An Occupy speech one month before Occupy started
I gave this speech to the 2011 Reform Sex Offender Laws Annual Conference in August, 2011. Yes, there is such an advocacy group. I was invited to deliver the keynote because I’m perhaps the only sex felon ever to run for public office in the history of the United States, let alone twice; once in 2010 for Cuyahoga County council, winning the highest turnout precincts by a landslide, and again countywide in 2014, placing 3rd among 6 candidates with almost 10,000 votes , beating a former sheriff and a former mayor.
It took me a while to get used to being in my predicament. Years. If you want the gory details, just Google me. It’s all there. Basically, I was Pervert of The Day for an entire 24 hour news cycle in November, 2001, for soliciting an FBI agent posing as a 13 year old. I never touched anyone, never have, never will, don’t have to register as a sex offender, got a very light sentence of probation, community service, and a fine; perhaps the lightest sentence for this kind of thing I could possibly get. No matter — this kind of stardom doesn’t go away, ever.
First, I couldn’t even stand hearing the phone ring, or a knock at the door. Then I left the country to try and find work. Then I kept getting fired from every job, over and over. The conviction kept following me, even though I didn’t have to register due to the relatively minor facts of my offense. I spent a few years so drunk and stoned they’re just a blur. Most people I know might not be alive if they’d had to endure what I’ve been through.
I ran for office in 2010, partly out of a desperation to find paying work, combined with my supreme confidence in my political abilities which I honed over a stellar international career pre-arrest. But it turns out the real reason I ran was to forgive myself for what I had done, and prove to the world that other human beings are not so unforgiving as society & our politics suggests. I needed to prove humanity’s humanity to our fellow man not just to others, but prove it to myself.
We ran an out of the box campaign. Because of my conviction, I felt free of the bullshit cookie cutter nonsense that I always hated anyway when I was a pro. We played off my locally ubiquitous last name, which had become toxic because of another Russo in county politics, sorta like this.
I knocked on probably thousands of doors. Lost count. I was asked about my conviction precisely twice, and I’m pretty sure those two people voted for me. I ran on the conviction, advocating to ban the box on employment applications asking about criminal convictions. We even raised money off a stunt that played on the not-so-whisper campaigns we knew were coming.
It was a fun campaign, especially the part where I got to unload a decade’s worth of hurt & frustration on my most vicious opponent. I raised more money than I ever imagined we could, I had a dozen core volunteers who would go through a brick wall for me, and I was even able to pay some key staff. I won the highest turnout precincts by a landslide, despite my opponents dropping my rap sheet door to door in those precincts (detailed in my keynote address). But losing sucked, because I really hate losing. Specifically, I would give almost anything for those 12 votes to get into third place ahead of Mr. Landed Gentry Rich Dude, which would have made me the top white vote getter in a predominantly African American district.
Oh, and by the way…here’s me and former Ohio Secretary of State Jennifery Brunner who is raising money for me in this photo. I look more nervous than her.
When RSOL asked me to get involved, and invited me to speak, I thought long and hard. One of the first promises I made to myself after the ordeal began was that I would not be known as the guy who did this horrible thing. I just wanted to disappear into a normal life, pay my bills, work, watch the Browns & the Cavs, and be normal. The world we live in wouldn’t allow that.
Because the world we live in measures humanity by money alone. Free market purism has reduced us all to not human beings but human resources, costs to be minimized. For almost a decade before I gave this speech, that reality governed every minute of my life. I was either an unmeasurable cost risk to an employer terrified of cameras coming at him, or a profit center for the guys sending the cameras. Before the 99% became a thing, I was well aware of the 1%, because I lived daily at the sharp end of their spear.
One day, I just rejected that reality, and decided that…another world is possible. I could run for office and have an Italian sausage tailgate at a polling station, even.
I decided to embrace who I am in whole, not in part, just as I expect society to do for us all. So I flew to St. Louis, and stood in front of a room full of people in far more dire straights than I. And I gave this speech. Shaking at times, catching my breath, seeing the video camera out of the corner of my eye as would wary prey fearing a predator. One of the toughest hours of my life.
Then, a month later, Occupy happened. If you listen closely to the speech, you’ll recognize it as pure Occupy. Use your voice. Love is greater than money. No one was more ready for Occupy than me. Occupy gave me a new vocabulary to add to the life I’d lived, a new outlet for the political skills I’d spent a lifetime perfecting, but which now were useless in the face of money. Even my best friends in politics abandoned me as toxic. With Occupy, I felt complete again.
I dove into Occupy and stayed in, mostly with my Youtube channel, even after the camps were evicted, for months, and like a lot of us, probably too long. I pushed everyone around me to keep going, don’t go anywhere, just never give up, you are changing the world, you don’t understand how awesome this is, please keep going, for God’s sake, we need you, I need you. I couldn’t let go. I almost wish I had just stopped because maybe if I hadn’t been so involved for so long, maybe some people who made stupid decisions wouldn’t be in federal prison now.
But I see Occupy as the 1967 Summer of Love squeezed into 2 months fermented by the internet into the most powerful change to America we may ever see for the rest of our lives. Like then, we tried to hold on too long, only we never got a chance to have our hippie funeral in Haight Ashbury, because we were crushed. Hunter S. Thompson’s “wave speech”, seeing from Las Vegas with the right pair of eyes the spot where the 1960's wave broke and rolled back, now sounds like a description of the view of Zuccoti Park from atop Citibank tower.
But just like that change, our change isn’t going anywhere, because it’s in our hearts now. Slate is blogging the 50th anniversary of The Beatles by quoting at length from Ian MacDonald’s forensic examination of the 60's and The Beatles, Revolution In the Head. (sound familiar?) Reading MacDonald’s description of the 1960's in his introduction is like reading a history of the short two months of Occupy. Only thing we were missing in 2011 was better music, but we went faster, aimed higher, got farther, and may have changed more. We didn’t know how much change the 1960's would forge for many years. We won’t know our own impact for a while either.
My memories of Occupy begin way before Occupy. They are different memories now, though, because of Occupy. I’m a different person. I’m more comfortable, even thrilled, to put this stuff on a brand new awesome content platform like Medium, and I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks about it, because I know another world is possible. I’ve been there. I’m helping create it.
I’m still at the mercy of liars, thieves, and con-artists who will lie straight to your face. I still can’t even be accepted (without a very public fight) to my own alma mater for a masters program I could literally teach. I still dream of being one of those guys on TV, fighting the good fight on Morning Joe or with Rachel Maddow. I’d probably be there already if I hadn’t screwed up my life so thoroughly by living as a bisexual male in a closet until I blew it up with my own stupidity. Maybe someone will check me out and cut me a break. Maybe I can turn this money based society on its ear simply by claiming back my humanity, using my voice, and being who I am.
That’s my memory of Occupy. It’s a great memory. Easy to summon. After all, I gave a speech about it once. Got a standing ovation, too.