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Van Jones: We Must Prepare for Battle

We went from We Are One to We Are Done, Jones tells a D.C. audience; it's time to stop waiting for cues from Washington.

In a darkened space bedecked with impressionistic portraits of the progressive movement's great heroes, Van Jones -- community organizer, environmental activist and erstwhile presidential adviser -- steps onto a tiny stage that has just been warmed up by two local teenage poets and graced by Amy Goodman, the voice of Pacifica Radio's "Democracy Now!" The audience is filled with Washington activists, including the comedian and civil rights leader Dick Gregory, CodePink founder Medea Benjamin and Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president of the Hip-Hop Caucus.

The room is packed, and a line snakes along the sidewalk outside Busboys and Poets, a restaurant designed as a gathering place for progressives, even as the event begins.

In a passionate speech focused mainly on the costs and horrors of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Goodman sets the stage for Jones' talk by imploring activists to organize. While a portrait of Rosa Parks by Anna Rose Soevik glimmers behind her, Goodman debunks the mythology surrounding the woman whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus sparked the civil rights movement. "Yes, she was a tired seamstress," Goodman says, "but Rosa Parks was an organizer."

It's the evening after the big Rally to Restore Sanity hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and an odd mixture of exhilaration and anxiety fills the room -- the thrill of having been part of a gathering of like-minded people who flooded the National Mall in a repudiation of the harsh rhetoric of the Tea Party and cable news media, and anxiety about the Republican tide about to come crashing into the nation's capital in the midterm elections.

Jones has taken the temperature; he knows the score. But he's not about to let anybody off the hook.

"Now, here's our problem," he says. "Most of the people who are in this room have given away, over the past two years, almost all of our power. The reason the country is in the shape that it's in is not just because bad people created a hate machine; it's that good people shut down the hope machine."

Hard as it is to argue with that, Jones makes no mention of the impact on hope machine operators by his own ascent to the White House and abrupt purge from its ranks, thanks to a smear campaign conducted against him by Fox News and Americans for Prosperity, the astroturf group that organizes Tea Party activists.

Perhaps no one in the progressive movement can ignite the passions of his listeners like Van Jones; that's one reason why AlterNet's Don Hazen welcomed his untimely exit from the White House because it returned Jones to the community, releasing him from the bonds of rhetorical restraint that come with a job inside the power structure.

Although this recently built Busboys and Poets in a formerly down-at-the-heels Washington neighborhood is a sprawling space for a city restaurant -- it features a fair-trade gift shop, a performance space, and a large bar-in-the-round --  the venue is minuscule compared to the big conference stages where I've seen Jones speak in the past. His manner here is in keeping with the atmosphere, which somehow manages to convey the intimacy of a jazz club, but one infused with the politics of its diverse clientele: hipsters and buppies, gay activists and hip-hop poets, anti-war crusaders and pillars of the progressive establishment.

Forgetting Our History

Jones' remarks veer from admonishment (with a subtle note of self-recrimination), to pep talk, to prescription. Partway through the talk, his aim becomes clear; he has come not just to commiserate with the Washington contingent, but to organize its members to do battle as power changes hands in the halls of Congress. After pointing the finger at his own allies in the room, he tells them they have forgotten their own history, then buoys them up by recounting that history.

"The politics of hope and change in this country did not start in Iowa in 2008," Jones tells the faithful. "The politics of hope and change started in 2003, when we didn't have a superhero; we didn't have a messiah, we didn't have a lot of organization, we didn't have a bunch of money. What we had was one-party rule here in D.C., and an unjust, unlawful war about to start -- and each other. And with no superhero, and no messiah, you and me and people that we know took to the streets. And in six weeks, we organized more people against that war in Iraq than were organized against the Viet Nam war in six years. We did that. You did that."

He goes on to recount how the progressive movement almost stopped George W. Bush's re-election in 2004, coming within 100,000 votes in Ohio of defeating the Republican president's bid for a second term, and how progressive organizing helped win Nancy Pelosi the speaker's gavel in the House of Representatives. The Obama victory, he explains, didn't begin with Barack Obama inspiring progressives; it began with progressives inspiring Obama.

"So, if there's an inspiration deficit, or an inspiration gap in America, don't look to him," Jones says, "let's look back to ourselves."