In 2009, Van Jones became one of the early tests of President Obama's leadership—and one that many believe he failed. The President initially did the right thing when he created the "Green Jobs” advisor position for the ‘Green for All’ visionary Van Jones. However, after charges flew that Jones had been connected to a radical 9/11 “Truther” movement, among other things, Obama capitulated to pressure that lead to Jones' resignation—and consequently opened the flood gates to first term bullying from the Right.
Of course, Van Jones' story neither began with the current administration nor ended there. In his college years, he was what he now describes as to the left of radical, or as he also sometimes puts it, “to the left of Pluto.” But that was then. Today Jones, 44, is one who stands firm in his progressive politics—he does the work that makes changes in real people’s lives. Of course, he has never joined a coven like Tea Partier Christine O’Donnell, but the Right, with their newfound love of witch hunting, continues to paint him as a Communist. Their proof? He named one of his sons after Amilcar Cabral, the anti-colonialist Guinea-Bissuan who lead his country to independence.
Jones’ 2008 New York Times best-selling, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems, does indeed read like a manifesto—but a completely rational one that provides a blueprint that pushes America towards a responsible future.
As President of “Rebuild the Dream,” a hub for exchange between and action by progressive organizations, Jones has been fortifying the progressive Left for years, long before the movement spilled out into the street. His newest book, also called, Rebuild The Dream, out this March, imagines an America that makes good on its best promises.
Here, in an EBONY.com exclusive, the indefatigable Jones speaks more candidly than he has ever before about his White House departure, Occupy Wall Street and how his relationship to land guides his principles.
EBONY.COM: As Occupy Wall Street movements were facing eviction you wrote an essay that circled the web defending them. Now, OWS activists are showing up to intervene in eviction/home seizures across America. What are your thoughts about the ability of the movement to be effective long term?
Van Jones: Sometimes when you try and “wipe something out,” you end up just spreading it around. I think that's what the establishment did when they evicted the Occupiers last year. As they say, you can't evict an idea. You can't evict the 99%. All they've really done is ensure that this movement has to innovate, spread out, be creative. But the establishment can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. I see OWS as a modern version of SNCC—the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee. The SNCC youth were the most courageous and audacious of the civil rights forces. They "occupied" the lunch counters. They "occupied" the buses for the freedom rides.
But you still had to have the NAACP and CORE and Dr. King and other forces to orchestrate the legislation and litigation. One group or one force is not usually enough. SNCC by itself might have produced more protests than progress. SNCC created the space for the other groups to get more done. SNCC was key to having a dynamic, powerful movement able to capture the imagination of the world.
EBONY.COM: In Iceland, bankers were arrested for the casino like banking that collapsed that economy. Why hasn't that happened here?
V.J.: There should be hundreds of [American] bankers in jail, period. With the SNL [Savings & Loan] situation in the 1980s, bankers went to prison. Pundits keep saying that what Wall Street bankers did this time was wrong but not illegal. Oh, really? How do they know that? I mean, there has been no serious investigation of what happened. I am glad that New York’s Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is calling for a real investigation—and holding out for some real accountability. So is California’s Attorney General, Kamala Harris. We know for a fact that at the very least, there's been consumer fraud. In our neighborhoods, people get sent away for decades for doing less harm—and based on far less evidence of wrong-doing. It is crazy.
EBONY.COM: You've said The Tea Party represents 20 percent of the population and the ‘Rebuild The Dream’ movement the other 80 percent. What would you say are the unifying principles 80 percent Americans can agree upon and organize around? What are your demands?
V.J.: It is simple. We act like this is some real mysterious stuff, and it is not. 1) Everyone knows that rich folks need to pay a bigger share in taxes. People who've done well in America should do right by America. And they shouldn’t whine and cry about it. Even the majority of Republicans favor boosting taxes on the super-wealthy. 2) Jobs. We've got to get Pookie and Sha-nay-nay and Joe Six Pack some jobs. Instead of adding pain to pain by trying to cut social services, the American government should focus on jobs. 3) Get the big corporate money out of politics. Rich people are free to buy yachts, but Congressman should not be for sale. Just those three ideas alone unite most Americans.
EBONY.COM: The NAACP has recently claimed to uncover voter suppression, a charge that's been leveled at the Republican Party before. What's at stake for the 2012 presidential elections? Will we see more of these kinds of desperate tactics?
V.J.: Oh, we haven’t seen anything yet. Over the long term, the demographics favor progressives. This growing wave of young people and Latinos give the Democrats a growing edge. The only way for the GOP to win is to push more people out of the process and pull more corporate cash in. Anything they can do to hurt us—like telling students that their college ID cards are not enough to let them vote—they will do.
EBONY.COM: There are Democrats who support the President but believe that him letting you go opened the door to the kind of bullying by his opponents that's largely defined his Presidency. Do you think he made a mistake in "allowing" you to resign?
V.J.: Politics at that level is like “speed chess” meets “Mortal Kombat.” When the bad guys start shooting, the White House team has a very narrow timeframe. You have to make a decision. You make your best call, under the circumstances. Then you move on. That’s it. There are no do-overs.
Back then, the main thing we were trying to do was re-set the conversation regarding the health care fight. The Tea Party had spent all of August disrupting Congress’ Town Hall meetings. They were screaming about death panels. They were screaming about socialism. They were screaming about czars.
I was the perfect target for all their venom and hatred. Here I was, a guy who has always been very honest about the fact that my political views, when I was in my 20s, had been on the left side of Pluto. By the time I got to the White House in my 40s, I had evolved to a different outlook—but just the fact of my history made me the perfect talking point and attacking point. My superiors were willing to fight for me. They knew it was all bogus. I had been doing a great job.
So it all came down to me. I had to make a decision. Do we waste bullets trying to defend, explain and contextualize everything in my colorful past—day after day, for weeks and possibly months? We knew they were going to keep trying to make “Van Jones” the issue. Or should I quit so the team could put 100 percent of the focus back on getting doctors to babies, doctors to families—you know, fighting for America’s future? To me, that was a no brainer. I didn’t go there to fight for myself; I went there to fight for other people. The White House didn’t call me and ask me to resign; I picked up the phone and told them. We had the first Black president, trying to bring home a victory on health care. I didn’t want to be a banana peel for him.
It is easy to say, "Oh, you should have just fought until the bitter end." But what if that distraction had cost us the health care victory? You only have so many battles you can fight, even in the White House—especially in the White House. Like I said, you make the best call you can. And then you move on. No do-overs.
In the end, it worked. We won. And I lived to fight another day. It was an awful experience. But faced with the same situation today, I would do the same thing.
EBONY.COM: OWS has insisted on horizontal, distributive models of leadership, even as they were constantly called upon to identify leaders in their movement. What are the benefits in divesting from the persona lead movements and politics we've practiced thus far? Is America ready for nameless leadership?
V.J: Well, some people thought that Obama was going to be the messiah. He turned out to be just a head of state in a troubled world and a divided country. So now there is a rebellion or a reaction against the idea of individual leaders. You can take that too far, but I do think it is healthy, overall. It is the swarm model, versus the wolf pack model. When you are fighting a swarm of bees, it is not like fighting a pack of wolves. There is no one “alpha male” wolf at the head of the pack that an enemy could knock out. There is no HNIC, as we say. There is no single individual who could get tripped up over money or drugs or whatever. So OWS has a more resilient model.
The media says, “Give us ONE spokesperson!” I think the folks at OWS are smart to say, “Why? So you can discredit him or her? So some nutjob can gun him down?” The new generation is too smart for that. I don’t think it is about OWS needing to adapt its style to fit the political system. I think the political system will have to adapt to deal with phenomena like OWS—and the other forms of protest and creative expression that are coming.
EBONY.COM: Growing up in Jackson, Tennessee, you've said you escaped in books. What books do you remember loving? Are there books you've shared with your kids that were your favorites? What was your outdoor life like as a child? When did you realize that advocacy for the environment would guide your work?
V.J.: I spent my entire childhood playing in the woods near my house. As a kid, my main diet was Marvel comic books. To me, Marvel Comics were better than DC Comics. Marvel Comics were not afraid to use very big words. They went for the darker themes. They had complex plots. Nerdy kids like me just ate it up. I loved the idea of the X-Men, a group of hated outsiders who still fought for the good of society. As a black kid who was already very much into civil rights, I could relate.
As for as literature, I loved Ursula K. LeGuin. The Dispossessed was my favorite novel. I also loved Douglas Adams’, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The books, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Illusions had a big impact on me—the idea that our “limits” are mostly fictional and self-imposed, miracles are always possible, that kind of thing. I didn’t appreciate or read James Baldwin until my adult years. He is probably the biggest influence of my adult life—more precise and penetrating than Martin, more forgiving than Malcolm.
I have always cared about animals and nature. I have always cared about my fellow human beings. Most people are like that. I just didn’t know that you could fight for both at the same time—not until I got older. Once I learned about green jobs—once I knew we could have Earth-friendly business that create jobs for people who need them—I became an evangelist.
dream hampton has written about culture for 20 years. She's a mother, an activist and an award-winning filmmaker. She lives in Detroit. Follow her on Twitter @dreamhampton.