Micah White Is the Ultimate Occupy Grifter
Micah White, the guy who says he “cocreated” Occupy Wall Street, just went to Davos to “achieve great changes” with the 1 percent. Sometimes social movement activism becomes just another scam.
On March 6, 2014, Micah White, who appends “cocreator of Occupy Wall Street” to his name like a royal title, invited me to join his “Boutique Activist Consultancy.”
It was a few years after Occupy had disintegrated. White emailed me that “Other Zuccottis have already joined the BAC Speaker’s Bureau on the same terms that we are offering you.” He said I should negotiate a minimum of $2,500 honorarium for speaking engagements — 2,500 Euros for international ones. “Flight and hotel will be paid by [my] host.”
I would have access to a “remote logistical coordinator” and “high-end workshops . . . on how to increase honorariums and speaking skills.” White said his speakers bureau was a “prestige service” committed to “preferential treatment” and “travel in a comfortable way” for “professional movement speakers.” The icing on the gilded cake was that my coordinator, “equipped with an iPhone 5c,” would arrange “proper airport pickup, fruit in the hotel room, etc.”
White had landed a few self-promoters he called “Zuccottis,” a term neither I nor other reporters who chronicled Occupy had ever heard. I laughed that he seemed so impressed with the entry-level trappings of the 1 percent — comfortable travel and hotel-room fruit — that he apparently believed others would be enticed as well.
I had no interest in joining the consultancy, which Grist later described as an “unabashedly for-profit” venture. I was fishing for information. Days earlier, White had announced that Google was offering “our movement two Glasses,” a wearable computer that could record audio and video.
The Consumptionist Manifesto
Saying Google Glass was “heavy artillery in the meme war,” White held out a tin cup. He begged activists to cough up $3,000 for two pairs of Glasses and more dough for accessories and to jet to San Francisco for a “personalized 1:1 fitting experience.”
White’s fundraiser, dubbed “OccupyGlass,” read like Hammacher Schlemmer met the Communist Manifesto. Glass was a “potential force multiplier — like barricades in 1848.” Your donation (“We accept bitcoin!”) would deliver a “powerful weapon” to “bold, creative” leaders who would “create new kinds of revolutionary activism” by equipping them with “feather-light titanium frames,” twist-on shades featuring “polarized, impact-resistant lenses from Maui Jim and Zeal Optics,” and earbuds “engineered to deliver crisp, full-range audio [and] fully customizable with five interchangeable color caps.” If you wondered what your cryptocurrency bought you, Micah vowed to “dedicate this Glass back to you and the global people’s movement.”
Weeks later, “White was kicked out of a Greenpeace training camp . . . for refusing to stop filming private meetings with his GoogleGlass eyewear” and allegedly secretly recording conversations, according to Truthout.
It appears that his Glass fundraiser failed, the speakers bureau vanished, and the consultancy eventually faded away. All evidence of these flops has been erased from the internet, save for the Wayback Machine. Rather than failure being an impediment, White’s ambition has grown over the years.
His newest scheme was attending the World Economic Forum at Davos in January. He sought to “discover its revolutionary potential” among the 1 percent of the 1 percent gathered in the fortified Swiss ski resort of Davos, guarded by thousands of military and police personnel.
Davos is the culmination of White’s journey over the last decade of peddling one weird trick after another for system change. After Glass, White extolled the “revolutionary scenario” of rural America, the “revolutionary potential” of cryptocurrency, and the “revolutionary activism” of the Boutique Activist Consultancy. His book, The End of Protest, is subtitled “A Playbook for Revolution,” and his 2016 run for mayor in Nehalem, Oregon, was a testing ground for that revolution.
White abandoned the revolution schtick for an Activist Graduate School, which charges $180 a year to watch online videos. They feature such distinguished faculty as Jason Russell of Kony 2012 and a public naked maniacal meltdown, Dr Lenora Fulani, a former leader of the New Alliance Party that the Nation once described as combining a Ponzi scheme, psychic terrorism, a cultish leader, fascism, and sexual recruiting, and Rachel Anne Doležal, whom I want to ask why she has affixed a diacritical mark to the z in her last name, but I’m afraid of what she might answer.
But now White is back to finding revolutionary potential in all the wrong places.
Many Davoses Are Possible
White continues to wrap himself in the mantle of Occupy, despite having declared it a failure for years. Having headlined articles like “I started Occupy Wall Street,” White claims he is singularly important for his history-making role and that whatever follows is all about him, most of all when he is the heroic loner persecuted by a Left that he is selflessly trying to advance.
Kit O’Connell, an independent journalist who reported for months on Occupy and was active in the movement in Austin, Texas, says, “A lot of us who started in Occupy are still out there trying to make the world a better place, and very few of us are promoting our relationship with Occupy.”
Not White. To kick off the new decade, which reeks of grift from the previous one, White begins his apologia in the Guardian as to why he planned to attend Davos with, “I co-founded Occupy.” He doesn’t say how he landed the invitation, but in 2019, he publicly sidled up to elite bodies like the World Economic Forum and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development by praising them as Kumbaya spaces where “elites and movements collaborate.”
White tells us his admission to Davos is “coveted by elites who pay exorbitant fees to attend,” but as “a lifelong social activist,” he will be in the even more rarefied company of “a handful of civil society representatives, and far fewer activists, [who] have ever been offered the opportunity to go.”
Those who think no good will come out of White hobnobbing with the three-comma club in a land “where the champagne flows freely” are gripped by “deep cynicism,” afflicted by “implicit prejudices of contemporary activist culture,” and are Mean Girls who find “rejecting Davos is easy when one has not been invited to attend.”
If they could have attended, they would have found “many Davoses at Davos,” putting an oily spin on the global justice movement slogan “other worlds are possible.” White hoped to join “private, off-the-record events” and “secretive invite-only meetings” where activists and elites “can put their egos and personas aside to speak freely and find common cause for joint action on the global crises that impact us all — from income inequality to climate change.”
White will ignite revolution in the inner sanctum of the upmost echelons. In “decadent Davos,” talking to “elites reveling in luxury” is where he — sorry, we — will “achieve great changes.” In fact, it is “the only place on earth” where this is possible. It’s a stellar example of the huckster’s creed in that they have found the one true secret to limitless love, wealth, life, or now revolution, and you need to trust, follow, and pay them for their unique wisdom.
Meet the New Boss
White’s vision of Davos is the full Thatcher. There is no such thing as society and there is no alternative. He would have us ignore politicians stoking ethnonationalism to win elections. Ignore titans of the economy facilitating concentration camps, climate chaos, and the destruction of electoral democracy. Ignore corporations accruing wealth and power off forever war, endless death, and dismal health care, food, and housing.
His words alone have the power to redirect the juggernaut of material forces shaping history onto a new path. Whether this is neoliberal opportunism or messianic delusion is unclear — he once told a reporter “God brought Micah White to Nehalem,” where he was trounced in his run for mayor. In either case, White is repackaging clientelism, just as his claim about “creating” Occupy Wall Street is at most a repackaging of what already existed.
His hope is apparently to be the movement whisperer for elites. He will tell them how protest works and how to manage it by “the integration of activism into the functioning of power,” even though his knowledge of contemporary activism is meager. He says Indymedia and spokescouncils are “fundamental to the contemporary activist social imaginary,” when in fact they are rarely used protest methods anymore. It is irrelevant to elites that he is clueless. What they can relate to is White selling Occupy as a disruptive technology he invented, which makes them willing to listen to his pitch for the next can’t-miss product.
But there are more base desires. White comes across as grasping for luxury. I was appalled at his attempt to recruit me with comfortable travel, prestige service, fruit in the hotel room, preferential treatment, and high-end workshops. He lusts for cool stuff like a teenager: the iPhone 5C, the titanium frames and full-range audio earbuds for his Glass, the obsession with the champagne and parties and decadence of Davos. It reminds me of the megachurch pastor who preached traditional family values between bouts of meth-fueled gay sex.
A character like White could never appear on a fictional television show because openly trying to catapult into the elite on the backs of the downtrodden is too one-dimensional. But if he is too ridiculous for fiction, White sucks up space because the media gives him oxygen, particularly the Guardian. It publishes opinions and profiles of him, and it features him on panels as the activism expert on everything from the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 to commenting on the 2017 women’s march following Trump’s inauguration.
For all White’s self-mythologizing, many of his credentials are so flimsy that they are embarrassing attempts at résumé padding. “I coined the critique of ‘clicktivism.’” I was “nearly arrested” at an anti-globalization protest. I was “nearly trampled by a police horse” at an antiwar protest. “[I] invented the debt forgiveness tactic.” I ran an educational website with “twenty thousand visitors monthly at its peak.” “I helped spark a nationwide electronic civil-disobedience action.”
Some of his claims are monumentally absurd, claiming to have come up “with the concept for a leaderless social protest” for Occupy Wall Street, when the idea swept the Left after the shutdown of the World Trade Organization ministerial in Seattle in 1999, and which originated with the Zapatistas five years earlier.
Yet the media give him a platform because he trumpets this idea relentlessly: “I started, cocreated, cofounded, invented Occupy Wall Street.” Not only is there little evidence of that — calling oneself a founder or creator is more in the realm of business ventures than social movements. No one ever calls Martin Luther King, Jr, the founder or inventor of the civil rights movement. King was a leader, which White can’t say, because he admits he is rejected by pretty much every movement of note.
For all his cutting-edge, culture-jamming past at Adbusters, White is a relic who relies on legacy media to grease his path upward.
Absent at the Creation
Adbusters magazine founder and editor Kalle Lasn himself says the role he and Micah White played, who was his main collaborator as a senior editor, was limited. “We just did our bit, you know?” he said, referring to the culture-jamming they used to brand the oceanic anger at Wall Street. Lasn says in The Occupiers, a history of the movement, “I don’t know how important that actually was.” He settles for the modest role of “catalyzing something.”
Adbusters’ greatest success was branding the widespread outrage against the bankers who crashed the economy. The magazine gave it a name and a location, Occupy Wall Street, picked a date, September 17, and designed a poster that captured eyeballs. The image of a ballerina on the Wall Street charging bull with black-clad figures advancing, shrouded in smoke, was a solid B-grade advertisement. The striking ballerina on the bull was muddled by the shrouded figures, but there was enough mystery to allow viewers to project desires and fears onto it — are they cops or anarchists?
White’s involvement appears secondary. The name “Occupy Wall Street” was picked by Lasn, from options presented by White. Neither remembered who came up with the idea to actually occupy, according to the New Yorker. Lasn thought of the ballerina image, not White, and the Adbusters art department created it. Lasn picked the date of September 17, 2011, sensing the moment was ripe for an American version of the Arab Spring and Spain’s Indignados movement. White wanted to wait a whole year, until July 4, 2012, by which time the anger would have almost certainly dissipated in the heat of the presidential election.
The two wrote the email urging activists to pick up the banner, but others created the OccupyWallSt.org website that spread the word beyond small circles, and Anonymous released a video that further galvanized support. There were many other calls for continual protest against the big banks, along with proto-occupations in Wall Street such as “Bloombergville.” Thousands of people can claim to have helped sparked Occupy, including Lasn and White, but that doesn’t sound so impressive when you need to sell a commodity you invented to the plutocrats.
It’s noteworthy that Lasn demures when asked about the impact of their ad campaign. But that hasn’t stopped White from, in effect, claiming credit for something he didn’t really do, for a historical moment that is impossible for one person to claim credit for.
White is not unique. The open movement combined with social media enabled unscrupulous behavior throughout Occupy Wall Street. In many camps, websites, online fundraisers, and Twitter and Facebook pages were stolen. Kit O’Connell says, “You had ten people sharing a single password, and all it could take is one person to change the password and seize a Twitter account. It was almost pervasive with media accounts. It also happened with large sums of money.”
It’s a crutch to say that hucksters and opportunists have always existed. Digital technologies are in some ways more trouble than they are worth, given the ability to profit off them and spread industrial-scale disinformation and disorientation. It’s lazy to say that the Micah Whites of the world are purely symptoms. They exist in relation to a movement and can have deleterious effects. O’Connell says, “These kinds of people, who are charismatic and seem to have expertise, are dangerous to folks new to activism. I can see corporations at Davos seeing White as a useful tool.”
While White isn’t going away, it would be refreshing if the media stopped providing a platform to someone who poses as an expert on activism, who is woefully ignorant about it, and who admits that no movement wants anything to do with him. Then perhaps the next time we hear of him will be when he is openly palling around with the billionaires and demagogues whom he hoped to rub elbows with in secret at Davos to explain, “I didn’t sell out. I bought in.”