Occupy Cleveland protestor, October, 2011, at the Tom Johnson Free Speech Quadrant of Public Square
In a Marxist analysis, September 17, 2011 marked the beginning of what became the most revolutionary mass movement of the 21st century so far, Occupy Wall Street. For two months, out of nowhere, Occupy nonviolently seized public property from private hands in every corner of America and across the globe, then held it, until being crushed by the state, suffering at least 7,000 arrests until the clearance of Zuccotti Park in New York City on November 15, 2011. Ever since, the cultural hegemony of capital has stopped at nothing to bury, minimize, dismiss, mock, co-opt, and absorb Occupy like a cancerous threat.
Today, Occupy’s most visible remaining impact is the hegemonic change in discourse of Occupy’s two sided slogan; “the 99%” and “the 1%”. Embodying all of capital’s grotesque inequality, these ideas would have never crossed anyone’s lips absent Occupy’s nonviolent civil disobedience cementing it into humanity’s collective “common sense”, as Gramsci would call it. Here, Gramsci’s “war of position” was won, by Occupy, against capital’s cultural hegemony. Ideational ground has been forever seized by the masses so completely even capital resorts to the 99%-1% terminology to defend itself with typically cynical co-optation, like a CIA rainbow flagged recruiting video.
But the highest priority of capital against any memory of Occupy for 10 years has been the complete erasure of nonviolent civil disobedience as the core, in fact genesis, of Occupy’s power. Redefining Occupy away from this power, from the first step onto public land without a permit, has become a perpetual panicked exercise in tail chasing dog wagging nonsense, all to avoid the slightest acknowledgment of the essential cosmic power inherent to refused acquiescence. For example, substantively, very little overlaps between Occupy and the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot, but tactically, protestors’ refusal to observe any rule against their presence inside the Capitol building is the sole source of any power that moment may possess at all, including the power Jan. 6th holds over those most terrified by its rather meaningless spectacle. One only needs to see how prosecutors treated the first person sentenced for that “crime” on July 19, 2021. Paul Hodgkins had the book thrown at him, was charged with “terrorism”, forced to plead to “obstruction,” and will now spend 8 months in prison for the “crime” of spending exactly 25 minutes inside the Capitol on January 6th without permission...taking selfies.
Just as no one would care about January 6th had the protest obeyed the rules, whatever smears one hears today about Occupy (which will never end), no notice would ever have been taken of Occupy had it begun as a protest with a permit. In fact, Occupy Cleveland’s eviction arrests on October 21, 2011, one of the first coordinated attacks worldwide, occurred the very hour the two-week old encampment crossed the street from permitted space to non-permitted. Noticing this crease in nonviolent power staring them in the face, days of tense debate in Occupy Cleveland ended with the decision to step off their permitted 24 hour presence on a sidewalk, onto the grass of what was then the Tom Johnson Free Speech quadrant of Public Square, where no permit was allowed beyond curfew. Instantly, scores of police swarmed Public Square before curfew, setting up flood lights, cutting off main roads, then once curfew hit, rounded up 12 protestors merely seated in the grass who would not leave. Documenting the arrests on video, it was as if lightning had struck the moment the clock ticked down to curfew, The Dark Side, capital, summoning itself to its hind legs to roar.x
Tim Russo at Occupy Cleveland, winter, 2011, at the permitted sidewalk tent
How did Occupy win this “war of position”, despite “losing”? Wasn’t Occupy a failure? A Gramscian “war of maneuver” was launched; the nonviolent act of seizing public property against the law and holding it until crushed by the state. Occupy did not succeed in keeping the public property (a “war of position” in only the physical sense, not the Gramscian hegemonic sense). But every single arrest, crackdown, any attack on Occupy’s seizures of public property necessarily (discussed below) backfired in favor of the seizures, giving jet fuel to Occupy’s central message, growing the movement so thoroughly Occupy’s messaging is today a permanent fixture in a growing new hegemony.
Here we see the mysterious magic of nonviolence; there is no obvious connection between breaking local curfew laws and a permanent change in hegemonic discourse worldwide. How could it possibly work? It seems completely ridiculous - at least as ridiculous as making salt on a beach.
Salt marching to occupation
“It is difficult not to laugh, and we imagine that will be the mood of most thinking Indians,” wrote British empire rag The Statesman in spring, 1930 in response to Gandhi’s plan to march across India to the beach to make salt in defiance of British law against it. Leftism today, radical or otherwise, has precisely the same deeply disdainful memory, if any, of both the Salt March and Occupy. Even veterans of Occupy today knee jerk into the same jokey derision of their experience (Caleb Maupin springs to mind), bemoaning how Occupy was co-opted, what chaos it all was, whining about who rose to stardom in media and who didn’t, or who got jobs in nonprofit rackets, what a waste etc., before then parroting right wing attacks on Occupy as dirty, filthy, incompetent losers who should get a job. Capital co-opts such movements so thoroughly the movement even begins to hate themselves, on demand.
Once begun, however, the Salt March’s enormous power was immediately apparent. Nehru himself observed, "it seemed as though a spring had been suddenly released," recalling many years later, “But the real importance, to my mind, lay in the effect they had on our own people, and especially the village masses ... Non-cooperation dragged them out of the mire and gave them self-respect and self-reliance ... They acted courageously and did not submit so easily to unjust oppression; their outlook widened...” A widened outlook, which acts courageously against unjust oppression, let alone in the village masses, is precisely the threat to capital of nonviolence. Occupy opened these channels permanently, where imagination soared, spinning from the mere ignoring of local curfew laws to the creation of another world. In two months, the world was transfixed, even McDonald’s ran ads for a 99 cent burger. Only nonviolence possesses such hegemonic power.
So great was Occupy’s threat to capital it has never for a moment stopped fighting that threat, for a decade. In Cleveland, once the arrests were made on Public Square, Occupy moved back to their permitted sidewalk, determined to last the entire coming winter. Capital noticed. During that winter, as Rolling Stone documented in 2012, the FBI concocted a “bomb plot”, which the FBI paid for itself, planned itself, then pushed onto unsuspecting (some mentally ill) protestors, landing five dummies in federal prison, one of countless “sting” operations created wholly by Joe Biden America’s ever burgeoning police state for the sole purpose of propaganda to fund itself. The roundup of the “plotters” on April 30, 2012, ended what was likely the longest lasting occupation of the entire movement. But, of course, capital had only begun to bury Occupy in Cleveland.
Less than a week after rounding up Occupy Cleveland on Public Square October 21, 2011, Mayor Frank Jackson announced a total renovation and rebuilding of Public Square funded by millions of corporate and federal money. There was no clamor for it. Public Square’s layout dated to the first settlers from Connecticut who replicated the New England town square model. Welp, that’s gotta go! Rushed to completion for the Republican National Convention of 2016, Public Square today is little more than a bizarrely bleak, weirdly warped architectural blob, the perfect canvas for a corporate branding opportunity auctioned to the highest bidders from Cleveland’s oligarchy.
Snaking through Public Square like an amoeba of capital is the Key Bank Promenade, coiling around the actual spot of the Occupy Cleveland arrests that night, as if to strangle it. Donald Trump’s favorite law firm bought itself a plaque on a bench called the Jones Day Perennial Garden, ironically next to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument to Union Civil War veterans, where Occupy Cleveland was denied permission to camp from the monument’s board on October 12, 2011. Billionaire Dan Gilbert bought himself the Cleveland Cavaliers & Quicken Loans Perennial Gardens, which surround local stinking oligarch Bobby George’s restaurant, branded with fists in the air co-optation as if to sneer at your silly thoughts of revolution, calling itself “Rebol” whose goal is “upgrading humanity”.
All so very feeble. For if one person decided to sit on the AT&T garden bench and not leave after curfew, the very same legions of capital would swarm yet again, instantly. Question being, would the very same immense power of nonviolence be then unleashed in support of the person not leaving the AT&T bench after curfew? Could it? How? Can these forces be wielded on demand? To put it another way, as we Marxists like to say about our socialism, is nonviolent force somehow “scientific”?
Praxis vs. a practice
The short answer is no, the greatest nonviolent power is not predictably “scientific” in the sense Marxists like to claim Marxism is. So many factors must be present, most unpredictable, largely products of sheer chance. For example, it is entirely forgotten that Occupy emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring, drawing on the same forces afoot worldwide. Gandhi himself could not have known the Salt March would be his towering masterpiece; prior to the spring of 1930, Gandhi had been in and out of His Majesty’s prisons so often the Salt March could easily have just been another fired blank. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a student of Gandhi and the Salt March in particular, never could plan precisely the forces that reactionary injustice would wield against his nonviolent disobedience of their unjust laws, much less the forces unleashed for justice in response. Dr. King couldn’t even have known if those forces for justice would, in fact, unleash to support him. If he were alive today, seeing police murder African Americans in broad daylight on a regular basis, Dr. King would even wonder if he’d been successful at all. So then, why bother?
The closest Gandhian nonviolence comes to a “science” is in the term Gandhi himself coined for his efforts, satyagraha, a combination of the Sanskrit words for “truth” (satya) and “insistence” or “force” (agraha). Gandhi himself explained, “Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence...” Beyond the tactic of satyagraha, which summons this Force of Truth and Love, Gandhi laid out over his life a wide array of demands, rules, and principles for any satyagrahi to live by every day. To continue the Force analogy, for Gandhi, a satyagrahi must commit to a kind of “Jedi” way of living, which Gandhi called “ahimsa”. Specific to Indian culture, some of the principles for ahimsa tend to grate at the Western mind, such as chastity, spinning your own clothing, and worse for Marxists, belief in God.
The tactic itself, however, if practiced carefully, can be detached from the monk-like devotion to the culturally specific ways of ahimsa. For example, celibacy in this sense is not a magic potion for satyagrahi, it is merely the application of a discipline to a human weakness, intended to instill the same discipline against the human weaknesses of fear, anger, violence and vengeance which can defeat nonviolence when they inevitably challenge a satyagrahi in the moment of confrontation. Thus nonviolence is a practice more than a tactic, like love, and in fact is love, a daily commitment to which one must dedicate time and effort constantly, in preparation for that day when the Force of Truth and Love does unleash itself to support your fight against injustice.
Here we find echoes of Marxian “permanent revolution” in pursuit of Gramscian cultural hegemony. For Gramsci, capital enforces itself through the near unanimous consent of the masses who voluntarily acquiesce to capital’s specific value system. Thus, a hegemony to replace capital’s must also be near unanimous, or capital’s hegemony will prevail over it. With satyagraha, the only way the immense Force of Truth and Love is unleashed is if it is near unanimous, or in fact, fully unanimous, because Truth and Love are eternal, thus must eventually be unanimous. It follows that if your nonviolent refusal to acquiesce unleashes the Force of Truth and Love, in all its immense power, not only have you summoned that Force, you have necessarily built a new near unanimity of hegemony to replace capital’s. This is how the terms “99%” and “1%” have entered our discourse permanently. Capital may have crushed the movement which Forced, via Truth and Love, that change in hegemony, but the change remains.
So when’s the next Occupy?
After the Salt March, it would be another 17 years before Britain left India for good, more blood would be shed, more time in prisons for nonviolent activists, more terrible suffering to endure for a continent. Ten years after Occupy Wall Street, it seems at least another ten years of capitalist imperialism sprawls hellishly ahead of us to suck us all dry, throw us in jail if we dare disobey, beat us into acquiescence with the daily grind of atomized alienated hopelessness. What to do? Should we all go to Cleveland’s Public Square and sit on the Jones Day Bench after curfew?
The next “Occupy” is definitely coming. Capital’s hegemonic collapse has only accelerated, and if Marxism is indeed “scientific”, well, nothing is more written in stone than yet another worldwide financial calamity leaving capitalism in a steaming heap. Symptoms are everywhere, from the mere existence of a President Donald Trump, to stock market bubbles so enormous now the dot com bubble seems quaint. Censorship is now a grassroots fascist phenomenon, enforced online then outward, so thoroughly embedded in society even your cute little Aunt Petunia, just like Joe Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki, likes nothing more than to get someone (everyone!) banned from Facebook. Mini Mussolinis dressed as cat lady MSNBC wine moms join with neo-Confederate skinhead chuds who are literal Nazis to “cancel” whatever it is that curls their knickers a twitch or two. These are all symptoms of capital’s panic in the hegemonic mind. Capital is collapsing, it is entirely apparent to all, and covid-19 has only made that clearer at the sharp end of a pharma syringe on the other end of which awaits some Pete Buttigieg clone’s PowerPoint presentation to the board which has a deadline for the closing bell segment on CNBC Earnings Report.
The price of labor declines ever closer to zero, often actually zero (college sports), and the last time that happened was slavery (unpaid involuntary labor, nothing more). To get rid of slavery took a bloody yet deeply heroic Civil War led by the likes of Union Brigadier General August Willich, the greatest American Communist who ever lived. It is no coincidence here at Midwestern Marx that we very much like August Willich, not least because he tried to steal Karl Marx’s wife. I digress. But even Willich would know, the next Occupy is coming, the question is when, and how.
Occupy was a creature of its precise moment in history. It was less planned movement, more explosion of it. Therein lay Occupy’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. The next Occupy won’t be planned either. Something may be planned to spark it, like the Salt March was. Marxists in particular are susceptible to this notion that one day a palace will be stormed, a date and time will begin the revolution, a specific action. For Gramsci the palace to be stormed is the mind of the masses who enforce capital by their own acquiescence. Thus, more likely, a spark will light a flame that will engulf the world again, and it too will be given a name. It too will force hegemonic change, and it too will likely be crushed, more viciously than ever. Because hilariously, Joe Biden was instrumental in the crackdown on Occupy in 2011, under Barack Obama, whose FBI, NSA, CIA, the whole federal enchilada coordinated with, quite literally, every single police department in America, most under Democratic Party mayors, to crush a bunch of kids violating curfew. Joe Biden, Crime Bill Boomer Asshole, will be more than ready if we all sat on the Jones Day Bench tomorrow night after curfew. You can bank on that. No, unless you have a big budget for lawyers, and thousands ready to fill the jails, it is not very useful to imagine planning the next Occupy.
There are far more fruitful endeavors for a revolutionary’s time in between revolutionary moments, not just to prepare for the next big moment, but live as if it has already come. As the saying goes, be the change you wish to see. For example, even though he could not know how far his idea to make salt on a beach would go, Gandhi had an inkling. So for the Salt March, Gandhi insisted on specifically trained people from his own ashram, grizzled veterans of studying and practicing satyagraha campaigns, steeped in the principles of ahimsa, who were highly disciplined and ready for anything; to be arrested, or killed, or just merely ignored. In a Maoist sense these are “cadres”, or the “vanguard”, people so skilled and trained and gifted and brave they are capable of leading the mass line where it wants to go, because they’ve already lived it.
The key is the mass line needs to want to go there. The mass line just doesn’t know how. Through Occupy Wall Street a decade ago, we were taught once again that way forward, where the mass line was ready to go, how high are its costs, and how permanent its changes to our world can be. At Occupy general assemblies, we liked to say “another world is possible.” We weren’t ready last time. Maybe now we are. On Occupy’s tenth anniversary this September 17th, the best way to commemorate is to live in that other world yourself, preparing to bring it to others when the eternally unanimous Force of Truth and Love once more, without warning, explodes in your very hands, like a light sabre.
Tim Russo is author of Ghosts of Plum Run, an ongoing historical fiction series about the charge of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. Tim's career as an attorney and international relations professional took him to two years living in the former soviet republics, work in Eastern Europe, the West Bank & Gaza, and with the British Labour Party. Tim has had a role in nearly every election cycle in Ohio since 1988, including Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020. Tim ran for local office in Cleveland twice, earned his 1993 JD from Case Western Reserve University, and a 2017 masters in international relations from Cleveland State University where he earned his undergraduate degree in political science in 1989. Currently interested in the intersection between Gramscian cultural hegemony and Gandhian nonviolence, Tim is a lifelong Clevelander.