It’s a radical idea — that protest as we know it is broken. And a lot of people disagreed with Micah White when he first started talking about it, but he believes it’s time for activists to try something else.
When Micah White was 13, he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. In high school, he started an underground newspaper.
And then in 2011, while working at Adbusters, he and the founder of the magazine came up with something big.
“We called it Occupy Wall Street, picked the day, Sept. 17, picked the core tactic and it just spiraled outside of our control,” White said.
Occupy spread to more than 80 countries and triggered demonstrations in other cities around the U.S.
But White said Occupy didn’t work. And that protest, in general, doesn’t work. Marching with signs and camping out to stop pipelines or fight Wall Street — it’s all just a story that activists keep telling themselves.
“If that story were true, it should have worked with Occupy Wall Street,” White said. “It hasn’t worked with Black Lives Matter, Women’s March. So it’s time to learn we need to get rid of that story.”
A lot of people disagree with White, of course, but he said it’s time for activists to try something else.
After Occupy fell apart, White wasn’t sure what that “something else” was. So he and his wife went looking for it.
“We decided, ‘Let’s move to the most beautiful place we’d ever been,’” White said. “Through universe or fate, we moved to Nehalem, Oregon, which literally means ‘the place where the people live,’ so it fits with my democratic populist ideology.”
Nehalem is a tiny coastal town — fewer than 300 people. Loggers, carpenters and fishermen live alongside retirees and aging hippies.
White and his wife Chiara live there, with their baby son, in a modest old house with vines around the door and chickens in the yard.
When they arrived four years ago, White was writing his book, “The End of Protest,” and observing his new community. He said he saw a power vacuum and that most people weren’t engaged in local politics. That’s a problem, White said, but he also saw it as an opportunity for activists across the country: Seize control via the democratic process, he said; run for office in small towns.
In July 2016, White wrote a letter to the community announcing his bid for mayor of Nehalem and calling on residents to run for three vacant city council positions. He wanted to see more people in the community take ownership of their local government, rather than leave it to the same small group of people who always seemed to run things.
In the letter, White described the city council as quote: “unresponsive, unimaginative and unprepared for navigating our city into the future.”
“They have no ideas of what to do with their community,” he said. “It’s not that they have bad ideas, it’s that they have no ideas.”
And just like that, White started a fight that would ultimately divide the community.
After that letter went out, White held a community meeting. He said 60 or so people showed up — more than have attended a city council meeting in years. People talked about protecting the city’s watershed, providing college scholarships to the kids of Nehalem and getting more citizens involved in city planning for the coming decades.
It may seem like a rosy beginning, but many who attended that first meeting weren’t there to support White. They had received his letter in the mail and showed because they wanted to know, “Who is this guy?”
Lucy Brook was at the meeting. She teaches yoga and has lived in the area for 45 years. Her issue was protecting the city’s water supply. The city allows logging in the hills surrounding its water source, and she’d been trying to learn more about it. She had even asked the city council for a tour of the watershed.
“They were very uncooperative, and it just seemed like they weren’t telling us everything that we wanted to know,” Brook said. “Micah’s ideas began to make sense.”
Lucy started attending regular meetings of White’s group — the Nehalem People’s Association. She said White talked passionately about the need to take control and build a more responsive and transparent local government.
He encouraged her and several others to join his ticket and run for one of the open seats on the city council, and she agreed.
“But as our campaign went on, I kept saying, “Stop saying ‘take over,’” she said. “It’s more like we just we want to be on the council so we can have a voice so we can have a tour of the watershed. And so we can ask questions and be answered.”
White’s fellow candidates asked him to take a more collaborative approach. But Brook said White didn’t seem open to that.
“He wanted us to wear pink T-shirts that said ‘Nehalem’ on them,” she said. “I don’t wear T-shirts and I don’t like pink. And so I go, ‘But you didn’t ask us.’ I mean if all four of us are running together, we have to agree on the color.”
Not long after the T-shirts conversation, White told his running mates it would be every man and woman for him or herself.
“I felt just cut adrift,” Brook said. “I had no idea how to run for an office, and I was only doing it because I had a leader. I thought I could be on city council if Micah is mayor, because Micah talks.”
White sent out a few more letters to the community in the lead up to the election — and he continued to criticize the city leadership.
“At some point, Micah became a liability,” Brook said. “It’s sort of like, if people thought I like Micah, then they certainly weren’t going to vote for me.”
Some were drawn to White’s ideas, but his manner alienated would-be supporters. Or as White put it:
“It’s really cool to hang out with someone who’s a lightning rod, because you’re like, ‘Wow look at that guy. I just saw a video of him on the internet. He’s like a minor, minor celebrity. It’s really interesting. Let’s hang out with him. It’s really cool,’” he said.
“But then when the lightning strikes, everyone around that person is burned big time, and I’m sorry they can’t handle it.”
In the election, White got 20 percent of the votes for mayor.
“I’m not trying to solve the problem of ‘how do I get a small community to really like me and vote for me?’ he said later. “The problem I’m trying to solve is, ‘How do you get a small community? How do you gain control of it?’”
But the people of Nehalem didn’t want to be controlled.
Jeff Pfeifer was one of the city council members White criticized in his letters. Pfeifer, a carpenter, has lived in Nehalem for about 20 years. After he got the first letter, he looked White up online.
And he saw that White mentioned Nehalem specifically in his book “The End of Protest”:
“The rural uprising begins when revolutionary activists distribute ourselves into pre-existing micro-cities in Cascadia, ensuring that in each place there are enough of us to sway every local election … Nehalem represents one revolutionary scenario for building power in rural communities … We aspire to master city administration.”
“I think it’s very offensive for someone to move here and want to change everything about it,” Pfeifer said. “I mean, you come into a city and usually people want to get involved to become a part of it and not take it over. That just that really, really struck a chord with a lot of people.”
Pfeifer started a Facebook group in response to White’s run for mayor, called Keep Nehalem Nehalem. It became a forum where people criticized White’s ideas and political platform — and attacked him personally.
While Pfeifer said he doesn’t support the personal attacks, he said that for many in the group, it felt like White was an outsider who spent more time talking to the rest of the world about Nehalem and the theory of revolution that he was testing than he did being part of the community.
A few months after White lost the election, an article appeared on the front page of the North Coast Citizen, the local newspaper. The picture was of a big white man’s belly with the word “Nehalem” tattooed across.
The headline read: “Nehalem and the N-word: campaign tactics go low and grow.”
The article says that racial slurs were directed toward White during the mayoral race. It quotes a local man calling White the N-word and saying, “I did not vote for the guy, and I’m glad as hell he lost. Take him snipe hunting. There are lots of old stumps that need fertilizer.”
The article was shared hundreds of times and caused a huge uproar in the community. It has since been taken down from the website and the reporter who wrote it has been fired.
Some people started to wonder: Did White lose the race for mayor because he wanted to seize control – or because he’s black?
The article had a profound impact on LaNicia Williams, who moved to Nehalem a few years ago and started a catering business called Coastal Soul. Williams is black and she said she’s found home here, despite the lack of diversity.
“I like to say it’s Redneckville, USA, and I say that in the most loving, wonderful way possible, but it is what it is,” Williams said.
After the article was published, Williams started a group called the Oregon Coast Love Coalition. She wanted the community to talk about racism in a gentle, supportive environment.
Over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, Williams organized a series of events. She cooked a big breakfast for anyone who wanted to join. There was a speaker, a woman who wrote a book about the history of the Ku Klux Klan in the county. Then they opened it up for a community discussion about racism and people began to share their personal stories.
“We had a young man who was black and gay, who received death threats, who was bullied,” Williams said. “To hear his story broke my heart.”
Then White got up. Williams hadn’t met him until that weekend.
“He said, ‘You know all this stuff about love is good and whatnot, but what we need is a change in power,’” Williams recalled. “I cannot, with everything I know about how love has changed my life, agree with him.”
Williams agreed that local government could and maybe should change. But she said she couldn’t get behind how White goes about trying to make change.
“To me, Micah doesn’t have a concern for this community,” Williams said. “He wants to prove his theory, and he’s come to Nehalem to do that. And as a member of this community, I say go away.”
Whether they like White and his ideas, everyone agrees that he stirred things up. He got people talking and showing up to city council meetings.
For at least one person in Nehalem, White made a difference.
Brook, the yoga teacher who ran for city council and also lost, said that because of White, she joined the city planning commission.
“Micah got people talking. Micah got people paying attention,” Brook said. “We need activists; we need people to try and wake up the human race and make us run this world differently.”
White believes that even though things in Nehalem didn’t work as he’d hoped, his theory is sound, and it’s more important now than ever: Protest will work, he said, when people realize they also have to enter government at the local level, and build from there.
“The world is sliding into a very dark place,” he said. “It’s very easy to focus on the little stuff, but in reality it’s bigger than me, and it’s bigger than Nehalem.
“I think they’re going to miss me if I go,” he added. “I really do.”
This is the latest episode of terrestrial, KUOW’s new podcast exploring the choices we make in a world we have changed. Subscribe to the show. And join our Facebook group. If we’re going to face climate change head on, we’re going to need each other.