The New Face of Environmentalism 

Van Jones renounced his rowdy black nationalism on the way toward becoming an influential leader of the new progressive politics.

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A rap concert was coming to town, featuring provocative acts such as NWA. The sleepy city of Shreveport panicked. "They acted like there was going to be a black riot as a result of it," Jones said with disgust. On the night of the concert, police helicopters hovered overhead and highway patrol cars lined the streets, but the audience was peaceful, he recalled. He felt vindicated, until the next morning when he saw the front page of his own newspaper. "There was a picture of a black kid on the ground with a cop on top of him with a gun out, looking over his shoulder," Jones said. "And the headline was, 'Rap concert peaceful, but ...'" Underneath the photo was a map of the city, with every stolen car and noise violation from the day before marked with the icon of an explosion. Jones went in to the editor's office yelling, and didn't stop until the paper printed his response to its coverage.

But that wasn't enough to assuage his anger. Convinced that American society needed a wake-up call on race, Jones abandoned his plan to become a journalist, concluding that he would rather make news than report it. "If I'd been in another country, I probably would have joined some underground guerrilla sect," he said. "But as it was, I went on to an Ivy League law school."

He arrived at Yale Law School wearing combat boots and carrying a Black Panther bookbag, an angry black separatist among a sea of clean-cut students dreaming of Supreme Court clerkships. "I wasn't ready for Yale, and they weren't ready for me," Jones said. He never fell in love with the law, and at one point contemplated dropping out of school. But he realized that a law degree gave him the credibility to speak out about the criminal justice system, so he persevered.

Jones first moved to the Bay Area in the spring of 1992, when the San Francisco-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights hired a batch of law students to act as legal observers during the trial of Rodney King's assailants. Eva Paterson, who was then the committee's executive director, remembers getting a cover letter that stood out from the rest: "It was this piece of stationery that had little faces across the top, a stencil of little guys with dreads. We said, 'Oh, yeah, we're hiring him.'"

Paterson got to know Jones over the coming months, and enjoyed having the young radical in her office. "He was a kid then, really," she said. "He was brilliant, pretty feisty, pretty in your face, but that's how you are when you're young. Just a force of nature."

When the verdicts came down -- not guilty for three of the officers involved, and deadlocked on the fourth -- Paterson's office, like the city, reacted with disbelief. Paterson said she felt like picking up her office chair and hurling it out the window. The staff hit the streets to monitor the demonstrations that erupted in San Francisco. One week later, while Jones was observing the first large rally since the lifting of the city's state of emergency, he got swept up in mass arrests. It was a turning point in his life.

Jones had planned to move to Washington, DC, and had already landed a job and an apartment there. But in jail, he said, "I met all these young radical people of color -- I mean really radical, communists and anarchists. And it was, like, 'This is what I need to be a part of.'" Although he already had a plane ticket, he decided to stay in San Francisco. "I spent the next ten years of my life working with a lot of those people I met in jail, trying to be a revolutionary." In the months that followed, he let go of any lingering thoughts that he might fit in with the status quo. "I was a rowdy nationalist on April 28th, and then the verdicts came down on April 29th," he said. "By August, I was a communist."

In 1994, the young activists formed a socialist collective, Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement, or STORM, which held study groups on the theories of Marx and Lenin and dreamed of a multiracial socialist utopia. They protested police brutality and got arrested for crashing through police barricades. In 1996, Jones decided to launch his own operation, which he named the Ella Baker Center after an unsung hero of the civil-rights movement. Jones wedged a desk and a chair inside a large closet in the back of Paterson's office. He brought in his home computer and ran cables through the rafters to get the operation humming.

"Eva was really my saving grace," said Jones. "She understood that I was a little rowdy and difficult to deal with, but she tried to find a way for me to fit into her system. She finally figured out that wasn't going to work, and then she went way beyond the call of duty helping me start my own thing."

Paterson was surprised by the number of tattooed individuals suddenly passing through her office, but she didn't interfere. "He didn't need a lot of coaching; he just needed a place where he could have a desk and a phone, and a little infrastructure support," she said. She did give him one piece of advice. "I think I counseled him to be diplomatic," Paterson said. "I tried to convince him that you could be passionate, but you didn't have to talk about your opponent's mother. That you could be very, very committed and say what you had to say so that people listened."

The lesson lay waiting in Jones' brain for years, until he was ready to receive it.

Jones began transforming his politics and work in the aftermath of a crisis that coincided with the primary election in March 2000. He was campaigning hard against California Proposition 21, a ballot initiative that increased the penalties for a variety of violent crimes and required more juvenile offenders to be tried as adults. Several activist groups united to organize young people into sit-downs, rallies, and protests. But Jones said the coalition ultimately imploded "in the nastiest way you can ever imagine."


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