News & Politics

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."

Two Big Battles Ahead

In the coming session of Congress, Jones tells his audience, there are two major battles he sees as critical to both the progressive movement and the well-being of all Americans: the fight to maintain social programs and the struggle to save the Environmental Protection Agency from a promised assault by the Republicans who now rule the House.

"Both parties are likely to unite on the question of shoving an austerity program down the throats of the American people as a way to reduce the fiscal deficit," Jones says. "Both parties are likely to say we're gonna cut back on benefits for people who need help."

Republicans have already promised an assault on the new health care reform law that was passed in March. "If we cut back the health care bill," Jones says, "we're going to let hospitals and clinics start closing around the country because we can't afford to keep them open."

But before allowing Congress to address the federal budget deficit on the backs of the people, Jones, says, "our movement is going to have to stand up and say, what about the moral deficit? The moral deficit, where we give money to Halliburton while taking money from hospitals in our own country."

"This is not a left-right issue, this is not a red-blue issue," Jones insists. "You can go anywhere in this country and ask, do you want 44 kids in a classroom so we can keep these wars going, and you won't find anybody in red states or blue states who will say, yeah, I want these wars."

The second big battle, Jones says, is for nothing less than the fate of the planet -- which is how he sees the assault on the EPA promised by the GOP.

At present, Jones says, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has powers granted her under the Clean Air Act, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, "to start dealing with greenhouse gases, whether Congress likes it or not." Having thwarted climate change legislation in the last session of Congress, Jones says, Republicans will next attempt to "change the rules to strip that authority away from her."

Indeed, a number of Tea Party candidates ran on platforms that include defunding the EPA. "An attack on Lisa Jackson is an attack on the entire progressive movement," Jones says, "and we've got to let them know that right away."

"That fight is going to be the most important fight for the environment on Planet Earth next year," Jones says. "If we allow the authority that she already has to be taken away, the planet may be greenhouse-gas attacked."

The Donut Theory of Despair

But as much as Republicans are the opposition, Jones says, the real enemy is despair. "You know, we went from despair to hope in America, and then we tried to do the change and now we're all going back to despair."

"Now I want you to look at your personal life," he continues. "If you were, like myself, 10 pounds, 15 pounds overweight, and you say to yourself, I'm overweight, but I'm still going to eat this donut -- I'll even eat two donuts, right? That's called despair. That's despair."

"Now, with your fingers still sticky from the donut," Jones says, wriggling his fingers, "you might be walking through the mall, and you see a fitness magazine in the window, and you stand there, you look at the fitness magazine, and you see somebody with the washboard abs, you know? And they got the biceps" -- he makes a muscle -- "and they got the triceps" -- he pulls his arm back to show a tricep -- "and you say to yourself" -- putting on a faint and geeky voice -- "I could look like that."

"That's called hope," he asserts. "That's hope."

He goes on: "Actually going to the gym, changing your diet, doing all those sit-ups -- that's called change, right?" The audience bursts into amused applause.

"You have good days, bad days -- you're up and down, you know? And in politics, when you do change, you have good years and bad years; you have ups, you have downs. But the one thing you know is, if you fall all the way back to despair, then no change is possible. But if you can just stick with the hope in the tough times, then all change is still possible. And that's where we are."

If We Are The Ones We've Been Waiting For, What Are We Waiting For?

There's been too much focus on Obama among progressives, Jones says, and not enough on growing the movement on our own terms, even though, he notes, progressives helped to create as many jobs in the wind energy industry as there are coal miners in America -- 80,000 -- and another 46,000 in the solar energy industry.

"But somehow we became a movement, after our greatest victory, that sits around munching popcorn, waiting for one person to give a great speech so we can feel good," tells the activists. "Now, that's gotta stop."

The inauguration wasn't even the high point of the post-election euphoria in 2008, Jones asserts. It was brutally cold, he reminds his audience: "People had snot frozen in their mustache and beard and nobody told 'em," he says. "It was horrible. The inauguration was an important day; it was not a happy day."

Far happier, he says, was the pre-inaugural event two days before -- the star-studded We Are One concert at the Lincoln Memorial. "Who remembers the president's speech that day?" he asks, rhetorically. "Nobody."

He raves about being in the presence of Bono and Samuel L. Jackson. The lineup also included Bruce Springsteen, Garth Brooks, Beyoncé, Josh Groban, Mary J. Blige, Stevie Wonder and the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, among others.

"You had the full beauty of the American people, the full force of our culture on display," he says. "None of those people quit the movement and joined the Tea Party. All that creativity, all that power, all that spirit, all that soul -- it's still here. We went from We Are One to We Are Done, and we never got a chance to bring that back out. Well, guess what? The days are now over when any of us can afford to wait for a politician in Washington, D.C., to set the tone and the tenor and the face of our movement."

If Jones' talk had a sound track, this is where you would cue up the orchestra swell for the grand finale.

"Now, once we unleash that force, we are not going to be stopped ever again. Understand that. That is the great fear, I believe, that the other side has. They're not concerned about what's going on in D.C.; they have that under control. They're concerned about what you represent out there: every color, every class, hugging and kissing -- November 4, 2008 -- they'd never seen that before; the world had never seen that before."

"That does not have to be the great exception in the American story," he continues. "If we decide in this room that that day, that minute, is going to be the great example of who we will be every day, we will be able to achieve in this country every single thing we said we were going to do in 2008, and much, much more…and, yes, we still can. We -- we -- still can."

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.