today, would sooner ascribe to proxies for misinformation campaigns) was to my eyes the warning sign that Micah White wasn't entirely on the level, even if I couldn't back that suspicion up at the time.

This book remains useful only insofar as those categories of protest remain a working taxonomy, but unlike other books I've read where they can justify their unstable positions by having a singular brass-tacks chapter which breaks everything down in practical terms, White's “unified theory of revolution” is hardly worth the price of admission. Subjectivist protest, he claims, use social networks as a vector for action. The term “social network” would've been a pretty new and fancy buzzword around the time of this book's publishing, but since then it would also be proven that subjectivist protest could also be prevented by the exact same means. If echo chambers form around people who remain like-minded in self-selected opinion, the routes by which subjective protest could actually happen would ossify and restrict, driving wedges between groups whose standings on any given issue is a matter of life and death against those to whom it is just an opinion which they may freely disagree. Structuralist protest would also risk falling into the same fatalistic trap as Marxist historical determinism: the communist revolution is inevitable upon the collapse of capitalism, which is also inevitable. Why fight for the revolution which will surely happen on its own, any time now, eventually? To try and adjust this dynamic would mean to flirt with accelerationism, which is liable to create more problems than it would solve, but to leave as-is would reduce you to little more than an opportunist. Voluntarism falls victim to the same fallacies as other praxeological disciplines. Did your moment of protest fail to manifest because of structural forces which have dis-empowered your material conditions enough to make affective change by your hand unlikely, or did you simply not pull yourself up by your bootstraps hard enough? Did that other protest actually succeed because their leaders persevered and did not give up, or did they “have help” from someone in the shadows who stood to benefit? These should not be interpreted as pros-or-cons to any one particular approach, nor does it seem that any actually successful protest uses a combination of all of them. (They can't, as a few are mutually-exclusive with one another.) All of it seems to dance around the subject about how one proposes to affect material change through the use of protest. This key element which would form the very reason for why one might involve themselves in a protest movement at all, is nowhere to be found in this book, in a way which suggests it was never there in the first place.

I no longer think Micah White is a “power-hungry madman” or even an “anarchistic sonuva bitch.” However, such labels might be an improvement from his more accurate description: a grifter and a careerist, in the vein of Rose City Justice. The impression I had of his seeming nonchalance regarding the specific character of his hitherto unspecified revolutionary protest, had less to do with a wanton lust for destruction, and more to do with something so simple as money. He was working to sell the product of “effective activism” to anyone he hoped would buy it, and would likely buy it from him. It is for this reason why he proclaimed the “end of protest” only to continue on and act as if protest had never really ended at all. It is classic marketing. The old thing is bad and flawed, but the new thing is good, so invest in the new thing and please try not to notice it is the same thing as before with a different label on the box. This was made manifest in the organization he founded following this book's publication: “Activist Graduate School: Online classes for activists.” It is/was a subscription-based streaming service, costing around 30 dollars a month, to access interviews of various “activists” of similar ilk to himself. Ever the capitalist, but I am not one to besmirch someone who still has to make a living in this cold-hearted and unforgiving world, in any way they can. Yet, one can only be terminally wrong about so much for so long; so it takes a certain level of gall to rent-seek over an intellectual property that doesn't even do the thing it claims in the first place.

“Peaceful protest” began from a misunderstanding of and a recuperation from the freshly-assassinated Martin Luther King, and it was promoted through culture at a time when broadcast media was very tightly controlled by both the state and paragovernmental forces, as a means to ensure another Martin Luther King would never cause such trouble ever again. It was a form of Orwellian newspeak, which was extremely expressive, but compartmentalized in a way to exclude and prevent. So long as “peaceful protest” remained the primary way one could “have a dream,” then dreams would never come true. This form of protest was not about changing the status quo, but preserving it, and that dynamic created an industry of social control via a system of perverse incentives. It allowed a particular type of “career activist” like Micah White to take form, and to subsist as a media figure when allowed within the constraints of a given media system. But there's a catch: if the systemic change you are hoping for ever actually happened, you'd quickly find yourself out of a job. Thus you must do a strange and considered tango to the tune of a revolution who you must always be agitating for, but must never actively arrive. Revolution could be dangerous and unorthodox, but it could also be perfectly routine, and it is for this reason that “protest” “movements” who seek to preserve the status quo would be that much more effective. This “handbook of protest” containing plenty of theory without much practical instruction, fits very neatly into that paradigm, and it is something White wants to sell you on as a consultant in his business. Are you a closeted sexual minority who wants to be able to live without fear? Be a part of my super-duper protest movement! Are you a raging bigot who wants to make sure that same sexual minority never sees the light of day without another bullet from your gun? Then be a part of my super-duper protest movement! Through this lens, even the inclusion of Theurgism as a method of protest makes perfect sense, as it too is a way for your everyday social media grifter to soothsay various predictions about fortuitous miracles from the hand of God himself, which would finally strike down your own political enemies! ... even if, especially if, said miracles never actually take place. It's all about building and gaining an audience, and keeping them for your own profit.

It's very unfortunate, but the tradition of protest from which Micah White hails has proven to be little more than a dead end in terms of providing something useful toward achieving a more equitable, less corrupt, or even outright functional society. Black Lives Matter has been operating as a protest movement for nearly a decade, yet it still has not accomplished its goal of a safer society for racialized peoples, despite the purely statistical success that it had in winning over hearts and minds. Their opponents reacted to them “violently” protesting in the streets with the same vigor and institutional discreditment as they did when a single person politely knelt during the national anthem at a football game. The purely factual “nonviolence” was reduced to a game of semantics, all while their leaders and pointmen were “nonviolently” spirited away, whereupon they “committed suicide” under the cloak of obscurity when the news media had finally given rest. (The fact that BLM still exists at all, despite how its most important figures keep turning up dead, is a testament to its important and unyielding mission.) This was probably a long time coming, as even when the anglosphere was less tense and heated, White's methods still gained exactly nothing when trying to bite at the heels of a massive and uncompromising hegemonic order. The question remains, if nonviolent protest was never possible in the first place, what do we do now? Violent protest may get the goods, as both the George Floyd rebellion and the anti-COVID armed protests that preceded it have all-too-plainly proven, but it is also a terrifying prospect. Peaceful protest may have always been an illusion, but from a hegemonic perspective, it was a necessary one. Now that the power structures have relied on it to impede the rate and need of progress, far too much and far too often, the utility of peaceful protest lies shattered on the floor. With us no longer under its spell, all that's left is a world of constant and unending conflict, and that's a realization that many of us remain too unsteeled to accept.

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