This ex-Occupy activist is trying to bring the revolution to small-town Oregon

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The lights in the rec center community room burn through mid-afternoon. Fifteen people sit in a broad circle, hunched forward atop mismatched furniture on this October Sunday. Some at this town hall, put on by the new Nehalem People’s Association, take notes. Others speak with passion. Only occasionally do overlapping voices devolve into crosstalk.

The lights in the rec center community room burn through mid-afternoon. Fifteen people sit in a broad circle, hunched forward atop mismatched furniture on this October Sunday. Some at this town hall, put on by the new Nehalem People’s Association, take notes. Others speak with passion. Only occasionally do overlapping voices devolve into crosstalk.

The shapeless-yet-compelling colloquy pings back to its unlikely leader: Brown-skinned, with wiry long hair and a willowy affect, 34-year-old Micah White looks exactly like the kind of guy who would schedule a rural American town hall at the same time some of the big NFL matchups are playing on TV.

White wants to discuss a parcel of land that may be up for development, but he waits for the attendees to come upon the subject’s relevance on their own. Nehalem, like many parts of the country with a heavy tourist presence, struggles to balance long-time residents with seasonal visitors, in addition to other woes. There is a “significant homeless problem” in the county that contains it, according to Erin Skarr, who works at CARE, an anti-poverty non-profit in the area.

A popular nearby pizzeria recently discontinued dine-in service because it couldn’t summon enough workers to sustain people eating in. There isn’t enough affordable housing in tiny Nehalem to go around.

Outside the town hall, drizzle falls over lush greenery, because it is October in the densely forested, intoxicatingly beautiful Pacific Northwest. One jarring element are the lawn signs touting the mayor’s reelection campaign. They are the first campaign materials for a mayoral race some Nehalem residents recall having seen in a decade. A quarter-mile burg whose median age is 52—12 years older than the rest of Oregon—Nehalem isn’t used to activism. Its natives and Portland retirees have been more about hunting and crabbing and the small-town gossip (as observed in that Everclear song named after the place) than the talk this guy with his Ph.D. from Switzerland has been pushing.

One sees the signage and wonders: Is City Hall fighting Micah White?

Not exactly. But the radical is running for mayor.


A lifelong activist who transformed an editing position at the Vancouver-based, anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters into a founding role in Occupy Wall Street’s formation, White hardly hides that his political activity in Nehalem functions as a testing ground for the ideas from his “playbook for revolution,” which was published last spring. In The End of Protest, White advocates moving “ruthless innovation” into municipalities such as this—Nehalem has 180 registered voters—so that issues such as wealth inequality, affordable housing and general citizen sovereignty might take hold, then go viral.

The season’s game plan is to utilize the Nehalem People’s Association as a vessel of direct democracy, thereby taking over the somnolent Nehalem government, establishing a springboard for like-minded people to flood rural America and set up copycat actions of their own. Whether rural America, and its existing political structures, will accept the game plan remains to be seen.

God brought Micah White to Nehalem—a place meaning “home of the people”—he told me. He says that after Occupy Wall Street’s “constructive failure” he and many of his fellow change agitators were at extreme loose ends. Some collaborators got divorces, some became deeply lost. Malaise was ruling the day. But while traveling with his spouse, Chiara Riccardone, the then-Berkeley resident happened upon Nehalem Bay State Park. The awe of the place, ocean and bay and fir, knocked them for a loop. Malaise evolved to something like an opportunity. They moved to the northern corner of Oregon’s coast shortly thereafter.

“What I’m trying to do is solve the problems that plagued Occupy,” White says. Theoretical revolution was not going not going to provide verifiable impact on the lives of people making an average $47,000 per year in a region priced for tourists.

“Income inequality in Nehalem has manifested in a socio-political inequality where only certain social groups feel comfortable running for office,” White says outside the town hall. Further compounding the difficulty of democratic representation, says White, is the town zoning, which he thinks results in less wealthy Nehalem residents who live in residential trailers outside of city limits being unable to participate fully in city council activities. “The problems that are faced here are faced everywhere,” he tells me. “That’s why I like this place.”

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White is an inveterate provocateur. As a 13-year-old student he made his first protest, against his school’s mandatory National Anthem policy, got attention, and hasn’t stopped since. He spearheaded civil disobedience against voting machine maker Diebold—whose CEO promised to help deliver Ohio for George W. Bush in 2003—as a Swarthmore College undergrad. Then came Occupy.

A newcomer in rural government, where how deep one’s roots go might count as much as how much money a person has, White is flagrant in treating his campaign as an experiment based on his writing. He uses words like “revolution” and “takeover” despite visible and intense displeasure on the part of the neighbors he says he aims to empower. And all this is happening in a part of remote, white America in which being an adult black male briskly rounding an aisle in the grocery store is enough to startle another shopper.

Nehalem, population 271, is the middle village in a trio of tiny municipalities in Tillamook County that make their bones off vacationers. There are five realty offices on neighboring Manzanita’s main street, and the perils of residents in search of affordable housing seem to grow with each flipped vacation property. Homes across the county sit unused for as many a nine months out of the year.

Coming up repeatedly in the waves of Sunday’s town hall talk was a plot of land owned by Dan Connor, a Southern California developer who keeps a luxurious second home in Manzanita. Most residents are in the dark about the land parcel’s future, but the city council is considering partnering with Connor. Connor suggested that if the city paid for paving the lot as part of his proposed development, he’d offer free parking. A sketch on the county’s website suggests offices for lawyers and, yes, more realtors.


The attendees at the town hall float a few half-formed alternatives to this plan: namely affordable housing. Because local inexpensive housing is virtually nil, the vacation industry’s outsize pool of restaurant workers and housekeepers often commutes 25 miles both ways, on winding, mostly rainy roads. Children native to Nehalem turn 18, then leave; there’s no housing available near their families for them to stay.

A renting San Diego transplant named Paula observes that while many vacation rental properties sit empty all year, “There are people in need of housing. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Here and there graying homeowners pick apart the notion of addressing the “Connor corner” at the next night’s City Council meeting. As the colloquy toggles awkwardly between talk of the lot, just one bit is clear: Even Micah White’s most sympathetic supporters in this place of constant beauty eye him with a degree of unease. Dude’s only been here four years.

The End of Protest, White’s book, was published by Knopf Canada in March. The scholarly volume offers an independent-minded perspective on the potential of what some call Cascadia. “The land is rich in natural resources and priceless biodiversity,” it reads. It is “rugged, wild, porous, and therefore difficult to police … Secessionist movements enjoy moderate public sympathy. Local police are few and likely to be loyal to the people.”

Through coffee shop chat, I learned that Nehalem residents have read The End of Protest, subtitled “a new playbook for revolution.” A local school official told me he did so without alarm. This text is not what began the divisions. Friction began with White’s first letter to prospective voters. Before his yard signs sprouted, Micah White put out a direct mailing.

In it, he first cited Scripture—Proverbs 29:19: “Where there is no vision, the people perish”—then lodged a complaint about council seats being filled by appointment, calling the process “undemocratic,” the council “unimaginative,” the situation “unfortunate. Worse, it is dangerous.” This generated a relative avalanche of fiery, bitter discussion of the letter’s substance on Facebook and an online dissection of local issues.

Jeff Pfeifer, a local council member and one of the proprietors of the Facebook group “Keep Nehalem Nehalem,” describes the letter as surprising and unnerving, in a small, tight-knit town. “There would have been a lot of ways for him to come here and [get involved in local politics]” he says, “and he chose instead to try to divide us” with the campaign. “Maybe this works better in a big city,” he adds.


Then came a huge turnout to White’s first People’s Association town hall in August: roughly 60 people. The subject at hand: the next 100 years. Among the activists and curious residents were locals whose sole reason for attending appeared to be glaring at Micah White. The brother of a well-known city worker sported a Confederate flag shirt. A mysterious short-haired stranger dressed in black fumed throughout the event, before announcing “Fuck this shit!” and walking out.

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The night after Sunday’s town hall, about five times more citizens than usual are inside the Nehalem City Council chambers for the body’s monthly meeting. On the wall to the left of the officials’ platform is an epic quilt made up of river blues and the greens of verdant firs. To the right is a portrait of the late Mayor Shirley Kalkhoven, who presided for two decades before passing away last year at 87. Dale Stockton took her place, but then his mind began to slip, according to two people close to town government. When he retired, the current Mayor Bill Dillard, as the longest-serving member of the council, was slotted in.


Dillard, a 15-year council vet, declined requests to be interviewed for this article. (“I’m not going to help get his name out there,” he said about White.)

Candy dishes and nameplates sit before Dillard, city manager Dale Schafer, Schafer’s assistant, and the other commissioners—one of whom makes a living minding empty vacation homes.

The law enforcement report is admitted to the record—one arrest last month. Only one other item of old business: Dan Conner’s lot. No discussion is scheduled on the rare piece of open Nehalem land. There’s been no update to Connor’s proposal. Business as usual. Micah White raises his hand, waits a while.

“Will there be any sort of a public meeting, anything to help people understand the Dan Connor proposal?”

The city manager says she hasn’t even seen a “concrete proposal.”

“It will be discussed at that time,” the city manager tells White. She reminds the public there’s only a rendering of the proposed development on the lot as of now. White pushes the issue.


“I’m very hesitant to have the public tell a private person what they can and cannot do on their property,” Mayor Dillard says.

“I get it,” White says.

“I don’t know if you do though,” shoots back council member Jeff Pfeifer.

“Don’t talk down to me like that,” White counters.

Council members and the city manager make the case that even agreeing to meet about the property—land belonging to a private citizen—would be premature. White asks a lot of questions. The property is zoned for commercial use, he’s told, and what’s more; “legally, [people] can do whatever they want with their property.” The council hasn’t received an update from Connor on the proposal for the city to pave the lot.


Later, Councilman Pfeifer would express frustration at White’s tactics, at the meeting and with his dealings with the city more generally.  “He’s saying, let’s have a meeting, but it’s not our property. There’s nothing to discuss, and as it becomes something to discuss, of course we’ll talk about it.” If White wanted to be part of “the team” by being mayor, he thinks, he could try a little harder to work with, rather than against, the council.

Brenna Hamer, owner of a business downtown, addresses the council. Hamer explains that she’s shown up on a whim and begins to articulate her vision for the lot: nature and art that project the charm and friendliness of the town.

“What Dan [Connor] is proposing is kind of what I was hoping wouldn’t happen,” Hamer says.

From there, public input is on. The Council meets about twice as long as usual; residents comment on the future of the lot, a “visible space” in the community.


After the meeting, local council candidate Lucy Brook, a 74-year-old retired coffeehouse owner, connects with another retired person from Sunday’s town hall. They begin brainstorming on avenues of addressing local poverty that goes unseen. (The region just built its first homeless resource, a “warming center,” almost a half hour down Highway 101.) Something is happening here.

In these tense times, what if it is true that in our tangible future, we have an option that’s distinctly post-protest? That regular citizens can have a say in how a small, remote parcel of land controlled by a faraway interest suggests a participatory democracy capable of actually delivering decision making and power to the people. The aging landscaper concerned about where she’ll lay her head 18 months from now and the parent who just wants nearby shelter for his daughter could experience the same level of political engagement as a mayor or a lobbyist or a well-connected realtor in these smalls towns—if, that is, the existing culture of those small, sleepy towns, allow it. “He wants to start a revolution,” says Pfeifer, “but it’s like, why come here? Why come to this town that everyone really likes, and try to change it?”

Will the relevance of White’s gambit prove durable? Can his political visibility and directly democratic tactics overcome the friction he’s creating in the Cascadia he seeks to revolutionize?

The answer depends on the people of this sleepy Cascadian town on election day, and whether they cast their vote for White’s promise of a more open city council.

“We can have endless protests like [Colin Kaepernick] and endless Black Lives Matters marches in the streets, endless Occupys going into squares,” White told me. “And it would get all of the media coverage that you want, but this is revolutionary: Trying to take control of a city council in a small town and then give the power to people who meet as the Nehalem People’s Association.”


This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the number of AirBnB rentals in the town of Nehalem; there are over 100 rentals in the three-town area of Nehalem, Mohler, and Manzanita, though at press time only a handful in Nehalem proper. We have also corrected the story to reflect the true nature of the county’s homelessness problem, which is more geographically diffuse that originally suggested.


This story has also been updated with comments from members of Nehalem’s city council.

Donnell Alexander is a Portland-based creator of cultural content who hopes to soon be disqualified from writing first-person pieces about economic hardship.

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